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Who Is John Bolton?

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He has been called a “treaty-killer” and a “guided missile.”[i] He is known as the “undersecretary for chads” and the “anti-diplomat.”[ii] Recently he called concerns over how many nuclear weapons North Korea possesses “quibbling.” [iii] And, former Sen. Jesse Helms thinks of him as “the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at the gates of Armageddon.”[iv] And, if President Bush has his way, John Bolton will now answer to the title of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

At first blush, the choice may seem odd. After all, before entering the Bush administration in 2001, Bolton was infamous as a right-wing ideologue opposed to anything and everything that smacked of U.S. cooperation with or support for the United Nations. “If [the UN Secretariat building] lost 10 stories,” Bolton once quipped, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

Yet, Bolton’s hostility towards the UN, together with his considerable experience dealing with the body during his tenure as undersecretary on such things as Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Security Council 1540, might make him the perfect candidate for the job in an administration that refuses to recognize the importance of global cooperation for achieving our national security goals: to slay the beast, you have to know the beast.

Preventing a nuclear Armageddon is exactly what John Bolton’s job entails. He has served as the under secretary of state for arms control and international security since 2001. For the last three years he has been tasked with trying to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons and negotiate treaties for the Bush administration.

As undersecretary, Bolton’s job has included directing and coordinating arms control policy, nonproliferation policy, military assistance for the State Department and foreign assistance programs. Perhaps the most apt critique of his nomination to this post was offered by Sen. Joseph Biden who said, “I have always voted against nominees who oppose the avowed purpose of the position for which they have been nominated.”[v] A former colleague from American Enterprise Institute (AEI) notes that “[Bolton] rejects completely the notion that foreign policies are good to the extent that the Belgians like them.”[vi]

Though he is not someone who regularly appears in newspapers, Bolton has held a number of positions throughout the past three Republican administrations. He is a walking history book of the right-wing movement; his moves and career reveal much about the players and policies of conservatives in the late 20th century.

Like many in the Bush administration, Bolton’s first campaign experience came during Barry Goldwater’s campaign, for which he volunteered in high school. He went on to be editor-in-chief of the Yale Conservative and a four-year member of the Yale Young Republicans. As one friend points out, Bolton’s experience as a conservative at a liberal college prepared him well for his role at the State Department, “Bolton was at Yale in the late 1960s. How different can that be from the State Department today?”[viii]

Bolton stayed at Yale to receive his law degree and rode into the Reagan administration on James Baker’s coattails.[ix] He started at USAID, and by 1984, he was assistant attorney general. His name is connected to a host of conservative causes during the 1980s. In the Reagan administration he conducted a review for the Justice Department to determine if any senior administration officials were involved in supplying arms to the Nicaraguan Contras. He also served as point-person in the doomed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.[x] Under George H.W. Bush he advanced to assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

Like other exiled neo-cons, Bolton spent the eight years of the Clinton presidency working in Washington on the outskirts of the government. He was both a lawyer and a Senior Vice President at the conservative AEI.

While at AEI, he testified in front of Congress and wrote a number of scholarly articles, providing fodder for Democrats to oppose his nomination in the Bush administration and reasons for Republicans to support it. From calling support of the International Criminal Court the product of “fuzzy-minded romanticism [that] is not just naïve, but dangerous” to discussing North Korean policy by saying that “sounder U.S. policy would start by making it clear to the North that we are indifferent to whether we ever have ‘normal’ diplomatic relations with it,” he made it easy for Democrats to find evidence on why this was not the man to lead the diplomatic team negotiating treaties.[xi]

Bolton was in South Korea on an AEI assignment when he received a call from long-time mentor James Baker, who was leading the charge on the Florida recount in 2000. Baker told him to get on the next plane, which he did. After working as a lawyer with the Republican team in Florida, he grabbed reporters’ attention when he burst into a Tallahassee library announcing ”I’m with the Bush-Cheney team, and I’m here to stop the count.”[xii]

Though he owes his first experience in government to Baker, it is because of the Senate Foreign Relations Chair at the time – Sen. Jesse Helms – that he secured such an important position in the current Bush administration. Perhaps the single most disruptive force in the State Department, he brought in many of his prodigies to populate the department considered more dovish due to its diplomatic responsibilities. The “exotic specimen” at the State Department, he sees the world in a Hobbesian manner where only fittest survive. According to his views, multilateral treaties supported by international bureaucracies do not a strong, secure nation make. Many officials in the administration may agree with him. Where Bolton draws fire and ire is from his blunt and anything-but-diplomatic exclamations.

For instance, on the eve of talks with North Korea about their nuclear weapons, Bolton took a novel approach to public diplomacy and publicly called King Jong Il a “tyrannical dictator” and an “evil regime.” The State Department was forced to send a replacement representative after North Korea responded by calling Bolton “human scum” and stating their objection to negotiating with him.[xiii] Bolton’s resistance to carrots and multi-lateralism helped stall approaches to North Korea for months.

Indeed, Bolton has no lack of detractors. However, for every progressive detractor of Bolton’s there is a conservative supporter. Daryll Kimball of the Arms Control Association has said that “Bolton has confused having a name-calling strategy with having an effecting non-proliferation strategy.” AEI colleague Christopher DeMuth though, tosses it up to the fact that “He is very plainspoken for a diplomat. He’s working in a world where the custom is to cover things in euphemism and indirection.”[xiv]

Though many on the left of the aisle do not agree with his views, few can claim him as incompetent. Indeed, Bolton has been effective: in his first one-and-a half years in office the U.S. pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, scuttled a protocol to the biological-weapons ban, ousted the head of the organization that oversees the chemical-weapons treaty, watered down an accord on small-arms trafficking and refused to submit the nuclear test-ban treaty for Senate ratification.[xv]

At this point it is clear that the world Bolton has left us four years later is one that is more dangerous. He can only do more damage from a position of greater power.

Brooke Lierman is the special assistant to the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.

More on John Bolton


[iii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A62727-2004Oct25.html “Unprecedented Peril Forces Tough Calls”

[iv] Salon.com

[v] Arms Control Association: Philip Bleek June 2001 “Senate Narrowly Confirms Bolton to Top Arms Control Post.”

[vi] Thompson, Nicholas. John Bolton vs. the world. July 16, 2003. www.Salon.com

[viii] Slavin, Barbara and Nichols, Bill. “State Dept. hawk has firm hand in policies.” USA Today, December 1, 2003.

[x] Thompson, Nicholas. John Bolton vs. the world. July 16, 2003. www.Salon.com

[xii] http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0715-01.htm ; After thanking Bolton for his services in Florida, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney had this reply when asked what job Bolton should get in the new administration: “People ask what [job] John should get,” Mr. Cheney said. “My answer is, anything he wants.” – Newsmax

[xiii] “North Korea Bans Bolton from Talks,” AP, 8/3/03. http://washingtontimes.com/world/20030804-121425-6611r.htm

[xiv] Kukis, Mark. “Conservative in State.” The National Journal, April 3, 2004.

[xv] Iron hand in the velvet glove of the state dept – News Max

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