Conversion Diversion

By now, John Bolton's crass assessment of the utility of 10 floors of the UN building in New York is well known. Known, too, is his disdain for the very idea of international law and his dealings with foreign agents. Indeed, in his decades in and out of public service and think tankdom, he has developed a reputation as one of Washington, D.C.'s less diplomatic figures.

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are poised to unite in their opposition to Bolton, whom the president has nominated as United States ambassador to the United Nations. They may be joined by one of three Republican moderates on the committee -- Chuck Hagel, Dick Lugar, or Lincoln Chafee -- thereby preventing the committee from recommending Bolton to the full Senate. The challenge for Democrats is to prove Bolton's radicalism to these swayable Republicans at Thursday's confirmation hearing.

But Bolton has fought this battle before. In President George W. Bush's first term, Bolton narrowly won confirmation as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Then, as now, his history of immoderation caught up with him, and he won confirmation only by virtue of a few Democratic defections. If Bolton wins confirmation this time around, it will likely be because he's able to convince the moderate Republicans that, in his new post, he'll serve only as a steward of Bush's agenda at the United Nations and will not pursue his own agenda.

And that may just work, for he's hoodwinked the committee with that line before.

Back in March 2001, fresh from litigating on Bush's behalf in the Florida recount, Bolton faced a sharply divided committee. Seizing upon a 1999 Los Angeles Times op-ed, in which Bolton characterized the Agreed Framework for North Korea as “egregiously wrong” and argued that one aspect of that Clinton-era policy amounted to appeasement, Senator John Kerry asked Bolton whether he still stood behind those statements. At the time, the nominee's presumptive bosses, Colin Powell and George W Bush, both remained publicly committed to the Agreed Framework.

The query was thus meant to trap Bolton, but he didn't take the bait. In an answer that Kerry later characterized as Bolton's “confirmation conversion,” the skilled trial lawyer parlayed his response into a pledge of fealty. “The secretary and the president have said that the United States supports the agreed framework, and I will adhere to that policy. I understand what intellectual integrity is,” Bolton explained, “I understand what the chain of command is. I understand what loyalty is. And I don't think those three things are at all necessarily inconsistent.”

And with that declaration, Bolton seemed to convince the moderates in the committee that he'd be a responsible public servant, respectful of the chain of command and protocol. Now, as Bolton faces the committee again, it would behoove senators to ask whether, over the last four years, Bolton has lived up to that pledge.

They might start by taking a look at a controversy surrounding Bolton that arose barely six months into the job. On his excellent blog,, Steve Clemons reported that Bolton forged a renegade campaign to withdraw the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In an early example of Bolton's unhinged unilateralism at the State Department, he announced to the Russian media that Russia had a deadline of November 2001 to accommodate to the U.S. position on ballistic missile defense testing, or the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the treaty. While the Bush administration did eventually abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Bolton was never vested with the authority to level that threat. Apparently, Bolton tried on his own to set the terms under which the United States would withdraw from the treaty, and he crossed Powell in the process.

To be sure, that wasn't the only time that Bolton ignored protocol at the State Department to serve his quirky ends. According to Seymour M. Hersh's October 2003 article in The New Yorker on the phenomenon of intelligence “stovepiping” -- the process by which raw intelligence bypassed the normal professional analysis and ended up in the hands of political appointees -- Bolton deliberately kicked a professional intelligence analyst (from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research) out of his morning briefings. Apparently, the analyst, an expert on disarmament, hadn't been telling him what he wanted to hear about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction so Bolton found a way to access raw intelligence data that he could sift through himself. The problem is, according to the analyst, his posting had been mandated by the secretary of state himself.

These are but two examples are part of a pattern by which Bolton refuses to subordinate himself to those above his pay grade. Though there is little indication that Bolton has any capacity for reform, he's slick. He'll try to convince the committee's moderate Republicans that, once again, his only agenda is the faithful execution of the president's foreign policy at the United Nations. The problem is, it's been four years since Bolton's gamed them with a variation of that same guarantee.

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.

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