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One Angry Man

The European Union and “its deadening Brussels bureaucracies” are natural targets for a libertarian conservative, and Bolton misses no opportunity to deride the “Euroids,” reserving special disdain for British diplomats. But the group that earns Bolton’s deepest wrath is the UN Secretariat and its secretary-general.4 He seems unable to mention Kofi Annan’s name without a snide, and often wholly unfounded, slur; for example, about Annan’s understandable reservations about a public Security Council debate on alleged corruption and sexual abuses by UN peacekeepers, there was, he said, a “deeper problem of Annan’s deviousness, but this time he had been caught.” He states that the only really effective reform of the UN would be to make governmental contributions to its budget entirely voluntary. (One wonders how an entirely voluntary taxation system would work in the US.)

Annan “was simply not up to the job,” Bolton states contrary to the general opinion and without explanation. But neither Powell nor Rice was prepared to try to remove him. In fact Rice is quoted as saying, “I’ve never had a better relationship with anyone than I’ve had with Kofi Annan.” On the emergency Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, for which UN administration and lack of supervision were rightly criticized, Bolton recites the standard neoconservative denunciation of Annan and the Secretariat without mentioning who was responsible for the real scandal. It was the Security Council, including the US, that allowed Saddam Hussein’s government to negotiate deals and kickbacks directly—without UN supervision—with the hundreds of commercial firms involved. Nor does he mention that the US and the four other permanent members of the Security Council turned a blind eye to Iraqi oil smuggling to Turkey, Jordan, and Syria that accounted for most of Saddam’s illicit gains and had nothing to do with the Oil-for-Food program. He also fails to mention that the program successfully fed and provided essential supplies to some 25 million Iraqis for over six years, and thus made it possible to maintain the strict sanctions on Iraq as the United States and others wished.5

Bolton apparently resented Annan’s high reputation with most governments and his introduction of new principles and goals—for example, the responsibility of governments in the UN to protect desperate groups of people from violation of their human rights or persecution, even if their own government is the persecutor. Bolton refers contemptuously to this concept, now horribly relevant in Darfur, as “the High Minded cause du jour.”

Bolton also complains that Annan was “consistently unhelpful” after the US invasion of Iraq, an action which the Security Council had refused to support. He does not mention that Annan sent his own representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, to help the US occupation authority in assembling the first Iraqi Governing Council. Nor does he mention—and it is a particularly discreditable omission—that Sergio Vieira de Mello, one of Annan’s most valuable and respected senior officials, with fifteen of his staff and seven civilians were killed at the UN headquarters in Baghdad by a truck bomb in August 2003. Nor would you know from his book that the UN organized the elections in Iraq. As his ultimate insult, Bolton writes that Annan was “everything the Clinton administration could ask for: an international bureaucrat whose very career embodied their worship of multilateralism for its own sake.” The UN is, it might be recalled, an international organization of 192 states that was largely conceived by the United States; it is not a branch of the US State Department.

The Security Council is the only part of the UN for which Bolton had any use. “The General Assembly and ECOSOC [the Economic and Social Council],” he writes, “served only to consume oxygen and paper.” One of the most important tasks of the Security Council during Bolton’s UN stay was to recommend a successor to Kofi Annan. His hatred for Annan seems to have inspired Bolton to hope for a successor as unlike Annan as possible. By June 2006, according to Bolton, Secretary Rice had a “short list” of one name: Ban Ki-moon of South Korea. With characteristic cynicism, Bolton quotes Rice as saying at the time, “I’m not sure we want a strong secretary general,” a remark presumably not intended for publication, and a gross disservice to his and Rice’s chosen candidate.

Bolton maintains, rightly enough, that the selection of the secretary-general is a matter essentially for the five permanent members, although “the High Minded are always exhorting the UN to conduct an ‘open and transparent job search’ with ‘broad consultation’ and discussion, as if we were not making an intensely political decision.” Bolton has much to say about the shortcomings of the UN Secretariat and how the secretary-general should concentrate on improving the administrative side of the UN. The revolutionary idea of looking for the best person for the job does not seem to have occurred to him.

Reading Bolton’s petty account, it is worth recalling the long list of distinguished US representatives to the UN, public figures like Adlai Stevenson, Henry Cabot Lodge, or Daniel Patrick Moynihan and also superb professionals such as Charles Yost, who served in the late Sixties, or Thomas Pickering at the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Most governments try to send their ablest people to represent them at the UN. From this point of view, Bolton was, to put it mildly, a strange choice, as some of his fellow Republicans came to recognize.

Throughout 2006 Bolton was lobbying in Washington for the Senate confirmation that would allow him to continue at the UN in 2007. Despite much assistance, including that of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which had also helped him in previous confirmation battles, there was no sign that a favorable Senate vote would be forthcoming. He therefore decided, he writes, to leave the administration and “keep firing” from outside it. “So in the cost-benefit calculus of being in the government,” he told The New York Times, “I just felt that on policy terms I could do more outside the government than within.”6 Bolton is now a favorite, and highly available, commentator to reporters writing for, among other outlets, The New York Times. Few stories on Iran, the Middle East, or North Korea are complete without an oracular but negative final comment from Bolton, who is now based at the American Enterprise Institute. Reporters seem to feel that if they quote him, they will have included a “tough” conservative point of view.7

Bolton constantly inveighs against the danger of prolonged negotiations, of diplomatic contacts, and of “rewarding bad behavior” when dealing with “Evil” governments such as those of North Korea or Iran. This partly accounts for his pungently expressed disgust with European diplomats, his allergic reaction to most UN officials, and his disagreements with the State Department. It has recently been announced that North Korea has begun to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program four years ago. The patient negotiators whom Bolton so despises seem to have been doing a reasonable job after all. (He continues to denigrate the apparently successful efforts of the State Department’s Chris Hill to persuade the North Koreans to forgo nuclear weapons programs.)

Not surprisingly, Bolton’s stubbornly held opinions often involved him in arguments and even rows, which he appears to enjoy in a joyless sort of way. His epithets map out the vast landscape of his disapproval: The High Minded, The True Believers, Candle Lighters, Crusaders of Compromise, The Weak-kneed, The Chattering Class, Euroids, Mattress Mice, EAPeasers (members of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs), and so on.

Bolton makes much of his tireless devotion to his work and his disdain for the allegedly frivolous and pleasure-loving attitudes of those he works with. When a meeting in New York has to be prolonged, for instance, he writes, “New York has a lot of shopping and cultural opportunities that cannot be fully enjoyed in a one-week conference.” Or, during the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, when the Security Council was in frequent session, he comments, “This being Friday, of course, what really concerned most other delegations was whether they would be able to go to the Hamptons for the weekend.” According to the UN Charter, the Security Council is “to be so organized as to be able to function continuously,” and it has always done so, if necessary all night and over weekends. Its members are quite used to this admittedly demanding routine. Bolton’s claim that “most other delegations” were concerned about weekends in “the Hamptons” is the kind of patronizing fantasy that occurs all too frequently in his book.

Bolton tempers his growing disillusionment with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice with a politeness not extended to others. He deplores the culture of the State Department, whose members he holds responsible for “the large and growing list of wrong directions and mistakes…on Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, and others.” The department, he writes, is too full of liberals and the High Minded and needs a wholesale cultural revolution. Bolton also comments in passing that “presidential ineptitude cannot be ignored.” Some of Bush’s appointees, he implies, cannot stand up to the career bureaucracy.

In his self-imposed isolation, Bolton sometimes calls to mind those retired British officers, immortalized in the cartoonist David Low’s Colonel Blimp, who took satisfaction in insisting that “lesser breeds” could be dealt with only by a stiff dose of military force. He often seems unaware that the time for imperial arrogance, bluff, and gunboat diplomacy has long passed. Addressing foreign governments and peoples in insulting and high-handed terms—the “Axis of Evil,” for example—no longer intimidates them; it enrages them and only increases support for extremists and extreme policies.

The use of overwhelmingly superior conventional force has, in most situations, become an anachronism that creates violent opposition without gaining its intended objective. William Pfaff described this development well, writing in 1998 that

the belief that America as “sole superpower” would or could dominate the world, widely held after communism’s collapse, rested on the illusion that military and economic power directly translate into political power, and that power is identical with authority. The exercise of authority requires consent, and rests on a moral position.

While advocating a hard line, Bolton is careful not to specify how in the end to put into effect the “tough” approach he favors. He avoids mentioning the use of force but employs instead phrases like “serious efforts” or “actually doing something.” He sometimes goes so far as to say, in the cases of Iran and North Korea, for example, that “regime change” is really the only acceptable solution, without saying how regime change might be brought about without war. Bolton barely mentions Iraq and Afghanistan, the contemporary tests of conventional military force in pursuit of regime change, except to say that he had nothing officially to do with Iraq, but if he had, he would probably have been in the same camp as his friends Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. (He misses, he tells us, Rumsfeld’s “strong voice and sound opinions.” Rumsfeld liked to call Bolton “Mr. Hanging Chad,” in tribute to Bolton’s prowess in the Florida recount battle.)

Bolton and his small band of co-ideologues apparently see themselves as fighting virtually alone against the forces of evil, compromise, and weakness. As far as foreign affairs are concerned, their beliefs seem to be roughly as follows:

United States interests alone are to be considered as paramount; the United Nations is only relevant insofar as it serves those interests.

Foreigners, even some supposed allies, cannot be trusted, and the hostile ones (North Korea, Iran, the enemies of Israel, and others) will always cheat, will never abide by an agreement, and only understand pressure and force.

With such people there should be only sticks and hard words, no carrots, no rewards for good behavior, and no prolonged negotiations. Force always remains an option.

The High Minded, Liberals, multilateralists, and most Democrats are, in their own way, almost as destructive as hostile foreigners.

Such views could be regarded merely as colorful and anachronistic eccentricities if they were not voiced by someone who has held important public positions and who is therefore still regarded by many people as an expert. From such a source, they contribute seriously to weakening, not strengthening, the position of the United States in the world. For all John Bolton’s undeniable ability and strength of mind, his views and his style are a luxury the United States can no longer afford.

  1. 4

    Like his other opinions, Bolton’s position in favor of the policies of the state of Israel seems absolute—more so than that of a great number of Israelis. Any criticism of Israel’s policies or actions is to him hostile to Israel itself, a serious accusation that he levels at the UN Secretariat. It is true that Security Council or General Assembly resolutions—on Israeli occupation of Palestinian or Arab lands, for example—have often been called anti-Israel, especially in the United States.

    The Secretariat has a different role. In its work in the field (peacekeeping, truce observation, care of refugees, humanitarian relief, etc.), the Secretariat has to try to help all the parties to a conflict to avoid violence, to survive, and eventually to reach some satisfactory solution to their problems, both short-term and long-term. The UN staff must also report, as objectively as possible, on current developments as they occur. This applies to all field operations, and is not always an easy or popular task. It sometimes involves objections from one side or another. That is not evidence of anti-Palestinian or anti-Israeli, or anti–anyone else, attitudes, but part of the job.

  2. 5

    See my “The UN Oil-for-Food Program: Who Is Guilty?” The New York Review, February 9, 2006. The Volcker report on the Oil-for-Food Program, which Bolton calls “devastating” for the UN, states, “The Committee also believes that the successes of the Programme, although not extensively chronicled here, should not be buried by the allegations of corruption that have enjoyed so much attention in the media and elsewhere” (Vol. 1, p.13).

  3. 6

    Myers, “Bush Loyalist Sees a White House Dangerously Soft on Iran and North Korea.”

  4. 7

    The most recent example is the statement in The New York Sun of January 23 that Bolton, at a conference in Herzliya, “warned Israelis that the Bush administration is unlikely to act to halt Tehran’s nuclear race, and he urged Jerusalem to strike militarily.”

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