John Bolton vs. the world

His job is to keep a hawk eye on dovish Colin Powell. And he's helped turn Bush foreign policy into an ideological hammer.


John Bolton vs. the world

When Jesse Helms, R-N.C., urged his fellow senators in March 2001 to confirm a longtime friend as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, he gave an endorsement that was, quite literally, out of this world.

“John Bolton,” Helms said, “is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon, or what the Bible describes as the final battle between good and evil.”

Bolton, who passed by a 57-43 vote, plays a much more important role than the flow charts suggest. He’s a hard-line conservative whose intellectual and moral views are simpatico with those of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and most of the higher-ups in the National Security Council and Defense Department. Well before the accuracy of the president’s rationale for waging a war in Iraq was questioned, Bolton was installed to help forge the administration’s aggressive new foreign policy. His philosophy? To exaggerate slightly, Bolton believes the relationship between America and the rest of the world should resemble that between a hammer and a nail.

His most obvious foil has been the moderate, internationalist man he technically works for: Colin Powell. But Bolton was clearly installed to provide an internal counterweight to the secretary of state, and the administration has long tilted toward Bolton and the conservatives — from shunting numerous international treaties off the table to taking consistently hard lines with Iraq, North Korea, Russia and even much of Europe.

Bolton has maintained a low profile (he declined to speak to Salon for this story) but hasn’t completely avoided public scrutiny. In mid-June, a State Department intelligence official named Christian Westermann accused Bolton of trying to pressure him on intelligence estimates of Cuba’s biological weapons capabilities — coinciding with charges that intelligence data about Iraq had also been cooked.

And on Tuesday, Bolton was caught up in yet another flap about the politicization of intelligence, when the White House was forced to delay his congressional testimony about Syria until September. The administration pulled back Bolton after the CIA and other agencies strenuously objected to its assessment of the threat posed by Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.

But overall, Bolton may well be the most important administration official America has never heard of. Moreover, because of his background and connections, Bolton has played an important role in strengthening the crucial alliance within the Bush administration between the Christian right and the neoconservatives, a process detailed closely in Michael Lind’s new book about Bush, “Made in Texas.”

In a way, the Christian right can be thought of as a body without a brain. It has a power base of millions, but no leader capable of formulating a message that plays well among the non-believers, particularly the mainstream media.

The neoconservatives, however, the defense intellectuals now running the Bush administration’s foreign policy, have always been a brain without a body. They run magazines and think tanks, and they type up policy papers, but they have traditionally lacked both popular support and the ability to get elected to anything.

Bush brilliantly has joined the brain to the body, giving power to the neocons and respectability to the Christian right — even the rabidly growing number of dispensationalists, who believe that Jewish domination of Israel is a necessary precondition for the return of Christ, the battle of Armageddon, and then a 1,000-year reign of Christian peace.

Bolton isn’t close to being the sole link that has created this colossus, though he is an important one. He agrees with the neoconservatives on almost all of the country’s fundamental foreign policy issues. But, coming from a background outside their traditional working groups, he has been able to bring in additional sources of support for the administration. Boltons own religious faith is unclear, but regardless, he has helped Bush win trust from sectors that might otherwise be skeptical of the administration.

For example, while Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and the other neoconservatives who fill the Bush foreign policy apparatus were serving on committees redrawing maps for the Middle East in the late 1990s, Bolton was serving on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, an organization working, for example, to prevent the persecution of Christians in countries such as the Sudan.

Further, Bolton has credibility with Republican activists, many of whom are Christian conservatives, because, unlike the neocons, he is willing to enter the political fray. Asked by Salon how his massive enthusiasm for Bolton began, Jesse Helms first cited the now-undersecretary’s role offering legal support in the late 1970s to the senator’s troubled political fundraising committee. More important, when the rest of the neoconservatives were milling around Washington, Bolton served as a lead Republican lawyer in the Florida recount rumble, earning kudos and respect from the rank and file. According to a Newsweek account, after the Supreme Court halted the massive recount, Bolton strode into a library full of officials counting Miami-Dade votes. “I’m with the Bush-Cheney team, and I’m here to stop the vote,” he declared.

John Robert Bolton II was born in Baltimore and studied at Yale, graduating in 1970, a year in which the campus news was dominated by Black Panthers and draft dodgers. Bolton neither took to the streets with his protesting classmates nor traveled in the same partying circles as his campus contemporaries George W. Bush and Howard Dean. Bolton seems instead to have lived the life of a classic conservative political nerd. His senior yearbook notes that he served in the conservative party of the political union, as editor in chief of the Yale Conservative, as a four-year member of the Yale Young Republicans, as “floor leader of the right,” and as executive emeritus of the campus conservative party.

After college, Bolton earned a law degree at Yale and moved in and out of the private sector, helping at one point on the campaign of a Texas attorney general candidate named James Baker. With the help of Baker, a future secretary of state, Bolton moved into the big time when he joined the Reagan administration in 1981. By the beginning of the president’s second term, Bolton was an assistant attorney general.

His first forays onto the national stage were appropriate for someone with his hard-edge conservative background. The New York Times first mentioned Bolton when he was conducting a review for the Justice Department about whether any senior Reagan officials played a role in supplying arms to Nicaraguan rebels. He next popped up in the Times while serving as the Justice Department’s point person in the contentious and partisan Senate battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. He joined the State Department in the first Bush administration and has worked in international politics ever since, first in the administration and then with conservative think tanks, his most prominent position that of vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.

During that time, and during his early tenure in the second Bush administration, Bolton’s first priority appears to have been to roll back public international law so it isn’t used against us by other nations as they battle for power in a dark, Hobbesian world. At its most extreme, this view has led him to say that “if the U.N. Secretary Building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference,” and to support former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet against the international courts that hope to bring him to trial on charges of gross human rights violations.

More generally, four years ago, Bolton said: “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest 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 constrict the United States.”

Mark Falcoff, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, charitably sums up his former colleague’s worldview as follows, “He rejects completely the notion that foreign policies are good to the extent that the Belgians like them.”

Bolton is surely “an ideologue’s ideologue,” as his frequent sparring partner Joseph Cirincione, at the mainstream Carnegie Foundation, describes him. But it’s also not quite that simple.

For one, unlike most ideologues, particularly hard-charging ones on the right, Bolton gains power from his pleasant demeanor, much as Jesse Helms does. During the Florida recount, Bolton was a confident and calm professional. Ron Asmus, a Clinton deputy assistant secretary of state, calls Bolton “friendly, charming and interesting” even while pointing out that Bolton often advocates positions that make Asmus’ jaw drop.

He is also extremely smart — another trait conspicuously absent in many ideologues. At Bolton’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said, while criticizing the nominee: “This is not about your competence. My problem with you over the years has been you have been too competent. I mean, I would rather you be stupid and not very effective.”

But he has been effective, and his star has risen very quickly . One conservative fantasy has him becoming National Security Advisor in a second Bush administration, after Condoleezza Rice takes over the State Department, and Colin Powell moves back to his farm.

But his competence has ultimately allowed Bolton to do much harm, scuttling the international agreements and treaties that make up much of the legal basis for international order and security. With Bolton’s tireless leadership and assistance, the Bush administration has undermined the International Criminal Court, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and a potential international treaty on small arms trafficking — while also opposing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In the process, and in the rush to wage a unilateral and preemptive war in Iraq, Bolton and his administration allies have burned most of the international goodwill that the United States built up before and after Sept. 11. The enemy of a vast and growing percentage of the world, the United States remains virtually alone in Iraq; reports of American soldiers killed in ambushes are now as routine in the news as reports on the stock market. It doesn’t help that the administration lied about some of the intelligence that served as a prime justification for the war.

Or that Bolton seems interested in possibly taking the war a step further. Soon after Baghdad fell, Bolton said, in his usual, measured way, “We are hoping that the elimination of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would be important lessons to other countries in the region, particularly Syria, Libya and Iran, that the cost of their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is potentially quite high.” Bolton’s specialty seems to have been the ability to build small bridges that enable him and his allies to destroy big ones. While personally agreeable, he has helped created the policies that have made much of the rest of the world see the United States as an international bully. By forging ties between the hawks in the Defense Department and the White House with the State Department, Bolton has helped to undercut the main government entity supportive of international engagement. By helping to build a relationship between Republican foot soldiers and the neocons, Bolton has helped sever ties between the United States and the rest of the world.

In a less dramatic way, Bolton’s success parallels that which Helms sees at the battle of Armageddon: the forces of good trampling the forces of evil as the seven angels blow their seven trumpets and everything else gets razed. The trouble is that, despite his pleasant demeanor and level-headedness, Bolton’s definition of evil seems rather large — encompassing not just the standard axis but also, for example, the International Criminal Court’s efforts to track down war criminals or genocidaires.

There’s a chance that Bolton’s worldview will ultimately turn out to have been a successful one: Taking a hard line may bring peace and security to the Korean peninsula and the Middle East, along with a long-term world order where America remains so strong and safe that it has no need for international law.

Unfortunately, power has a tendency to ebb and flow. Moreover, despite the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s vicious regime, it’s hard to see the world as a better place than it was when Bolton and his colleagues began their project.

Nicholas Thompson is a fellow with the New America Foundation. He lives in New York.

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