Missing the mark on Bolton

We know that Bush's nominee for UN ambassador has a bad temper - but what about his politics?

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

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When US President George W Bush nominated John Bolton to be the next US ambassador to the United Nations on 7 March, a collective howl of disbelief arose among those who thought Bush might be switching to a slightly less ‘unilateralist’ mode of foreign policy.

Bolton was on record saying ‘there is no such thing as the United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world and that is the United States when it suits our interest and we can get others to go along’ (1). He also famously proclaimed that ‘If the UN secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories it wouldn’t make a bit of difference’ (2). He had similar opinions about international law, arguing that ‘international law, especially customary international law, meets none of the tests we normally impose on “law”’ (3).

With such striking denouncements of the UN, international law, and multilateral cooperation, one expected serious, partisan conflict during Bolton’s and others’ testimony in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first step in Bolton’s confirmation. In anticipation of the hearings, 59 former senior diplomats sent a joint letter of protest to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the grounds that Bolton ‘had an “exceptional record” of opposing US efforts to improve national security through arms control’ (4). The usual suspects lined up for Bolton (eg, the Weekly Standard (5), National Review (6), and conservative commentator Bob Novak (7)) and against (American Prospect (8), New York Times (9), and liberal editor of the New Republic, Peter Beinart (10)).

Partisan the hearings have indeed been, but political they have not. Instead of focusing their heat on Bolton for his political opinions, the Democrats have focused mainly on Bolton’s personal conduct and managerial style. Testimony by one dissenting bureaucrat, Carl Ford, accused Bolton of being a ‘kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy’. Another witness called Bolton a ‘serial abuser’ of power (11).

Striking a pose of defiance, Senator Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took the unusual step of asking the committee chairman to postpone the intra-committee vote so as to give them extra time to gather information. Other Democratic senators repeatedly followed suit (12). Their grounds? That in Bolton’s various bureaucratic appointments (undersecretary of state for arms control, head of the Justice Department’s civil division) and in his private dealings, he was something of a bully. Among Bolton’s shocking sins: firing a career civil servant unjustly, threatening a senior lawyer seeking to extend maternity leave, and bullying a subcontractor (13).

In other words, instead of using Bolton’s nomination as an opportunity for a serious debate on the (de)merits of the UN and the (non-)validity of international law, the Democrats have trivialised the entire process of congressional oversight. Congressional hearings have the sole aim of throwing open governmental actions to the harsh glare of publicity. Forcing the administration to justify its actions in public is supposed to raise the level of debate. The government cannot simply act; it must justify by appeal to reasons everyone can accept. The Democrats have confused this idea of publicity with mining the sordid and irrelevant details of a nominee’s personal style. Meanwhile, they have ignored the 800-pound elephant in the room: Bolton’s oft-repeated, controversial political opinions.

Why have the hearings taken such a turn? Perhaps because a serious discussion of international law and the UN might cast a harsh glare not just on Bolton’s arguments, but on the Democrat’s own past. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1999, Bolton had the audacity to suggest that ‘Governments often follow only those “laws” that suit their interests and ignore those that do not, with relative impunity’ (14). Nowhere was this clearer than in the Clinton administration’s unauthorised, illegal 1998 intervention in Kosovo. Although the intervention was not clearly a pursuit of ‘national interest’, it did not get UN Security Council authorisation, and was in fact part of a broader trend in the 1990s during which the US undermined international law and dictated terms to the UN Security Council or bypassed it altogether (15). All of this achieved with the Democrats’ approval.

Bolton’s arguments are not the musings of a right-wing madman; they are legitimate arguments for which the Democrats do not seem to have an answer. Bolton is right when he argues that ‘international law has no definitive dispute-resolution mechanism (the role played domestically by courts), or any agreed-upon enforcement, execution, or compliance mechanisms (short of warfare)’ (16). Which is why he is also right, if lacking in nuance, when he says that, regarding humanitarian intervention: ‘a right of intervention that is just a gleam in one beholder’s eye but looks like flat-out aggression to somebody else.’ (17). In the absence of formal procedures, any intervention will appear as the arbitrary decision of some momentary ‘coalition of the willing’ or great power.

As for the UN, what exactly is so valuable about it? Given the Democrats’ own irregular support for the institution, their current defense of it seems more like a pose and media strategy than a principled stand. In any case, given that the UN has been involved in entrenching a new, interventionist order that has eroded the principle of sovereign equality and right to self-determination, it is difficult to see why it should be defended. Apparently Democrats like international law when it restricts their opponents across the aisle and makes them look cooperative and fair-minded.

Some might contest that Bolton’s arguments are also not so much from principle as elaborate efforts to free the USA from constraints, so that it can pursue its imperial designs unimpeded. This may be the case, but we’ll never know so long as the Democrats hunt among Bolton’s ex-underlings for aggrieved bureaucrats eager to air private grievances on the public stage.

In the short term, this strategy has worked (in the loosest sense of that word): Bolton’s nomination looks like it will die in committee, now that at least one Republican Senator, George Voinovich, has agreed to postponing the vote (18). Enough senators want more time to find out if John Bolton really did threaten contract worker Melody Townsel of Dallas in 1994, or whether these allegations are unfounded (19). The Democrats, it seems, have left it up to those outside Congress’ hallowed halls to ask the serious questions. The worst thing about a public debate that confuses the personal and the political, is that political opinions themselves remain unchallenged.

If Bolton is right, does it really matter that he is short-tempered? And if he is wrong, would it matter if he behaved like a saint?

(1) Stop Bolton

(2) Who’s Afraid of John Bolton?,, 1 April 2005

(3) The Global Prosecutors: Hunting War Criminals in the Name of Utopia, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 1999

(4) US ex-diplomats slam Bolton nomination, CS Monitor, 29 March 2005

(5) Bolton’s the One, Weekly Standard, 18 April 2005

(6) A Bolt of Good Sense, National Review, 8 March 2005

(7) US ex-diplomats slam Bolton nomination, CS Monitor, 29 March 2005

(8) Nuts and Bolton, American Prospect, 15 March 2005

(9) The World According to Bolton, New York Times, 9 March 2005

(10) Wrong Man for This U.N., Washington Post, 22 March 2005

(11) Biden calls for delayed vote, Columbia Tribune, 19 April 2005

(12) GOP Pushes for Bolton Confirmation to U.N., ABC News

(13) Senate panel delays Bolton vote, 20 April 2005

(14) The Global Prosecutors: Hunting War Criminals in the Name of Utopia, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 1999

(15) See ‘American Morality over International Law: Origins in UN Military Interventions, 1991-1995’ by Adam Branch in Constellations vol 12 issue 1 March 2005

(16) The Global Prosecutors: Hunting War Criminals in the Name of Utopia, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 1999

(17) Boltonism, New Yorker, 14 March 2005

(18) , New York Times, Senate Panel Delays Vote on Bolton for U.N. 19 April 2005

(19) Senate Panel Postpones Vote on U.N. Nominee, New York Times, 20 April 2005

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Topics Politics


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