War Stories


John Bolton’s excruciating confirmation hearing.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton

There he was again, John Bolton, President Bush’s pick for U.N. ambassador, sitting in his witness chair, grimacing through his walrus mustache as members of the Senate foreign relations committee grilled him on his qualifications and character.

Bolton, of course, has been U.N. ambassador since August, but the Senate had never confirmed him. Last summer, the committee sent his nomination to the floor without recommendation. (Republicans on the panel outrank Democrats 10-8, but, in a big surprise, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, came out against him, spawning a 9-9 tie.) On the Senate floor, Democrats pulled a filibuster. Republicans could not rally the 60 votes needed for cloture. So, Bolton seemed doomed—until, during the July 4 holidays, Bush shoved him into office with a “recess appointment.”

The catch about this constitutional loophole is that the candidate has to come up for another vote within 18 months. Last week, Voinovich wrote, in a Washington Post op-ed piece, that he’s been satisfied with Bolton’s performance on the job and that he’ll vote to confirm him this time around. Taking advantage of the turn, the chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar, called for another hearing, which took place this morning, followed by another vote sometime soon.

Not only does Bolton look the same as he did before, he thinks the same way, too. At one point, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a strong Bolton (and Bush) supporter, asked if he’d changed any of his views about the United Nations after having worked there for 10 months. “Not really,” Bolton icily replied. Even Coleman seemed stunned.

Over the years, Bolton has said many things that blatantly disqualify him for the position, but my favorite is this line from 1999:

It’s a big mistake for us to grant any validation to international law, even when it may seem in our short-term interests to do so—because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrain the United States.

The most basic mission of the United Nations is to enforce international law. It’s therefore absurd on the face of it to appoint, as U.N. ambassador, someone so hostile to the concept of international law.

Almost none of the Republicans actively defended Bolton at today’s hearing. Instead, they defended the president’s right to appoint his ambassadors; they asserted the importance of “continuity,” of not changing ambassadors at this crucial time. Everyone seemed aware that the hearing was a charade. Even some of Bolton’s Democratic critics, such as Barbara Boxer and Barack Obama, used much of their time urging Bolton to place more emphasis on specific issues—as if there were no doubt that he would stay at his job for some time to come.

Another Voinovich—that is, a surprise Republican dissenter—could materialize. Some pin their hopes on Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who faces a tough re-election this fall. Chafee clearly had mixed feelings last time around, though he caved and voted aye in the end. Still, it’s doubtful Lugar would have scheduled the hearing now—six months sooner than he had to—unless he’d made sure of the outcome.

It was Chafee who asked today’s most pressing questions, and they concerned the most pressing issue—the expanding war between Israel and Hezbollah. Noting the Bush administration’s position that a cease-fire shouldn’t be imposed without a “sustained” peace that addresses the conflict’s “root causes,” Chafee asked Bolton just what were those root causes.

Bolton muttered a few sentences about terrorism. Chafee, earnest in tone, interrupted: “Can’t you go deeper? This isn’t just terrorism. … You are not answering my questions. What are the root problems? What do we have to do to get a permanent peace?” The administration talks about “shaping the Middle East” as the goal of any new diplomacy, but what, he asked, would this new Middle East look like?

Finally, Bolton answered. What the administration has in mind, he said, is a region where nations stop supporting terrorism, stop importing weapons from China and North Korea, and where Lebanon has security institutions that can function independently of outside influence.

They’re all nice wishes, but does anyone believe that they can be fulfilled soon? Bolton’s words don’t always reflect those of the administration (that’s one of the problems his critics cite), but are they in accord here? Do Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, believe there’s no point in pressing for a cease-fire without these conditions?

If so, we’re in for a long war.

This isn’t a theoretical point. The Israeli security Cabinet yesterday voted against a territorial expansion of the war, but that doesn’t preclude the war’s intensification. Israel’s justice minister, Haim Ramon, said in a radio speech that the declaration issued this week in Rome—which, at Rice’s insistence, called for immediate work toward a cease-fire but not an immediate cease-fire—flashes the green light for stepped-up Israeli airstrikes:

We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world to continue this operation, this war, until Hezbollah won’t be located in Lebanon and until it is disarmed.

The European signers objected today that they had no intention of granting such permission, but it was clearly Rice’s intent, and, in any case, Israel’s declaration isn’t inconsistent with the text. Ramon added that Israel is now justified in assuming that “all those now in southern Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah.” That’s the definition of a free-fire zone.

Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, commander of Israeli ground forces, made the point clearer, saying of the Israeli campaign up till now: “I don’t think it was disproportionate. It should have been much stronger, and that’s what we’re going to do. We have a long way to go and a lot to achieve.”

If Democrats give up the fight against Bolton, it may be because they see he doesn’t matter that much. The problems lie with those who make decisions; the problems lie with Bush.