War Stories

It’s Time To Write a Dear John

Bolton’s appalling confirmation-hearings performance.

Bolton’s bad impression

John Bolton, George W. Bush’s astonishingly brazen choice to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came off badly at his confirmation hearings today—bloodless, evasive, and mendacious—in ways that should give senators cause to reject him, regardless of whether they agree with the president’s policies or even with the substance of Bolton’s views.

The hearings will continue for another day or two—to hear from officials who have had run-ins with Bolton and, possibly, to give him a chance for rebuttal—but, after today’s session, his nomination should be put down for three reasons, quite apart from the many reasons that his critics (and I count myself among them) have laid out in recent weeks.

First, the evidence suggests that Bolton, while he was undersecretary of state, tried to pressure and dismiss intelligence analysts who challenged his own preconceptions.

Second, he skirted questions of whether the United Nations should have done more to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda—and thus the underlying issue of whether the United Nations should play any role in such matters. (It should be added that Bolton’s evasion was matched by that of the committee’s members, who failed to push the question more directly.)

Third, he looked and sounded like a man at best uninterested in, and often contemptuous of, the United Nations as an institution.

In short, John Bolton came off as strikingly lacking in the credibility, values, and basic commitment that, especially these days, the job of U.N. ambassador requires.

The first reason—Bolton’s attempt to pressure intelligence analysts—has been relatively unexamined, mainly because the State Department had blocked the Senate Foreign Relation Committee’s access to key documents and witnesses until last Thursday, when the Republican chairman, Richard Lugar, demanded and obtained them.

The charge, as revealed at today’s hearing, is that in 2002, as the undersecretary of state for arms control, Bolton wrote a speech claiming that Cuba has an offensive biological-weapons program and is providing bio-weapons assistance to rogue regimes. The chief bio-weapons analyst in the State Department’s bureau of intelligence and research challenged this view, as did the CIA’s national intelligence officer for Latin America. As a result, Bolton tried (unsuccessfully) to get both analysts reassigned.

Bolton denied this charge, saying that his only problem with these analysts was “procedural.” They engaged in “unprofessional conduct”—for instance, the State Department official, he said, went behind his back—so Bolton “lost confidence” in them and wanted them reassigned to other portfolios.

Bolton’s account is most implausible. First, neither analyst worked under Bolton, so it’s irrelevant that he lost confidence in them. Second, the “unprofessional conduct” amounted to the State Department analyst’s sending Bolton’s proposed speech and his own proposed modification to other intelligence officials—standard procedure for official speeches mentioning intelligence. Third, some of the panel’s Democrats—Sens. Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd, and John Kerry—cited interviews, which the bipartisan staff has recently conducted with these officials and their superiors, to bolster the accusation. For instance, the State Department analyst’s immediate superior was quoted as saying that Bolton “said he was the president’s appointee and … he wasn’t going to be told what to say by a midlevel Munchkin.”

The significance of this tale isn’t simply that Bolton behaved like a prick. It’s that, sometime soon, our U.N. ambassador will almost certainly be called on to present intelligence data to the Security Council about Iranian or North Korean nuclear weapons. This country did great damage to its credibility when Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered what turned out to be false intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. (On this point, everyone at the hearing—Bolton included—agreed.) The next time we have to make a case against an emerging nuclear threat, the case for international consensus and cooperation will not be helped if the briefer has a record of politicizing intelligence.

The second reason—Bolton’s non-position on whether genocide should prompt U.N. action—was taken up by only one senator today, but, in an age of great debate over “humanitarian interventions,” it should be a major issue. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., asked Bolton what he thought about the United Nations’ inaction during the Rwandan genocide. Bolton evaded, saying it wasn’t a “U.N. failure” but a failure of the member nations. OK, Feingold came back, what would you have done had you been the ambassador back then—and had you known everything that we know now? Bolton replied, “We don’t know if, logistically, it would have been possible to do anything differently at the time.” Feingold seemed dumbfounded by the answer. He said only, “Your answer is amazingly passive,” then went on to another issue. But the answer was much more than that; it was a shocking evasion. Feingold was asking a pointed hypothetical question—whether we should have done something, if we had known exactly what was going on. It was meant to get at whether Bolton sees the United Nations as an organization that should intervene in such crises. Bolton reduced it to a question of logistics and refused to answer. Someone should ask him again and insist on a full answer. (In general, while a few senators asked Bolton about his views on U.N. structural reform, they showed an appalling lack of curiosity about his views of the world and the United Nations’ place in it.)

Still, Feingold’s phrase—”amazingly passive”—did characterize Bolton’s general demeanor. Rarely have I watched a presidential appointee discuss his or her plans and prospects with such diffidence. It would be one thing if Bolton were a cool character in general. But his former colleagues have described him to the committee as screaming and turning red with anger when provoked by dissenting intelligence analysts. Sen. Barbara Boxer today showed a video clip of Bolton’s now-famous 1994 speech before the World Federalists, in which he uttered such classic lines as, “There is no such thing as the United Nations,” and “If the U.N. Secretariat Building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” (You can watch parts of the video on this pro-Bolton Web page.) Most of us have read the transcript of this speech, but it’s an enlightening experience to watch Bolton as he reads it: He’s animated, passionate, livid. He clearly believes what he’s saying and wants to make the most of it, wants to engage and provoke.

The most telling thing about today’s hearing may be that Bolton displayed not the slightest bit of energy, one way or the other, when discussing the challenges facing international organizations. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said several times, since the second term began, that the United Nations will be a forum where some of the day’s central challenges—Iranian nukes, Lebanese independence, an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord—may be played out. Apart from all the other doubts about Bolton’s suitability, does the U.S. Senate really want a U.N. ambassador who seems, at bottom, so uninterested in what goes on there?