Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Smilin' John Bolton

Most insiders viewed John Bolton's nomination as Ambassador to the U.N. as a move primarily to get him out of the State Department to limit the damage he could do, not as a reward. Still, the idea that an UN Ambassador could or would need to be "handled," as the Bush administration asserted, appalled many Senators such as Voinovich (R-OH). A good diplomat is someone skilled at handling others, not someone who requires it! And who would nominate such an individual? (Hmm…)

While the infamously pugnacious Bolton may have been briefly cowed and humbled by the prospect of losing the nomination process, this article by Mark Leon Goldberg in The American Prospect shows that he quickly regressed to form. In addition to alienating foreign allies, he continues his pattern of undermining colleagues and picking needless, counterproductive fights. Different management styles can prove effective, but it's hard to see Bolton as much more than yet another ideologue woefully unsuited for a position of true importance, uninterested in effectiveness. (Meritocracy remains among the most radical, revolutionary ideas in the world.)

Bolton has always seemed proud of his tactlessness, likely with the affectation that it makes him "blunt" or a "straight-shooter." When he proclaimed that if the UN building lost 10 of its 38 floors, it wouldn’t make a difference, he gave many politicians and career diplomats concern… but gained cheerleaders elsewhere. Colin Powell apparently thought quite poorly of Bolton, and this no doubt won Bolton further favor with Cheney and Rumsfeld. Thus, moving Bolton from State to UN Ambassador was not just a matter of limiting damage as new realism crept back into Bush's foreign policy. Condeleeza Rice wanted to get rid of Bolton, but Cheney strongly backed him for the ambassador position. The stated rationale was that as a fervent critic of the UN, Bolton was just the man to instigate much needed reform. This always smacked a little of the "It took Nixon to go to China" defense (an argument I've always viewed as rather simplistic and silly anyway). In Bolton's case, however, it may prove to be more like sending David Duke to speak to the NAACP. It is one thing to want to reform an institution, but if one despises the institution, the results ain't likely to be pretty.

In truth, Bolton's nomination really seemed like just another assertion of the bullying, arrogant cowboy diplomacy that still dominates in much of the Bush administration. Jeffrey Goldberg's recent major New Yorker article on George H.W. Bush's National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft delivers one of the most incisive portraits of this mindset yet:

Scowcroft suggested that the White House was taking the wrong advice, and listening to a severely limited circle. He singled out the Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who was consulted by Vice-President Cheney and others after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Lewis, Scowcroft said, fed a feeling in the White House that the United States must assert itself. “It’s that idea that we’ve got to hit somebody hard,” Scowcroft said. “And Bernard Lewis says, ‘I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.’ ” Cheney, in particular, Scowcroft thinks, accepted Lewis’s view of Middle East politics.

Macho rhetoric might be impressive to the True Believers as part of a public performance, but it tends not to be effective in the actual diplomacy that occurs in closed rooms. Asking for a favor after you've hit someone in the face never works that well.

I had not known that Bolton worked for Jesse Helms, but it makes a great deal of sense, considering their shared hostility toward the UN. Mark Leon Goldberg reports:

Helms was a key booster of Bolton early in his career: Bolton began his public service as Helms’ aide, and the two share a warm -- some might say eternal -- relationship. During Bolton’s 2001 confirmation hearing as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Helms famously referred to him as “the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon.”

Helms neglected to mention that he and Bolton seek to instigate that same Armageddon. The final paragraph of the article suggests Bolton actively looks for fights:

After listening to a tirade from Bolton against inefficiency, corruption, and supposed anti-Americanism at the UN during a private dinner, a Sunday Telegraph reporter in the audience asked him what he enjoyed most about the UN, to which Bolton replied, “It’s a target-rich environment.”

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