Who's playing politics?

John Bolton's nomination isn't being derailed by Democrats but by dissident Republicans, who reflect even broader discomfort with Bush's choice.

Published April 22, 2005 9:36PM (EDT)

In defense of John Bolton's nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the White House is once again exploring the boundaries of "reality-based" perception. The Bush administration and its allies are pretending that opposition to Bolton is strictly partisan and political. Yet what must be clear to anyone observing this process is that Democrats alone could scarcely have stalled Bolton, let alone inflicted what may be fatal damage to his nomination.

Indeed, despite unanimous Democratic misgivings about Bolton's rigid ideology and undistinguished record, he would be on his way to Turtle Bay by now -- except for the serious doubt and strong dissent expressed by Republican legislators and diplomats about his conduct, competence, honesty and temperament.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan attributed the problems encountered by Bolton to "ugly" tactics by Democrats, whom he accused of "playing politics" on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a charge he repeated in his usual robotic style when reporters questioned his false narrative. "The accusations that are being made [against Bolton] are unsubstantiated," he insisted at the White House press briefing. "Again, Democrats continue to raise them." Then on Thursday morning, the president echoed his spokesman's complaint, demanding that the Senate "put aside politics and confirm John Bolton to the United Nations."

If Bolton's prospects have been dimmed by "politics," however, the troubles appear to reflect a growing division within the president's own party. While Bush may not read newspapers, he must be aware that dissident Republicans, not Democrats, were responsible for the dramatic postponement of a confirmation vote in the Foreign Relations Committee. Reflecting their Senate majority, Republicans enjoy a two-vote advantage over Democrats on the committee, which naturally ensures a favorable vote for any Bush nominee only if the majority remains united.

That was why the Washington press corps had predicted so confidently that the White House and the Senate leadership would ram through the Bolton nomination, regardless of the testimony against him and the mounting concern about his unfitness for the U.N. post. What stopped him was the looming defection of at least one -- and possibly two or even three -- of the committee's 10 Republicans. A sudden threat to vote no by George Voinovich, R-Ohio, prompted committee chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to put off the vote for three weeks pending "further investigation." Meanwhile, Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and the Hamlet-like Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., each took another step back from their already hesitant support for Bolton. Although Democratic resistance and savvy maneuvering set the stage for that dramatic moment, the key actors belonged to the ruling party.

Everyone paying attention noticed all that, of course. But what appeared to be an abrupt repositioning by a few moderate Republicans actually reflected broader and deeper discomfort with this nominee.

Among the earliest strikes against the Bolton nomination, for example, was the little-noticed broadside delivered by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a tough old conservative who rarely disagrees publicly with the president. Domenici is an expert on nuclear proliferation, which happens to be Bolton's primary responsibility in his current State Department post. After observing Bolton for the past three years, Domenici has judged him harshly for failing to complete negotiations with Russia over disposal of tons of extremely dangerous weapons-grade plutonium. He first noted Bolton's incompetence during hearings last June. "Mr. John Bolton, who has been assigned to negotiate this, has a very heavy responsibility," he said. "I hate to say that I am not sure to this point that he's up to it."

In early March, Domenici told the Albuquerque Journal, his hometown paper, that he was "lukewarm" about the Bolton nomination.

So was Bolton's former boss Colin Powell, who pointedly declined to endorse a letter of support that bore the signatures of five earlier Republican secretaries of state. So were various high-profile Republican diplomats and flag officers, notably including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former National Security Advisor and retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who have quietly made known their disdain. So was conservative intelligence analyst and lifelong Republican Carl Ford, who testified with eloquent anger about Bolton's vengeful behavior toward subordinates who displeased or disagreed with him.

What Steven Clemons of the online Washington Note describes as "serial abuse" of his State Department colleagues is certainly not Bolton's only disturbing characteristic. Rudeness and tactlessness aren't exactly strong qualifications for a diplomat, but they would not be enough to forfeit support among Senate Republicans. Bolton's opponents in both parties are more concerned about his alleged distortion of intelligence material to serve his ideological agenda; his attempts to secure top-secret National Security Agency communications intercepts for an unknown purpose; and the unsettling likelihood that when all the facts finally emerge, he will prove to have been untruthful in his Senate testimony about some of those incidents.

"Politics" may actually be driving the Republicans who oppose Bolton, both within and outside the Senate. Their reasons to reject him might be idealistic, pragmatic or even opportunistic. In every case, however, they no longer feel automatically obliged to swallow whatever the White House is serving. And their independence can only be encouraged by Bush's declining public approval ratings, currently languishing well below 50 percent, with a substantial majority of citizens worried about the country's direction.

From the beginning, the president's advisors have pretended not to see or hear dissident Republicans. That insulting arrogance, which mirrors Bolton's own behavior, may well be the ultimate mistake in this misbegotten episode.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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