What Matters in the Bolton Debate

Legitimate questions abound as to whether he'll make a suitable ambassador to the U.N. -- but they aren't the ones being talked about

By Stan Crock

The debate over John Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the U.N. has focused on three things: His bullying style, his squabbles with intelligence analysts, and his requests for information about officials who were involved in conversations the National Security Agency intercepted.

Unfortunately, everybody seems to be ignoring whether, as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control & International Security, Bolton's policies and judgment in pursuing them promoted the nation's security. I would argue that on balance, they did not. That should be the focus of the debate, but the issue now is little more than a sideshow.


  Bolton's bullying nature is beyond dispute, regardless of whether every detail of every allegation is proved. But some previous U.N. ambassadors -- Richard Holbrooke and Pat Moynihan, for instance -- weren't exactly gentle souls. And just look around Washington -- or any corporate board room for other examples. It shouldn't be a disqualifying issue. Nor should the habit of questioning intelligence analysts. The recent record of the intelligence community isn't one that inspires confidence.

While the jury is out on the question of message intercepts, it's clear that Bolton asked for the names involved in 10 intercepts. That's a small percentage of the 400 similar requests the State Dept. made during the first four years of the Bush Administration. Did he want those names to use the information against bureaucratic enemies or to better understand intelligence reports? That's a serious question, and it's unclear whether a definitive answer will emerge. I wouldn't rest a vote for or against him on the outcome of this probe.

The problem for me is that focusing on all of this is like attacking Bill Clinton for lying about a relationship with an intern. The Republicans couldn't stand his political popularity and his policies, so they focused on the petty at the expense of the substantive.


  The same type of mistake is being made here, and it's not just the Democrats who are behind it. Plenty of Republicans who saw the first Bush Administration divided on foreign policy were more comfortable with the pragmatic Powell wing than the hard-line Bolton faction. Now those Republicans -- Senators Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in particular -- are having second thoughts about Bolton, but not explicitly on policy grounds.

To avoid looking petty and hypocritical, both Democrats and Republicans should focus on policy. They would be on safe ground because on that score, Bolton looks woeful.

To his credit, he spearheaded the Proliferation Security Initiative, under which countries agreed to halt shipments of gear that may be intended for use in weapons of mass destruction. And the sky didn't fall when the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty died. But Bolton could have achieved the same outcome quietly, without getting Moscow's nose out of joint by so publicly rejecting the ABM accord. And on three other critical issues -- Iran, North Korea, and international nonproliferation treaties -- Bolton gets a flunking grade.


  He has been an ardent advocate of the Administration's policy of outsourcing negotiations on Iran's nuclear program to Britain, Germany, and France. While the Europeans may impress upon Iran the harm a nuclear-weapons program would do to its international standing and economy, the fact is Washington needs to be at the table. It needs to switch from a policy of regime change to one of regime preservation -- as it did with Libya -- to have any hope of getting results. If the U.S. remains hostile, why on earth would Iran give up its nuclear program? It's the most formidable deterrent to invasion it could have.

But Bolton has made sure the U.S. stays far away from the negotiations. Indeed, for four years, the U.S. attitude has been to tell the Europeans: "Good luck, but we doubt anything will come of the talks." Only since Condoleezza Rice has become Secretary of State -- and Bolton was moved out -- has the State Dept. suggested it backs the European negotiators.

The stance of no talks until Iran complies with international obligations has given the country more time to pursue its plans. The bottom line is Bolton hasn't advocated the policy that had the best chance of getting the curbs Washington wants.


  A similar pattern exists on North Korea. The U.S. outsourced this negotiation to China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia in the Six Party Talks. This time we're at the table, but for years the U.S. refused to make any offers to Pyongyang that detailed the benefits of giving up its nukes. The presumption is that North Korea has expanded its nuclear program. And once again, threats of regime change haven't played well, and the U.S. may need to shift gears and opt for regime survival to make progress.

It didn't help that on the eve of the start of the Six Party Talks, Bolton launched a blistering fusillade at Kim Jong-Il. He called the North Korean leader a "tyrannical dictator" who makes "extortionist demands" and is "directly responsible for bringing economic ruin" to his country.

This is all true, of course. And I know that the Administration trumpets such candor as the highest virtue. But a higher one exists: common sense. Bolton's decision to issue his blast before the talks began raises serious questions about his diplomatic judgment. The same could be said for his anti-U.N. tirades, which could undermine his ability to make needed reforms at the organization.


  In the end, it may be true that Bolton or the Bush Administration can do nothing to stop Iran and North Korea from developing or expanding nuclear-weapons programs. And Bolton wasn't alone in his positions. He's said to have been aligned with the Vice-President's office and the Pentagon.

But he was a public and private advocate of the toughest possible line. And partly as a result, it may never be known whether we could have stopped Iran and North Korea with carrots as well as sticks -- because we never tried. Had the U.S. negotiated with both countries in good faith -- as we did with Libya -- and gotten nowhere, it would have been clear where the onus lay. Now it's not.

What's most important here is that Bolton doesn't seem to understand that his policy hasn't worked and that while the other countries at the table share some interests with the U.S., they aren't identical. If China had to choose between the collapse of North Korea and a nuclear North Korea, for example, it would choose the latter while the U.S. would choose the former.


  The final issue where Bolton has taken the wrong road is international treaties. He opposes nearly all global accords, such as one that would cap production of potential bomb fuel, because he feels rogue states will cheat and their chicanery may not be detected. By this reasoning, I guess we shouldn't have laws against murder because someone is always going to break that law and could get away with it.

However, one of the major reasons the world doesn't have the two dozen nuclear states that President Kennedy predicted is that international accords set behavioral norms discouraging nations from developing nuclear weapons. With India and Pakistan recently violating those norms, Iran on the verge, and North Korea possibly expanding its arsenal, it's critical to preserve these accords so that the three dozen countries with commercial nuclear capability don't decide they should follow suit. Instead of focusing on the misbehavior of India, Pakistan, and Iran, America should trumpet the restraint shown by Brazil, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and dozens of other nations.

These are the kinds of issues that should form the substance of the Bolton debate. Instead, President Bush is claiming that Senate Democrats are playing politics with Bolton's nomination -- even though it's the Republicans with qualms about him who are holding up the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote.

Bolton's bid for the U.N. may go down in flames, or he may still get the post. If he doesn't, it will probably be because of his rants against subordinates, rather than the more legitimate grounds that North Korea expanded its nuclear arsenal on his watch -- and he did too little to try to stop it.

Crock is senior diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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