John Bolton and the Art of Ingratitude
The environment surrounding American politics has become increasingly contaminated over the past few years, with political and media figures off all stripes veering sharply into hard partisanship. Worse, the winds of political conflict have blown beyond the halls of power on to American talk shows and dinner tables. In America today, balanced critique get less traction than shallow attack, shareable soundbites outpace thoughtful analysis, and condescension and contempt pass for mainstream political views. Pundits sound less like policy advisors to the public than hired guns for political campaigns.
I was saddened, therefore, to see John Bolton bogged down in the thick of the political fray. Especially so since his recently published book The Room Where It Happened, together with the stream of allegations and attacks he’s made against his former boss Donald Trump, embody so much of what’s wrong with the political discourse in America today.
When President Trump tapped John Bolton to be his national security advisor, I was confident that he’d made the right choice. During his tenure as ambassador to the UN, Bolton had earned my respect. He was a man who believed in a muscular American foreign policy with a solid moral core. He was an enemy of tyrannies such as Iran and a champion of liberal democracies like Israel. He seemed authentically idealistic in his worldview, the type to fight cynical ops of realpolitik like Obama’s shameful deal with the murderous mullahs of Iran. He was a favorite among Americans from countries dealing with despots, like those from Cuba, Venezuela, and Taiwan. When he left the administration last fall, I was sad to see him go.
Which is why I find Bolton’s book against Trump — published while the President is still in office — especially confusing. How could a man of Bolton’s sophistication accept the president’s appointment as national security advisor and then, while he heads a country facing a global pandemic and the associated economic downturn, publish a blockbuster tell-all trying to destroy him?
Bolton has said that he did this because he cares about America. The president, he claims, is short-tempered, aloof on the issues, and prioritizes his reelection before anything else. But, the truth is, all of these things were said long before Bolton arrived at the White House and for Bolton to claim he was unaware of these allegations strains credulity. More importantly, considering the confidence Trump placed in Bolton — elevating him to one of the most powerful positions on earth — there must have been a better way to say it than through a blistering attack that makes Bolton seem vengeful and disgruntled.
More important is what this means to American values, particularly gratitude. The Torah prioritizes gratitude as the key moral ideal for mankind. The Jewish concept of gratitude — Hakarat Hatov — means “recognizing the good” that others have done for you, and striving to return it. Pushing past pragmatism, Judaism urges one not to bite the hand that fed you — even if you’ve found newer hands to feed from.
The Torah teaches that Moses could not even strike the Nile River, since those waters had protected him when he journeyed down it in a basket as a baby in flight from Pharaoh. He wasn’t even allowed to strike the dust of Egypt, for it had helped him too. When Moses killed the Egyptian taskmaster who was brutalizing an innocent Jewish slave, the earth let him conceal the body and his crime.
If God demands we show gratitude to inanimate objects like water and dust, surely we must act graciously to people who have dealt kindly with us. President Trump selected John Bolton as National Security Advisor, the marquis position in American foreign policy, second only to the Secretary of State. Trump literally placed him inside “the room where it happened.” Jewish ethics would imply that Bolton owes Trump at least some degree of cordiality and gratitude.
That said, gratitude doesn’t mean you can’t criticize a former boss or patron. Less so does it ever mean one must be obsequious. But, at the very least, it demands that you do so in a way that is balanced, respectful, and in the overall of context of recognizing that someone has acted kindly toward you.
The famed democratic strategist James Carville largely exemplified the value of gratitude in his relationship with Bill Clinton, whom he campaigned with in 1992. Criticized for standing with Clinton throughout all of his scandals, especially Monica Lewinsky and impeachment, he stuck to his guns, eventually laying out his views in a book called Stickin’: The Case for Loyalty, where he gave political parameters to gratitude: “There are more ways of showing your displeasure than stabbing a guy in the back. Particularly, if it is a friend that has done a lot for you.”
“Your reaction,” insists the Ragin’ Cajun, “should be proportional to the offense.”
Bolton says he broke with Trump over the president’s decision not to strike Iran after a Defense Department estimate of up to 150 Iranian casualties, a toll Trump found disproportionate to Iran’s downing of an American drone. But much as I supported Bolton’s hard line on Iran, his response to his split with Trump is disproportionate to the matter over which they fell out.
Kindness demands gratitude.
I don’t need Bolton to like Trump or to support him. I disagreed with Trump’s impeachment, but wasn’t bothered when my close friend and former student at Oxford, the Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, testified in the proceedings. He’s a legal expert entitled to his view and acting within his moral and constitutional rights. Bolton, with his experience in global geopolitics, is entitled to voice his criticisms of his one-time boss, even in a best-selling book.
As a man who hates dictators, I could even agree with critiques of the president’s needing to get tough with Erdogan, the Turkish tyrant who dismantled his country’s democracy. I admit, it is odd hearing his recounting of private stories of Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, because who on earth is going to trust Bolton ever again with confidentiality? But ignoring Trump’s trade war with China, or his taking the Communist Party to task over their handling of the coronavirus, along with their cronies in the World Health Organization, makes Bolton seem agenda-driven and vindictive. That he derides Trump for being hesitant to strike Iran in June 2019, without mentioning that six months later he took out the regime’s abominable number two, terrorist mastermind Qassem Soleimani, further completes the unfairness of his assessment.
Indeed, much of Bolton’s book testifies to just how bold Trump has been on the world stage. Bolton asserts, for example, that Trump gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the green light to use military force against genocidal Iran — a potentially vital option the Obama administration long obstructed. “‘You tell Bibi [Netanyahu] that if he uses force, I will back him. I told him that, but you tell him again,’ Trump said,” Bolton writes, adding that the topic was brought up “unprompted by me.” An American president guaranteeing the security of the world’s only Jewish state with the full weight of his office, it’s hard for many Jews not to think Trump had the foreign policy credentials Bolton says he needs.
Bolton describes also how “On Iran, I urged that he press ahead to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and explained why the use of force against Iran’s nuclear program might be the only lasting solution.” These weren’t easy steps, and yet Trump and Secretary Pompeo have fought hard at home and on the world stage to stem Iran’s decade-long campaign of expansion. And yet, Bolton has said he’d prefer Biden, who will likely retrieve the Iran deal — because he might focus any less on his reelection bid?
It’s as if policy doesn’t figure in Bolton’s presidential rubric.
Ultimately, Bolton’s arguments don’t have to be convincing. But considering the size of his platform and his impact on American politics, he should strive to exemplify values like gratitude that are needed to keep American politics cordial and sane regardless of who wins in November.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s memoir Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, written with historical contributions by Mitchell Bard, will be published later this year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.