A taxi with nobody in it drove up to the White House and Robert O’Brien, the latest national security adviser of the United States got out.
President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint O’Brien as his fourth national security adviser to replace despised, discredited and down, plain hapless John Bolton has already generated endless megabytes of confused debate.
O’Brien we have been told, is a hardliner. No: He is a good-natured pragmatist. He is a negotiator. He will soften and improve relations with Russia and Iran. Yet he published an otherwise utterly forgettable book that was viciously hostile to the leaders of Russia and Iran.
O’Brien, we are told, wants to focus on opposing the rise of China. But he mindlessly generates hostility towards most other great nations too. He is a lawyer. But his primary career was as an officer in the US Army.
O’Brien is described as a mainstream Republican. But he was raised up and favored by John Bolton himself during his less than stellar tenure – never confirmed by the United States Senate – as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.
In reality, all this confusion is only in the imagination of the American pundits: The history of declining empires, especially those on the brink of collapse and the remorseless laws of bureaucratic incompetence and mediocrity – memorably delineated by the late C. Northcote Parkinson in his classic text “Parkinson’s Law” – make it all too easy to understand O’Brien, resolve his apparent – but illusory – “contradictions” and predict the terminal catastrophe he is going to make of his country’s affairs.
First, O’Brien genuinely is a colorless figure. He has been in many high profile situations and been invisible in all of them. He was never the man of substance and wisdom behind the scenes. The more famous men who consulted him, like Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney in 2012 and Scott Walker in 2015 lost pathetically.
O’Brien has never shown any strong character. He has always shown all the force of personality of a damp sponge. He has passively accepted the prevailing wisdom of neoconservative, arrogant, militarist America all his life. He has never shown the slightest inclination to question any of the dominant ideas or strategies of his times. Nor is he a competent or experienced manager. He has even less experience at leading any department or running a small office than the hapless Bolton himself. And he is too old to start learning now.
The US Army produces scores of thousands of useless but apparently harmless officers like O’Brien. They tend to come primarily from the Midwest where superficial pleasantness and the ability to withstand endless decades of boredom in men’s clubs like the Kiwanis, the Toastmasters and the Shriners is the sine qua non of professional and social advancement. Alexis de Tocqueville already observed this nearly two centuries ago.
Often this superficial and bogus social ease is further lubricated and supercharged by a broad streak of blind ambition, bureaucratic backstabbing and animal cunning.
O’Brien’s decision when he left the military to take a law degree also fits this pattern of a talentless but hardworking and ambitious grind without real intellect, learning, character or vision. Getting legal or bloated academic degrees bestows on such people a veneer of intellectual depth and seriousness that in reality they are utterly incapable of.
If all this sounds too harsh, and judgmental, I recommend readers to do their due diligence and read O’Brien’s 2016 book “While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis”
In this mindless, complacent but unconsciously revealing screed, O’Brien expressed not just hostility but contempt towards Russia and President Vladimir Putin whom he described as a “despot.” He also gives enthusiastic support for the violent Maidan coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Ukraine in 2014. He praised Ukrainian groups that have strong ties to neo-Nazis and opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The picture throughout is of a simplistic extremist of whom John Bolton was justly proud.
O’Brien is totally ignorant of the world. His spurious reputation as a hostage negotiator amounts to a combination of legal quibbling and ability to offer tasty little concessions approved in advance by others anyway. These days, he primarily serves the bidding of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whose total dominance of US policymaking is now confirmed.
Far from being a welcome improvement on the ineffable Bolton, O’Brien – inconceivable as it may seem – is likely to be even worse.
That is because, like the lead characters of the classic Midwest American novels of Sinclair Lewis and John Updike, the one thing O’Brien can plausibly do is superficially get on with people, at least those of comparable vast limitations to himself.
That means he is going to have vastly greater influence on President Trump than the arrogant Bolton – a genius only at making himself repulsive even to many of his admirers and benefactors – ever could.
That does not mean he will drive through or champion any good, courageous or necessary policies, or recognize any dangerous ones.
But where Trump quite quickly came to recognize Bolton’s personal arrogance, wild promises and ineptitude, he is far more likely to be taken in for far longer by O’Brien, a nonentity cloaked in dignity and entirely fraudulent “thoughtfulness.”
O’Brien in conclusion is a classic example of the mediocrity that rises to the top precisely because he is a mediocrity and ruffles no feathers along the way. 140 years ago, the British comic musical geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan predicted O’Brien in “The First Lord’s Song” in “HMS Pinafore.”
“I always voted at my party’s call
“And I never thought of thinking for myself at all
“I thought so little, they rewarded me
“By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy.”
And that is how Robert O’Brien got to be National Security Adviser of the United States.
The dangerous times for the world are not over: They are about to get even worse.