War Stories

Fried Rice

The Bushie who could spoil Condi’s dream job.

Condoleezza Rice will soon face a crucial test. The outcome will signal whether she might serve her term as secretary of state with at least a modicum of independence and dignity—or whether she’ll suffer the frustrations of endless subservience.

The test: Who gets to be her deputy? Colin Powell brought along his own No. 2, Richard Armitage. They’d known each other for years, shared a similar background, thought along the same lines. Anything Armitage did or said, everyone knew it might as well have come from Powell.

The man who wants to be deputy secretary of state in President Bush’s second term is John Bolton. His neocon friends are lobbying fiercely on his behalf. During George W. Bush’s first term, Bolton was—and still is—the undersecretary of state for arms control. More to the point, he was Vice President Dick Cheney’s agent at Foggy Bottom. His function was to monitor, oppose, and, if possible, thwart the moderating tendencies of Powell and Armitage.

Bolton was particularly active in derailing Powell’s attempts to revive negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. (Like Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bolton thought talks would only reward Kim Jong-il for bad behavior; he favored “regime change” instead, though—also like Cheney and Rumsfeld—he had no idea how to accomplish this goal.) In July 2003, just as Powell finally convinced Russia to join the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan in “six-party talks” with North Korea, Bolton gave a speech in which he called Kim Jong-il a “tyrannical dictator” and his country a “hellish nightmare.” He was right, but it was an obstructive remark—and deliberately so—for the opening of a diplomatic avenue.

A Wall Street Journal profile reported that, in 2001, during a discussion about the international bioweaponsconference, Bolton told foreign diplomats, “It’s dead, dead, dead, and I don’t want it rising back from the dead.”

Before Bush took office, Bolton had been director of the Project for the New American Century, the group of neoconservatives that lobbied for higher military budgets and a more aggressive stance toward toppling rogue regimes. In 1998, its top members—including Bolton, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle—famously wrote a letter to President Clinton, warning that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction and urging him to push Saddam Hussein out of power.

Many of the PNAC signatories swept into the Bush administration and proceeded to turn their agenda into policy.

Rice may agree with this agenda. She certainly has supported and defended the policy. She came into the White House with leanings more toward Realpolitik picked up from her graduate studies and from her work as assistant to Brent Scowcroft, the Kissinger-influenced national security adviser during Bush 41’s presidency. But Rice has said that, over the past four years, she’s come to adopt Bush 43’s—and thus the neocons’—emphasis on “spreading global freedom.”

In short, she may have fewer problems than Powell did with Bolton’s views. But no self-respecting secretary of state could abide a deputy with Bolton’s methods—especially his flagrant disregard for the chain of command. The problem is that, at least when Powell was in office, this disregard was mandated from on high. Bolton’s whole purpose at State was to serve higher authorities—and old associates—in the White House and the Pentagon.

If Rice is to be an active top diplomat, as opposed to an errand girl, she will want her own deputy, someone she knows and trusts, someone who’s clearly working for her. With Bolton, she’d have to assume he was always talking, operating, maybe even sniping behind her back.

Ultimately, Rice’s test is Bush’s decision. The president is the one who will settle whether she can pick her own No. 2—or whether Cheney and Rumsfeld can hang on to their agent. Bush, in short, has to choose between his closest advisers. If Bolton goes no higher than his current post, it may mean Rice will be allowed some latitude in her work. If Bolton advances to deputy, she may wish she’d gone back to Stanford after all.