The battle over John Bolton, President Bush's pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is not a competition between Senate Democrats and Republicans. It's actually a brewing civil war inside the Republican foreign-policy establishment. None of the dramatic events of the four public hearings to date on Bolton's nomination would have been possible without the active complicity of a large swath of the GOP establishment.
Nine senior U.S. government officials -- some, like Carl Ford, known to be heavyweight Republican politicos and lobbyists -- all nominated by a Republican President and confirmed by a Republican Congress collectively made the argument that John Bolton's record of service and behavior make him "unfit" for the U.N. post. And behind the scenes -- lurking unofficially but offering cryptic signs of their own discomfort with Bolton -- have been former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, and even Brent Scowcroft.
On the record, these three titans of the Republican foreign-policy world will not attack Bolton. They all say he's smart, knows a lot about the U.N. and is qualified. But as Scowcroft so cleverly put it: "What matters most about John Bolton are the instructions he is given -- and whether he 'chooses' to follow them." Suffice it to say that despite an occasional nod to Bolton's intellectual fortitude, none of these three has signed a letter or statement endorsing him -- and privately they have made their concerns known to any senator who asks them.
The White House too is making this battle over Bolton not about him and not really about the United Nations. Once Bolton's opponents (including TheWashingtonNote.com) pre-empted the State Department from having his hearings fast-tracked before the Easter congressional recess -- and then the testimony of Carl Ford and victimized intelligence analyst Christian Westermann made their way into the second day of hearings -- the White House made this a war over executive-branch power. A loss on this nomination somehow morphed into the question of whether un-bolting from Bolton would trigger the true beginning of a Bush lame-duck presidency.
The White House became stuck on the need to win at all costs. They never thought Bolton would matter to the American public. The White House counted on public ignorance about Bolton, who to most people is just an obscure government official dealing with the remnants of old Soviet nuclear stockpiles -- if they know that at all. GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island remarkably stated publicly that he could support Bolton because Rhode Islanders didn't know who he was and weren't that concerned about who sat at the U.N. as envoy for U.S. policy.
Their calculation was cynical and counted on the apathy of the average U.S. citizen. But Bolton's foes turned him into a household name. He's in Doonesbury cartoons and the lifestyle sections of newspapers, he is lampooned on Jon Stewart's show on Comedy Central, and more importantly -- for nearly a month -- a major news story was breaking about Bolton or some aspect of his past every one or two days. The story just kept on giving.
Bolton's opponents were able to stay on the high road, for the most part, arguing that his combative and abusive management style was actually aimed at self-crafting intelligence packages in such a way as to fit his parochial ideological predispositions on weapons of mass destruction threats from nations like North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Iraq and Iran.
The more obsessed the White House had become with just winning -- not putting a clear-headed reform agenda on the table and attaching Bolton to it, but just "winning" -- the more it seemed to lose. Perhaps the administration may get Bolton confirmed in the end, though I doubt it, but the costs suffered to achieve that goal make it a net loss. The more the Cheney-Bolton team runs roughshod over the sensibilities of Republican moderates, the more fragile Bush's infallibility becomes and the less likely the White House can engage in such strong-arm tactics of its own again.
No one really knows why Bolton wants to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. It's not because he's had a love affair with the institution over the years. He seems not to have seen many international treaties or multilateral institutions that he didn't want to rip up or tear down -- that's known.
But the personal and professional price he is paying -- and the Bush administration writ large is paying -- to secure this job has reached a magnificent level. Even if Bolton is confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be America's envoy for U.N. reform, he goes there quite damaged and will have a hard time appearing credible to other members of the world body. More importantly, when and if he comes back to sell a package of U.N. reforms to the American public, his credibility has been so crippled that many will doubt his ability to sell anything to the Congress or to U.S. citizens.
The mark of many great diplomats is that they are privately tenacious, perhaps even obnoxious or behaviorally creative, in achieving their nation's objectives but are publicly dignified, diplomatic and impressive. Bolton's supporters, particularly the vice president, seem to be embracing the "benefits of being a bully" as "exactly what is needed in the United Nations."
I can just hear America's youth watching this debate on their C-Span classroom modules in classes going home and telling mom and dad, "I want to grow up and be just like John Bolton." Cheney apparently seems to think we need anti-diplomats and bullies like Bolton -- so good to set the example.
Cheney and his wing of the Republican Party and White House are the champions of crude, pugnacious nationalism that Bolton represents for many. One of the key advocacy organizations that Bolton enjoys support from is Move America Forward, which became a large organization populated by people disturbed by Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." MAF maintains on its Web site, right next to each other, two related political campaigns: the first to support Bolton's nomination to the United Nations and the second to "Evict the U.N. from U.S. Soil." This movement is part of an America alone, fortress nation, populist isolationism that finds solace in Bush's selection.
Bolton's proponents argue his disdain for international institutions makes him the perfect guy to reform the United Nations -- and that his brutish behavior makes him even better for the job. They think Bolton will be tough to satisfy when it comes to the details of reform -- so he can set the standard for what is good for the nation. Those who oppose Bolton, like I do, think he does not believe in the concept of a United Nations that is not directly at the heel of the United States. If the U.N. is entirely subordinate to U.S. interests, a tool of American power and prestige, then I think Bolton can co-exist with the U.N. But the American plan for the United Nations from the beginning was to create an arena for great power discourse regarding some of the world's most insoluble problems. There must be give and take in that process -- and while American interests ought not to be scuttled neither should global interests.
Bolton said he never tried to have anyone fired. Now there is evidence in the 35-plus interviews done by Foreign Relations Committee staff that there were at least six people Bolton tried to remove, and many more rumored. Bolton said his disputes with intelligence analysts was never about the results of intelligence but about their management behavior -- "going around his back" and the like. We now know that to be true.
Bolton rather emphatically and repeatedly lied to the Senate under oath.
Why then isn't this over?
The White House is willing to forfeit principle, ignore the delicate balance that exists between the legislative and executive branches of government and do all that it can to attempt to achieve monarchial pretensions. This is what is supposed to happen. The Founding Fathers expected the nation's chief executive to not be able to always control his (or her) ambitions and to attempt to expand the reach and result of executive authority. Congress is there -- as is the judicial branch -- to pre-empt abuses and unconstitutional expansion of government.
In clear daylight, the White House is intimidating Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel, poor Lincoln Chafee, Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski -- the moderates on the Republican side of the Committee -- much like Bolton intimidated the national intelligence bureaucracy of the U.S. government. In the case of the intel analysts, their bosses saved them from Bolton. But no one is saving these senators from Cheneyesque efforts to completely subordinate the Senate to the whims of the White House.
George Voinovich saved himself by indicating he would not support Bolton's nomination. Despite voting in favor of moving Bolton's nomination to the floor of the Senate without recommendation, Voinovich has assured weeks more of pain for the White House on Bolton and has shored up some Democrats who were beginning to wilt under the pressure of a convincing psy-ops campaign by the White House last weekend claiming the Republicans had assembled a party-line vote "in favor" of Bolton's confirmation -- which was false. And Voinovich has created space for principled internationalists in his own party to defect from the Cheney-Bolton pressure cooker.
The Democrats have reconnected with muscles of protest and civil opposition that had atrophied -- and the bloggers and grassroots groups involved in this effort all of a sudden realize there is a real chance now to not only win the Bolton battle on the floor of the Senate -- which I think is now a 50/50 proposition -- but to generate a template of action to knock back the executive branch when it engages in harmful policies -- like shoving Bolton's nomination down the gullets of moderate Republicans who are offended on many fronts by his profile and record.
Republicans at odds with the Cheney-Bolton wing of the party know Bolton is not someone with impeccable credentials and certainly not someone of whom Americans can feel easily proud. And as long as the White House leaves its moderates in that stance, Democrats can wage successful battle after battle against a president and vice president who can only lose from their obsession with winning.
Copyright 2005, United Press International