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Bolton vs. Moynihan: Who’s Kidding Whom?

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  • Eric Alterman
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Arguments over John Bolton’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations touch on so many respective issues relating to the Bush administration and the far right’s success in manipulating media coverage, it stands as a case study in spin control.

At his confirmation hearings, we discovered that Bolton is a "bully" and "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy," according to Carl Ford, the former chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Ford, a loyal Republican and admirer of President Bush, explained that he hesitated about testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, yet felt that telling the truth about Bolton was more important than his political loyalties.

Ford’s comments referred to Bolton’s actions surrounding a speech he wanted to give claiming that the United States believed that Cuba was developing a biological warfare program in 2002. He had a problem, however, because the claim was false—or at least unsupportable. According to several accounts, Bolton flew off the handle when Christian Westermann, a career bioweapons intelligence specialist and decorated former naval officer, would not sign off on the speech’s phony claims.

According to Westermann, Bolton exploded over his alleged insubordination (known in the reality-based world as a concern for the truth) and sought to transfer him to another unit. Bolton also complained to Ford about a "midlevel munchkin analyst" trying to rewrite his speech. After Ford refused to have Westermann reassigned, Bolton stopped speaking to the man, demonstrating one of the most disturbing aspects of the administration’s ideological commitment: an unwillingness to listen to, much less address facts that appear inconvenient to your arguments.

Luckily for Bolton, however, he had the New York Times’ Judith Miller to call on in his time of need to help spread his false innuendo. As blogger Michael Berube points out, in May 2002 Miller told CNN, "Yes, there is a lot of activity that is suspicious [in Cuba]. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence. And there are a lot of very unsavory contacts, as the administration regards them, between Cuba and especially Iranians who are involved in biological weapons."

These bouts of anger, lashing out and rushing to faulty judgments are described by conservative apologists in the media as examples of Bolton’s "outspokenness." This meme got its start on the day Bolton was nominated, when Condi Rice laid the groundwork by saying, "Through history, some of our best ambassadors have been those with the strongest voices, ambassadors like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan." As Media Matters has noted, The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, CNN, David Brooks (on PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer), CNBC, FOX and a gaggle of blogs have all picked up on the laughably erroneous comparison between Bolton and Moynihan.

A few have stepped up to correct this willful obfuscation of the historical record. The late senator’s daughter Maura recently reminded us of her father’s true legacy in Newsday, comparing some telling public statements made by the two men that demonstrate the absurdity of the comparison, so generously passed along by the media.

To cite just one example of the vast gap between the philosophies of these two men, Moynihan points to a statement Bolton made in 1999: "It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law because over the long term the goal of those who think that
international law really means anything are [sic] those who want to constrict the United States."

Now compare this to Moynihan’s observation published in his 1990 book, On the Law of Nations: "A great many people seem to think of law as a kind of self-imposed restraint on America’s ability to act decisively or with force in world affairs. This misstates what law is, and obscures the fact that international law can actually enhance the national security of the United States."

And what of this observation from a 1984 speech Moynihan gave at Syracuse University: "International law is a practical need, as much as domestic law is a practical need. Absent law, there would be no sanction for conduct that injures society."

Can this world view really be compared to a nominee who claimed, in 1994, that "There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is an international community that can occasionally be led by the only real power left in the world and that is the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along." And what of the fellow who suggested not long ago that it might not be a bad idea simply to lop of the "top ten stories" of the U.N. building?

Let us also recall that while Moynihan actively championed diplomacy and international norms and rules, Bolton, over the last several years, has managed to secure America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, alienated both North Korea and Iran through his irresponsible comments, killed a draft on enforcing the Biological Weapons Convention, had the chief of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons removed, and campaigned for America’s abandonment of the International Criminal Court.

After Bolton’s first day of grilling before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both the New York Post and the Washington Times wrote unsigned editorials comparing Bolton’s "outspokenness" with Moynihan’s yet again. In reality, these two men represent competing, contradictory worldviews. Pat Moynihan was a blunt man, no doubt, but he advocated a system of international norms respectful of cultural and ideological diversity. John Bolton’s view can be summed up in the adage "might makes right," even when it’s wrong.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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