War Stories

Is John Bolton Going Down?

An amazing afternoon at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Could it be that John Bolton is about to go down?

Something amazing happened at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon. In nearly 30 years of watching Congress, off and on, I can’t remember anything quite like it.

Bolton, the most dreadfully ill-qualified candidate ever to be nominated as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has nonetheless been an odds-on favorite to be confirmed because the committee enjoys a Republican majority and because George W. Bush’s White House has a knack for iron party discipline.

But that majority is only 10-8, and it’s been the Democrats’ hope to turn just one of those Republicans. That would turn the vote to a 9-9 tie, which would prevent the nomination from going to the floor (where, given the Republicans’ vaster majority, he would win easily).

The Democrats and assorted lobbyists have been working on two of the panel’s fairly moderate Republicans, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. But in recent days, both have said they were leaning toward voting in Bolton’s favor. It seemed all over.

A vote was scheduled for this afternoon. The panel’s Democrats advanced some delaying maneuvers. The Republican chairman, Richard Lugar of Indiana, swiftly put them down. The vote looked imminent.

Then, at about 4:30 p.m., out of nowhere, George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, said that he hasn’t attended any of the hearings on Bolton (he claimed to be busy with something or other) but, based on charges that he had just heard today, he would not “feel comfortable” voting Bolton out of committee.

The audio on C-SPAN 2 isn’t so great, but the room seemed to go quiet for a few seconds, then to erupt with buzz. Chafee nervously asked if Lugar still intended to stage a vote, given what Voinovich had just said. Sure, Lugar replied, let’s vote. The Republican half of the room started shaking its collective head. Hagel had intoned, a few minutes earlier, that he’d vote for Bolton in committee but might not on the floor (as if that matters, given the Republicans’ healthy margin there). Now he shifted. At the start of the session, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D–Conn., had suggested postponing the vote in order to investigate a recent spate of allegations about Bolton. That was when Dodd’s side looked like it was about to lose; Lugar shut the motion down. But now Hagel and a few other Republicans said, ahem, maybe we need to take some time and look into these matters after all.

Lugar and Joseph Biden of Delaware, the committee’s ranking Democrat, reached an accord. The Democratic and Republican staff members, working together, will investigate the new charges, calling more witnesses for interviews. The senators will go on recess. When they come back, they’ll look at the probe’s results. Maybe they’ll call Bolton back for another hearing, perhaps to defend himself. Then they’ll vote. In short, the vote is delayed by at least a couple of weeks. Meeting adjourned.

The White House now faces a question: Is it time to pull the rug out from under this nuisance named John Bolton? Bush is usually, by nature, opposed to giving in under this sort of pressure. Here, though, he may have no choice.

The new allegations (click here for some details) are terrible in two senses. First, they make Bolton look like a thin-skinned creep who tolerates no disagreement from anyone around him. This is not an ideal quality for a diplomat, but by itself it probably wouldn’t be enough to put off Bush. Everyone who knows Bolton has known this about him from the beginning.

The second factor is the key. An extended investigation can only make things worse. Every time there’s been a delay, more and more bad stuff has come out about this guy; more and more officials, present and former, have mustered the courage to come forth and tell more. Beyond that, Bolton faces possible charges of perjury. In his day of hearings earlier this month, he made statements to the committee—under oath—that, given what has been learned since, can only be called lies. If he goes back to the committee two weeks from now, he will be asked about those statements; they will be contrasted with statements, also made under oath, by a half-dozen other people. How do you reconcile these contradictions, Mr. Secretary? The thing is, he can’t.

There’s a third factor. Almost nobody around President Bush likes Bolton. That “almost” is a big qualifier. The guy who does like Bolton is Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney put him up for this job, and what Cheney wants usually goes. But Cheney wanted Bolton to have a bigger job, deputy secretary of state. And the person who blocked that promotion was Condoleezza Rice, who was about to be confirmed as secretary of state and didn’t want her No. 2 to be someone who’d report behind her back to Cheney. Rice has publicly supported Bolton, but with some body language that can be read as a caveat. Usually, nominees for U.N. ambassador are introduced to the press by the president. Bolton was introduced by Rice. It was as if she were saying, “This guy will be under my thumb.” Some insiders said to themselves that day, “Good luck.” One of the charges that has since come out is that, during Bush’s first term, when Bolton was undersecretary of state for arms control (a position he still holds), he held on to documents about Iran that were meant to be passed up to Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, then the secretary and deputy secretary of state. It has been reported that, as a result, Rice now keeps Bolton out of the loop. It’s a reasonable inference that she—and many other officials at Foggy Bottom—would be relieved if Bolton’s nomination were somehow withdrawn.

So, President Bush must choose between his two most trusted advisers, Cheney and Rice. Cheney is a fairly cold-blooded politico. Maybe even he will realize that the cause is no longer worth saving. Bolton has caused a mess, and it can only get messier. The Democrats might beat him in the Senate, and once they win one contest they will only get more aggressive on other, more important contests to come. “It’s not personal, John, it’s business,” Cheney might say, as he stretches the cord and wraps it around Bolton’s neck (metaphorically, of course).

It’s a good guess that one of two things is going to happen in the coming days and weeks: Either Bolton goes down—or we start learning a lot of unpleasant things about Sen. George Voinovich.