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One Angry Man

A strong ideological fixation is not a promising basis for a responsible foreign policy. During their first four years, President George W. Bush and his administration made intransigent unilateralism, American exceptionalism, and preemptive military action the watchwords of United States foreign policy, with abysmal results. The position of the United States in the world was drastically weakened. The unique respect and the authority as a world leader that the US had enjoyed since World War II were severely compromised, and the US military establishment was overstretched without achieving any strategic advantage.

The tone and style of America’s voice in foreign affairs became arrogant and brash, as if its leaders were shouting at the world at large their supremacy and their thinly concealed contempt. The invasion of Iraq quickly became a bloody nightmare, draining essential resources from the pacification and reconstruction of Afghanistan. The isolation and resulting ineffectiveness of the secretary of state, Colin Powell, certainly contributed to this dismal record.

In Bush’s second term both the policy and the tone began perceptibly to change. An overindulged secretary of defense eventually resigned and the administration was chastened by the growing bloodshed and chaos in Iraq and the unpopularity of the war in the US. Condoleezza Rice, as the new secretary of state and one of the President’s most trusted advisers and friends, was able to take some steps to revive US diplomacy, particularly in relations with North Korea. The idea that it was important to talk, at least in a limited way, to those perceived as enemies or potential enemies and to make some effort to understand their concerns and their interests began, if intermittently, to gain ground. Whether a consistent and comprehensive foreign policy, no longer intoxicated by ideological or neo-imperial fantasy, will emerge from this change of attitude is far from clear.

At least one former senior state department official has strongly deplored the change in the manner and substance of Bush’s foreign policy. More than one half of John Bolton’s memoir is taken up with the seventeen months he spent as US ambassador to the United Nations during Bush’s second term. He now reveals how unhappy he was with the Bush administration’s changing approach throughout his time at the UN. His single-minded career of dissent now includes opposition to the Republican administration with which he signed up in 2000.

At first sight, the title of Bolton’s book seems to raise a fundamental, and awkward, question. Is the United States still a benevolent superpower, capable, at its best, of leading the world into a decent future? Or is it, as Bolton’s title at first seems to suggest, a threatened, defeatist giant, betrayed by liberals and “the left” at home, and constantly on the defensive against deadly enemies and uncertain friends abroad? Only later on in the book does Bolton explain that the phrase “Surrender is not an option” refers to abandoning political principles. There is no doubt about Bolton’s vision of himself as the dauntless defender of US principles as he sees them.

Bolton is not a neocon. His political passions were ignited in his teens by Barry Goldwater, and he has always been a “libertarian conservative.” He thinks that “our emphasis must be more on liberty than democracy… the first being freedom from government, the second being one way to select governments.”1 It is small wonder that he doesn’t much like the United Nations, which consists of 192 governments. It says much about the Bush administration that someone with his views could be appointed UN ambassador.

Ideological consistency and his passionately held version of the national interest have driven Bolton’s career. The son of a Baltimore fireman, he did well at Yale, where he was a member of a very small conservative minority, feeling like “a space alien” among the late-1960s crowd of anti–Vietnam War activists. He resented being urged by these rich, liberal young men to join in their antiwar activities. “The conservative underground is alive and well here,” he told a Class Day Vietnam debate; “if we do not make our influence felt, rest assured we will in the real world.”

As to actually serving in the Vietnam War, Bolton decided, in 1970, that the war was already lost, so he “wasn’t going to waste time on a futile struggle”; faced with the draft, he, like George W. Bush, managed to join the National Guard. Thus, after graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, he entered Yale Law School, where Clarence Thomas was his classmate and friend. Bill and Hillary Clinton were also among his classmates, but he “didn’t run in their circles.”

Bolton spent his first adult years, during the Carter administration, in private practice, waiting for the political tide to turn. Despite the prospect of becoming a partner in a highly regarded law firm, he found work in the Reagan administration in the Agency for International Development (AID) where, by canceling unsuccessful projects, he was able to present to Reagan, in the Rose Garden, a refund check for $28 million. At the AID Bolton was surprised at what he perceived as the impertinence of some governments in their dealings with the United States. “I never understood why the United States was expected to be a well-bred doormat.”

As assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration, Bolton’s distaste for multilateral organizations steadily grew. He regarded the UN itself as the “hopeless captive of Soviet manipulation and Third World radicalism.” (A mirror image of this view, the UN as the lackey of the United States, was current on the other side of the Iron Curtain.) In Bolton’s view, only the Security Council, where the United States has a veto, was an international institution of real importance.

After the 2000 election Bolton rushed to Florida to support the Bush legal team in the dispute over the vote recount. His thirty-one days in Florida—“one of the great emotional roller-coaster rides of my professional life”—became a kind of founders’ badge of allegiance to the new administration. Six years later, leaving government service for private life, he could only condemn the new moderation of the Bush administration’s foreign policy: “I didn’t spend 31 days in Florida to end up where we are now.”2

Bolton is wary of both treaties and international law. He quotes De Gaulle’s fatuous remark, “Treaties, you see, are like girls and roses: they last while they last,” adding that “I saw treaties as essentially only political documents.” As for international law, Bolton writes with ponderous disdain of a possible US violation “of (say this in a slow, deep voice) ‘international law,’ which of course would be a Bad Thing.”

As undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, Bolton was well placed to demolish international agreements and treaties. He rationalizes this activity with the observation, “…We were simply rejecting inferior policies and agreements, and replacing them with greater American independence and fewer unnecessary constraints.” He engineered the US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—“a Cold War relic that essentially precluded both Russia and the US from developing national missile defense systems.” Citing the events of September 11 as justification, he also worked to derail the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in order to prepare the way for new American nuclear testing. Under the preposterous subheading “Foiling International Gun Control at the UN,” Bolton describes his half-successful attempt to undercut the UN conference on small arms and light weapons (still the world’s foremost killers), alleging that it was, among other things, an effort by the American left and NGOs to strengthen attempts at gun control in the US.

Bolton’s most-hated bête noire was the International Criminal Court (ICC). “My happiest moment at State,” he writes, “was personally ‘unsigning’ the Rome Statute,” which set up the court. He was furious that the Security Council, desperate for some action that would mitigate the disaster in Darfur, had asked the ICC to consider if prosecutions for crimes against humanity might be possible there. He alleges that this was a European plot to create a precedent for future use of the court and to make the US lose face by forcing it to abstain on the decision. He mounted a global campaign to extort assurances from nearly one hundred governments that they would not surrender any American to the ICC. (Under the statute of the ICC this was an unlikely contingency.3 ) These and other of Bolton’s achievements as undersecretary did much to undermine America’s leadership and position in the world.

At the outset of the second Bush term, the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, asked Bolton what job might interest him in the new term. Bolton’s mention of his interest in being deputy secretary of state was received with no enthusiasm, and two months later, in March 2005, Rice announced his nomination as ambassador to the UN, thus appointing to this unique post the US official most publicly contemptuous of the world organization. Bolton’s long and abrasive confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were, in his own words, not so much about the UN or his opinions, but about “whether I was a nice person, thereby inviting every person in government whom I had ever defeated in a policy battle, of whom there were many, to turn the issue into one of personal disparagement….” Even though Republicans held a majority at the time, his confirmation failed by four votes in the Senate. The President finally announced his recess appointment on August 1, 2005.

Arriving in New York one month before the summit meeting of heads of state and government on the UN’s sixtieth anniversary, Bolton, who disliked both the UN’s declarations on global problems and the UN Secretariat and the secretary-general, Kofi Annan, took particular exception to the draft of the summit declaration. UN delegations, including the United States, and the Secretariat had for the previous six months been working on this document, which originally contained a fairly ambitious mixture of global objectives and UN reform proposals. Bolton’s seven hundred or so amendments, designed, he believed, to increase the influence and reflect the interests of the United States, caused considerable confusion and resentment and reopened many disagreements that had previously been resolved. Among other things, he insisted that there be no mention of the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate global poverty, which the US had supported in 2000. (Condoleezza Rice overruled Bolton on this at the last minute.) Bolton also insisted on the elimination of any mention of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the ICC, and global warming.

Contempt and anger are Bolton’s normal reactions to disagreement. He denounces even small differences of opinion in abrasive, ad hominem language, saying of his British counterpart, for example, that, watching him in action, “I often wondered how the British had acquired an empire, although he proved why they had lost America.” His chapter headings—“Arriving at the UN: Fear and Loathing in New York,” “Iran in the Security Council: The EU-3 Find New Ways to Give In,” “Israel and Lebanon: Surrender as a Matter of High Principle at the UN”—give some indication of his scorn for most of the people and institutions he was dealing with.

  1. 1

    What Kind of War Are We Fighting, and Can We Win It?,” Commentary, November 2007.

  2. 2

    Steven Lee Myers, “Bush Loyalist Now Sees a White House Dangerously Soft on Iran and North Korea,” The New York Times, November 9, 2007.

  3. 3

    105 governments are now parties to the Rome Statute.

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