Beware of Bolton

John Bolton, the Under Secretary of State for Disarmament Affairs and International Security, can get a lot done in one day. On May 6, in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation, he added Cuba, Syria and Libya to the administration's "axis of evil" hit list. That same day, Bolton sent a letter to the United Nations reversing President Clinton's decision to back the founding of the International Criminal Court.

"Unsigning" the Rome statute does not really fall into Bolton's bailiwick. But the busy right-wing hawk has never let his job title blunt his ambition. His ability to usurp the ICC decision reveals his success in building a power base for unilateralism in the State Department, which his allies on the right have traditionally regarded as the bastion of soft, liberal multilateralism. In recent months, he has emerged as an energetic force trying to return the Bush administration to its pre-Sept. 11 habits of unilateralism, thumbing its nose at the rest of the world.

So who is Bolton?

In Washington, he is widely regarded as Senator Jesse Helms' political heir. The two men share the same contempt for the United Nations, and most of the rest of the world. Helms once praised Bolton as "a treasured friend" and "patriot" and "a brilliant thinker and writer." He also served in the first Bush administration as assistant secretary of state for international organizations under another key Republican mentor, James Baker.

During the Clinton years, he served as vice president at the American Enterprise Institute -- the conservative think tank that houses Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Lynne Cheney – where he made no effort to hide his deep contempt for the United Nations. In 1994 he said "there is no such thing as the United Nations" and "if the UN Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

But his disdain for the organization did not stop him from taking a job as James Baker’s assistant on the egregiously stalled UN mission to the Western Sahara in 1997. He was also happy to pocket $30,000 in fees from the Taiwanese to write position papers for them on how they should go about becoming members of the very organization whose credibility and very existence he questioned.

At the time Bolton was appointed, Beltway opinion held that he was forced on Colin Powell against the latter's (much better) judgment. But Bolton had all the right credentials. Apart from the support of Helms and Baker, he also served as Ed Meese's deputy during the chad-hunting controversy in Palm Beach, Florida.

Powell appears to have little control over his unruly underling, whose opinions and style are radically different. John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, says Colin Powell has been reluctant to pick a fight with Bolton. "So the State Department has taken a lot of positions ... that seem strange considering who’s Secretary of State," he says.

While Powell seems to think that treaties and allies should be taken seriously, Bolton subscribes to the Bush doctrine. The US should "recognize obligations only when it's in our interest," he says. He told a conference that in international operations there are simply "political obligations," presumably to be ignored when inexpedient. And as for allies, he declared that "the Europeans can be sure that America's days as a well-bred doormat for EU political and military protections are coming to an end."

Jesse Helms, when endorsing his nomination, said, "John Bolton is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon, if it should be my lot to be on hand for what is forecast to be the final battle between good and evil in this world." His statement may well prove ironic. If Bolton has his way, there are serious grounds for thinking that Armageddon is closer than the rest of us would like. Bolton's title has an Orwellian ring to it: Here's an undersecretary of state for disarmament who is pushing for a U.S. armed to its teeth.

Bolton is an active proponent of Star Wars, and when the Senate voted not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), he gloated "CTBT is dead." And although polls show that more nearly 80 percent of Americans support a ban on all underground tests, Bolton mocked supporters of the test-ban treaty as "misguided individuals following a timid and neo-pacifist line of thought." In an interview with Arms Control magazine after taking office, Bolton caused a stir by seeming to back off the "no first use" policy of that has been the underpinning of the non-proliferation nuclear treaty.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who vigorously opposed Bolton's nomination, made a remarkably prescient statement at his confirmation hearing: "To nominate Mr. John Bolton to be Under Secretary of State for Arms Control defies logic. The answer from the President, it seems to me, in sending this nomination to the Senate is no; we don't intend to lead on anything. We intend to do our own thing notwithstanding what anybody else thinks about it, and notwithstanding the consequences."

Bolton has more than fulfilled his expectations. He is an active member of the "Topple Saddam" brigade in the White House. Given the lack of evidence of Baghdad's involvement in Sept. 11, Bolton and his friends fervently hope that Saddam Hussein will be stupid enough to continue to refuse UN inspectors and give them the required pretext. The Washington Post revealed that Bolton also had the CIA investigate Hans Blix, the former head of the Atomic Agency who is now head of UNMOVIC, the UN team waiting to go in when Saddam Hussein has a rational moment. He was reportedly very angry when the agency could find no evidence of backsliding by Blix. Bolton led a successful three-month battle to overthrow Jose Bustani, the newly re-elected head of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, who was deposed in April for trying to get Iraq to sign the Convention on Chemical Weapons.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan may well be his next target. In 1999 Bolton wrote for the Weekly Standard, "Not only is the Annan doctrine limitless in its purported reach, it also greatly inhibits America’s ability (and everyone else’s, for that matter) to use force to protect and advance its vital national interests." Bolton added, "If the United States allows that claim to go unchallenged, its discretion in using force to advance its national interests is likely to be inhibited in the future."

Some believe Bolton is positioning himself to succeed his retiring mentor, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, as the intellectual power behind their brand of diplomatic redneckery. The North Carolina senator has praised his heir apparent lavishly. "[H]e is a man with the courage of his convictions. John says what he means and means what he says," Helms says. Still, Washington insiders believe his political prospects are hampered by an intellectual arrogance that won't sit well with GOP activists, whose presidential figurehead seems to draw a lot of his popularity from a real or feigned stupidity.

Ian Williams is the United Nations correspondent for The Nation.

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