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.

John Bolton
John Bolton; drawing by John Springs

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…

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