"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In the old days, Sen. Marcus Cato used to tell the Romans in every speech, “Carthage must be destroyed.” Even the Romans were never crass enough to send him there as an ambassador. It takes an imperial America to send to the United Nations a representative who has spent decades preaching that the organization should be destroyed, and that the United States should disregard the whole concept of international law on which it is based. But in and out of government, John Bolton has at least had the dubious virtue of consistency.
President Bush’s appointment sends an eloquent message of utter contempt for the U.N. and all its members — which happen to include almost every country in the world. Indeed, the only significant country without a vote in the U.N. is one of the few that will be happy with the appointment. Taiwan had hired Bolton as a consultant for $30,000 to advise it on its, as it transpired, unsuccessful bid to join the organization.
There is still the chance for a sanity clause to be resurrected in Washington. When it comes time for confirmation, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is relatively evenly balanced at 10 to eight, and its majority chairman, Richard Lugar, is eminently sane and surely realizes the damage that this appointment will do to American diplomacy.
Bolton will be presenting his credentials to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whom he accused in the Weekly Standard of a “power grab,” denouncing his “doctrine that force is unimportant while ‘international law’ is practically everything,” which he scornfully admitted “is widely held in Europe” and was also “popular here, particularly in the Clinton administration.” He also dismissed Annan, whose cooperation Bush is trying to secure in Iraq, as a “chief administrative officer.”
There will be few public negative comments from governments or diplomats about Bolton’s appointment, but there have been few signs of public ecstasy either. And behind the scenes, diplomats are scratching their heads trying to work out what the appointment reveals about American foreign policy. Certainly one major inference that the United States’ European alliance may draw is that the recent road show that the president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice staged across the Continent’s capitals was all sound and furry, in the pseudo-cuddly sense, signifying nothing.
The bad news is that there is every reason to fear that Bolton’s job is to repeat in Iran and Syria the fiasco of Iraq. Indeed, Cuba and North Korea are on the “axis of evil” he has kept expanding in successive speeches.
The good news is that he is almost certain to fail even more abjectly than his predecessors in winning support for these neocon wet dreams. They could at least compromise and cajole, and invoke international law and treaties. That is not the way Bolton has done things so far.
Examining the thinking behind the appointment further leads to two rational conclusions, neither of them reassuring. Was Bolton appointed as a deliberate insult to the organization, or is the Bush White House so absolutely unaware of how other countries, even allies, think that he just saw this as putting a “strong advocate” in position?
When Colin Powell was appointed as secretary of state, Vice President Dick Cheney and his entourage regarded him as dangerously liberal and unreliable. After all, even former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had chided him for his unwillingness to put U.S. soldiers in the firing line. Their solution was to put the tried and trusted Bolton in the State Department as undersecretary for arms control and international security, whose explicit function was to be the conservatives’ commissar in the State Department, reporting to Cheney.
Bolton is such a conservative ideologue, with never a hint of self-doubt, that he makes the neoconservatives look like indecisive, hand-wringing liberals. Going beyond Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg, the German chancellor who dismissed the treaties guaranteeing Belgian neutrality as a “scrap of paper,” he dismisses all treaties.
We are sending to the United Nations, which we founded, and for which we pretty much wrote the charter “to save succeeding generations from the curse of war,” someone who recently 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.”
One of the treaties Bolton has tried hard to tear into scraps is the one establishing the International Criminal Court, which he made his immediate personal task. The court was set up so that the perpetrators of mass murder — in the Balkans, in Rwanda, in Iraq — would never again have impunity for their crimes. Not only did Bolton “unsign” the treaty, previously signed by President Clinton — his “happiest moment,” Bolton said — he “unsigned” the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which binds countries not to frustrate the purposes of treaties they have signed.
Like a global gorilla, he then organized a rampage around the world, bullying and bribing countries to sign bilateral treaties, which were probably illegal in themselves, promising not to hand over the United Citizens to the new international court in The Hague. The United States even threatened to veto U.N. peacekeeping operations unless the U.N. Security Council put in similar exemptions. Under duress, it agreed, until the treaties came up for renewal — at the time the Abu Ghraib photographs were revealed.
Not even Washington’s best friends could pretend that American servicemen and women were uniquely incapable of committing war crimes, and Bolton’s proposal was defeated when it came up for renewal last year.
Last month the new government of Iraq, which under Saddam Hussein had been one of the tiny handful of countries to agree with the United States about the court, decided to join the court. Last week, without explanation, which with 150,000 U.S. troops in the country may have been considered superfluous, Baghdad quietly announced that it was changing its mind. That may have been Bolton’s last deed at the State Department.
But across the world, there are lots of resentful small countries, which had been bullied by Bolton. Noticeably, all other NATO members and the whole E.U. are strong supporters of the court, and looked askance at Bolton’s antics.
They ain’t seen nothing yet.
If Powell could not control Bolton when he was in the State Department with a license from Cheney to kill treaties, the question of how sincere Rice is in her recent imitations of a multilateralist becomes irrelevant. The State Department will be out of the loop. Across the globe, people, most of whom are already unimpressed with our chief executive, will be judging the United States by its most visible public face, its representative at the United Nations. Even if other governments wanted to cooperate with us — and it is noteworthy that our most abject ally, Tony Blair, publicly disagrees with Bolton’s stands on almost every issue — their electorates would not let them.
In the immediate future, the U.N. Security Council is deadlocked on what to do about Darfur, Sudan, for which Bush won many evangelical votes with his strong talk. The U.N.’s report on the mass killings there recommended, among other things, referring the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court. The United States apparently would rather leave the murderers running around for a few more years while a new body is set up.
To be honest, Washington is not the only problem here. China is one of the few countries that agreed with Saddam and the United States about the court, and it has a veto in the Security Council. When issues involving anything like humanitarian intervention come up, the Chinese have to be stroked into abstaining, persuaded that Tibet and Tiananmen Square are not in the minds of the movers.
Good luck to Bolton with his Taiwan connections and his version of diplomacy, which is to shout loud and wave a big stick.
Still, many Americans may to some degree agree with Bolton that this is all foreign stuff and has nothing to do with them. It depends on how many wars they want to pay for, in blood and taxes. It seems likely that Cheney & Co. persuaded the president to appoint Bolton on the grounds that he could get things done. After all, as Orwellian-ly named head of arms control he has effectively been sabotaging not only the ICC but also a nuclear test ban, a land mine ban, conventions on child soldiers and restrictions on trade in the small arms that have killed far more people than any putative weapons of mass destruction.
In a sense Bush has done the world a favor. He has shown that all that sweet talk on his European trip was persiflage, and revealed the would-be 800-pound gorilla under the dinner suit.
The cranks whose explicit agenda is to destroy the United Nations are already campaigning for Bolton’s confirmation. Perhaps it’s time for the silent majority of Americans who do not want more wars, who want war criminals to be tried, who think that nuclear disarmament is no bad thing and who would like the rest of the world to think well of them to let their senators know that, like the Founding Fathers, they still have a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.
Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."More Ian Williams.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)