Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Poster Child Of The Problem Child

From the beginning of the John Bolton saga, supporters of the Bush administration (at least those not so principled as to withhold their support for Bolton), have tried to frame the debate over his appointment as ambassador to the United Nations as a question of his personal style - an irascible quirkiness that has drawn the superficial ire of knee-jerk liberals. They claim that Bolton is a tough and demanding boss who might have ruffled the feathers of some of his underlings, but hey, so are so many other senators, members of congress, business leaders, managers, coaches, etc. If such a demeanor and temperament were grounds for the loss of employment, this clever misdirection argues, then the vast corridors of power would be emptied out in a massive purge.

The Bolton-boosters go one further, though, by arguing that this coarse, gruff style, this hard-nosed determination, are actually to be viewed as assets in the cause of reforming the United Nations. John Bolton's tough as nails exterior gets results, or so the talking points go. Underneath this smoke screen, however, the reality of the well-reasoned and intelligent opposition to Bolton can be found - and it is not primarily a question of personal style, though in the arena of diplomacy these attributes are more pertinent than in many other professions.

Foreign policy expert, and Libya scholar Ronald Bruce St John captures the most salient aspects of the case against Bolton:

John Bolton has been widely characterized as a combative, intolerant, strong-willed, hard-line, bullying, abrasive, and abusive diplomat. While the evidence suggests these charges are mostly true, they largely miss the point. John Bolton is unfit to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, not just because of his management style, but because he has repeatedly distorted U.S. intelligence and misdirected U.S. diplomacy to serve an ideological agenda. [emphasis added]
St John focuses on Bolton's role, or lack thereof, in what many have described as one of the Bush administration's greatest victories in the arena of foreign policy: securing the agreement of the Libyan government to relinquish its pursuit of WMD. Some Bolton supporters have tried to paint this as a vindication of Bolton's various policies, mannerisms and strategies, but the opposite appears to be the case. As St John chronicles, during the period in question, Bolton was giving a series of dubious and brash speeches and issuing statements to the press that overestimated Libya's capacity and intentions vis a vis WMD which in turn were serving to alienate Libya thus disrupting the detente that had been gradually coalescing between the two countries since the 1990s. Worse still, he was actively obstructing progress in negotiations with Libya on WMD and many other related topics. Guess what the preferred solution was: remove Bolton from the scene.

Even as Bolton continued throughout 2003 to misrepresent the threat posed by Libya's WMD programs, he jeopardized the talks between Libya, Great Britain, and the United States, which Libya initiated in March 2003 and which culminated in the historic Libyan announcement at year-end to renounce weapons of mass destruction. According to a recent Newsweek report, the tripartite talks in London proceeded to a successful conclusion only after the Bush administration's top arms control official was removed from the negotiations. Bolton was sidelined after the British complained "at the highest level" (read Tony Blair) that Bolton's obstructionist behavior threatened to torpedo the talks.
Here is an excerpt from the Newsweek article St John referenced:

On several occasions, America's closest ally in the war on terror, Britain, was irked by what U.S. and British sources say were efforts by Bolton to undermine promising diplomatic openings. Perhaps the most dramatic instance took place early in the U.S.-British talks in 2003 to force Libya to surrender its nuclear program, NEWSWEEK has learned. The Libya deal succeeded only after British officials "at the highest level" persuaded the White House to keep Bolton off the negotiating team. A crucial issue, according to sources involved in the affair, was Muammar Kaddafi's demand that if Libya abandoned its WMD program, the U.S. in turn would drop its goal of regime change. But Bolton was unwilling to support this compromise. The White House agreed to keep Bolton "out of the loop," as one source puts it.
So we see that Bolton's ideological dogmatism - a rigid adherence to a philosophy that refuses to offer carrots along with sticks - interfered with his ability to function as a diplomat, and his ability to see a clear opening for what turned out to be a momentous breakthrough in US non-proliferation efforts - the task that Bolton was supposed to be in charge of but which was aided most by his absence.

According to
Flynt Leverett, Bolton was sidelined for the Lockerbie discussions as well, for familiar reasons (as an aside, Leverett's piece is also a nice correction to the revisionist view that the capture of Saddam led to Qaddafi's change of heart):

One reason the Bush administration was able to take a more constructive course with Libya was that the White House, uncharacteristically, sidelined the administration's neoconservative wing - which strongly opposes any offer of carrots to state sponsors of terrorism, even when carrots could help end such problematic behavior - when crucial decisions were made. The initial approach on the Lockerbie case was approved by an informal coalition made up of Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
From the Libya example, we see that opposition to Bolton is not based solely or fundamentally on his personality traits - as abrasive as those may be. Quite simply, he fails to get results in the world of diplomacy. As St John noted:

In the Libyan case, it is clear John Bolton repeatedly slanted intelligence to conform to his ideological preconceptions. And his extreme and uncompromising line later undermined a promising diplomatic opening, threatening the eventually successful negotiations to persuade Libya to renounce weapons of mass destruction. Based on his performance here, a case better documented than recent policy disputes with the likes of Iran, North Korea, and Syria, it would appear Republican Senator George V. Voinovich of Ohio got it right when he described Bolton as a "poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be." It's hard to think of a worse choice to represent the United States at the United Nations--or anywhere else for that matter. [emphasis added]
But wait, just when you thought the Libya story, in which Bolton managed to alienate our closest ally, Britain, was enough to disqualify him from the post at the UN: it gets worse (Remeber: if this is how he interacts with British diplomats, what are his prospects for productive negotiations with diplomats from Germany, France, Russia and China to name but a few). The Washington Post is reporting (via Stygius and Laura Rozen) that the departure of Bolton from the State Department has actually improved the performance of many of the programs and initiatives that were languishing under his stewardship.

For years, a key U.S. program intended to keep Russian nuclear fuel out of terrorist hands has been frozen by an arcane legal dispute. As undersecretary of state, John R. Bolton was charged with fixing the problem, but critics complained he was the roadblock.

Now with Bolton no longer in the job, U.S. negotiators report a breakthrough with the Russians and predict a resolution will be sealed by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin at an international summit in Scotland next month, clearing the way to eliminate enough plutonium to fuel 8,000 nuclear bombs.

The prospective revival of the plutonium disposal project underlines a noticeable change since Bolton's departure from his old job as arms control chief. Regardless of whether the Senate confirms him as U.N. ambassador during a scheduled vote today, fellow U.S. officials and independent analysts said his absence has already been felt at the State Department.
At the bottom of his post, Stygius has a series of links to the plutonium impasse that led Republican Senator Pete Domenici to vent his frustration in an unusually hostile manner for an intra-party dispute as described in an essay on the ArmsControlWonk site:

As Bolton sat within arm's reach, Domenici went as far as to declare on the record that he was "not sure to this point that [Bolton is] up to" resolving the dispute, that he was uncertain "that he attaches the significance" to the program that the Senators did, and that if Bolton "doesn't think it's important enough to solve, this issue of liability, then I submit that you ought to get somebody that can."
But wait, just when you thought the Libya story combined with the Russian story - both of which compromised our national security as a result of Bolton's actions and inactions - were enough to disqualify him as ambassador to the UN, it gets worse.

Without the hard-charging Bolton around, the Bush administration not only has moved to reconcile with Russia over nuclear threat reduction but also has dropped its campaign to oust the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and made common cause with European allies in offering incentives to Iran to persuade it to drop any ambitions for nuclear weapons.

Bolton had also resisted using the so-called New York channel for communications with North Korea, a one-on-one meeting used sporadically through Bush's presidency and most recently revived in May. And fellow U.S. officials said Bolton had opposed a new strategic opening to India offering the prospect of sharing civilian nuclear technology, a move made in March.[...]

...Bolton was shut out of Iran after Rice's ascension, according to two U.S. officials, and his policy was reversed. In early January, officials from France, Britain and Germany flew secretly to Washington for a brainstorming session on Iran. Bolton was not invited, European diplomats said. Instead, they met with Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council.

"We weren't the ones who wanted to keep the meeting secret," one European diplomat said. "It was the American side that didn't want him there." [emphasis added]
So let me see if I have this straight: the American government, nay, the Bush administration itself finds that keeping Bolton away from the process - in effect, not inviting him to the party - is the most effective way to realize progress on the issues and tasks that Bolton is, or is supposed to be, in charge of yet we are all supposed to accept the party line that this guy is going to be good for us at the United Nations? Stygius said it best:

If the most positive contribution John Bolton has made to solving global proliferation problems has been by his absence, why are we still being subjected to the argument that his "tough" and "abrasive" style gets results, when instead his permanent absence from government service may in the end be Bolton's greatest contribution to US national security?[...]

To date, Condoleezza Rice's most significant Iran policy innovation has been Bolton's exclusion from State discussions. And does anyone think he continues to play a substantive role in North Korea discussions? Since Bolton is Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, one can understand why this sort of thing decapitates the stock pro-Bolton argument that his "toughness" makes him more "effective" and that he gets results. This is a sham.
Bolton's unique ineptitude, and the realization of such by his superiors and colleagues has led to some peculiar, though fairly widely accepted, speculation on the motive for his nomination to the UN ambassadorship: rather than keeping him at State or promoting him there under incoming Secretary Condi Rice (who clearly didn't want him around), the UN nomination was a demotion - a way of permanently taking Bolton out of the loop on policy making and putting him into a more ministerial role. From the Washington Post:

When she took over as secretary of state in January, Condoleezza Rice moved to sideline Bolton and reverse some of his approaches, U.S. officials said. By proposing him for the United Nations, she effectively moved him out of the policymaking center at the department's Foggy Bottom headquarters.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that this is true, and that the primary motive was not to hobble the UN further (perhaps there was a synergy of goals). But then why on earth should the Senate, let alone the American people, accept and endorse a nominee who is so distrusted and has such a poor record of performance that nobody wants him in their camp? And this from the people that are his ideological and political allies mind you. Shouldn't that fact alone be reason enough to want him out of government altogether, as opposed to being an argument for giving him the not entirely irrelevant position at the UN?

You don't appoint the diplomatic world's most notorious problem child as your representative in the premier international organization because no one else wants to baby-sit him, not at a time when our image in the world could use a serious boost not a further hit - which Bolton has managed to deliver before even entering office. I'm flabbergasted.

Now comes word that Bush will likely circumvent the increasingly problematic Senate confirmation process and opt instead for a recess appointment of Bolton. Bush is actually losing support on Bolton in the Senate the longer the process takes, the more is learned and the more it becomes clear that the Bush administration will not turn over the requested information on Bolton to the interested Senators.
Fred Kaplan has some words of advice on what might be one more layer on a pile of truly, remarkably bad moves.
Still, President Bush might want to reassess the situation, and not just because Bolton is a lousy pick - a judgment that Bush does not share, in any case. He might want to consider the following question: At a time when he is touting the glories of democracy, does he want his ambassador at the United Nations - America's global spokesman - to have come by the job through such undemocratic maneuvers?
Oh, I don't know. It would kind of be fitting for Bolton wouldn't it.

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