A “terrible choice at a critical time” were the words of dispraise offered by the New York Times when President Bush nominated John Bolton to be his ambassador to the United Nations in March 2005. One does not have to have shared that view to observe that the relentlessly conservative diplomat, a disciple of Barry Goldwater in his youth, much later of counsel to Senator Jesse Helms, has set off more than a few explosions in the minefields of Washington over the course of his career. Nor does one have to share the Times’s view to pick up Bolton’s memoir with trepidation.
The volume, with its belligerent title, Surrender Is Not An Option, flashing in embossed gold letters on a crimson dust jacket with a photo of its author draped in American flags as he addresses something called the Annual Conservative Political Action Conference, virtually screeches Hard Right. The package seems to suggest that a tirade might be coming between its covers.
The narrative begins with a compelling reconstruction of humble origins surmounted, or not so much surmounted as converted into character. The son of first-generation Scots-Irish immigrants, Bolton grew up in the 1950’s in a working-class neighborhood in Baltimore. His mother, a housewife, and his father, a firefighter, pushed him hard and he excelled, proceeding from a competitive Baltimore grade school and on to the Ivy League.
A fixed “libertarian conservative” by the time he arrived on the Yale campus in the fall of 1966, Bolton had little sympathy for the “flavor of the day” political strikes that began to sweep the university by his senior year. He especially resented the sons and daughters of the wealthy, of whom there were many, telling me that I was supposed to, in effect, forfeit my scholarship. I had an education to get, and the protesters could damn well get out of my way as I walked to class.
An education Bolton did indeed get, and not only at Yale, where he graduated summa cum laude and won a prize for the year’s best undergraduate essay in international relations, but also at Yale law school. Learning of a different sort continued in Washington, D.C., where, between stints in private practice, he occupied a series of progressively more challenging governmental slots.
By 1985, Bolton found himself in the Reagan Justice Department, where he was tasked with shepherding Supreme Court nominees through their confirmation hearings. He achieved a triumph with William Rehnquist (for the job of Chief Justice), another with Antonin Scalia, and a disastrous rout with Robert Bork. From there, after George Bush 41 defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bolton went on to become an assistant secretary of state under James Baker, with responsibility for international organizations.
Great events were unfolding in those years. Bolton offers a tour of the momentous issues with which he had to grapple, from the collapse of the USSR to the diplomacy leading up to Desert Storm to the campaign to repeal the UN’s infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution. This last undertaking, internally championed first by Bolton at his own initiative, was not, despite the obvious merits, an easy call.
At question was whether the U.S. might accomplish something that had become that rarest of rare things: a majority vote in the General Assembly on the American side. The Israelis were worried that a defeat would do more damage than simply leaving the resolution to molder on the shelves. Neither Baker nor Bush, absorbed in the effort to isolate Saddam Hussein, was initially enthusiastic. But they came around, and the campaign went forward: “We ‘demarched,’ the fancy diplomatic word for lobbying in foreign capitals, we pressed hard in New York, and we called in ambassadors in Washington. Bush and Baker were both ‘mad dialers’ by this time, as was I. Persistence paid off.” The resolution was repealed on December 16, 1991.
Following an eight-year hiatus from government service during the Clinton administration, Bolton returned, following George W. Bush’s election, as undersecretary of state to Colin Powell. In this higher position, where he held the arms-control and international-security portfolio, things were to become yet more interesting as even greater events came crashing all around.
In the aftermath of September 11, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, always a flawed agreement, had become an intolerable impediment to American self-defense: “Our intelligence had missed the preparations for this devastating attack [of 9/11], and there was no telling what else they were missing.” Developing the capacity to fend off a surprise missile attack, a project launched by Reagan in 1983, was now in Bolton’s eyes an urgent necessity. His assignment was to smooth the way out of the treaty and placate some very unhappy Russian officials, a process recounted here, meeting by meeting, in absorbing detail.
Nuclear proliferation was another assignment, with North Korea high on the list of dangerous offenders. Here the battle Bolton reconstructs was not only with the North Koreans but also with the “permanent bureaucracy” at State, which wanted to continue “to do exactly what it had been doing in the last years of the Clinton administration, and what it had tried unsuccessfully to do in Bush’s first two years”—namely, persuade the North to relinquish its nuclear-weapons program by means of jaw-jaw.
Bolton was pushing for a more forceful, and also more practical, approach, which came in the form of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Together with a core group of allies, the U.S. embarked on a policy aimed at physically interdicting shipments of weapons of mass destruction on the high seas. The first test case—that of the So San, a Cambodian-registered vessel making its way from North Korea toward Yemen—came in November 2002.
With Spanish naval forces demanding an inspection, the So San’s captain responded that the cargo in his hold was cement. But beneath bags of that commodity a consignment of Scud missiles was found. Though the Spaniards possessed the authority under international law to seize the weapons on their own, the U.S. State Department, whose high-level officials had been kept from their desks that day by an ice storm, was in unusually acute disarray: “fear from the lawyers . . . caused panic,” writes Bolton, and the So San was permitted to proceed.
If the first test of the PSI ended in failure, subsequent interdictions of ships carrying illicit cargo were far more successful, yielding, in one instance, a North Korean transport of hundreds of barrels of a precursor chemical for the manufacture of VX nerve gas, and in another even more crucial instance, centrifuge equipment labeled as “used auto parts” bound for Libya. The latter seizure set in motion the chain of events that led to the closure of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear yard sale in Pakistan and Libya’s renunciation of its WMD program, whose components it turned over to the United States.
But policy toward Pyongyang was not the only cause of bureaucratic strife within the department. Even more intense battles were to erupt as Bolton’s relations with his boss, Colin Powell, turned “seriously bad.” The proximate cause of the falling-out was differences over how best to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with Bolton pushing for a policy composed of more sticks and Powell pushing for a policy composed, in his own words, “mostly of carrots.”
This internal rift within the administration, retold here blow by blow, was to remain unresolved when the 2004 elections intervened. In the ensuing shuffle, Powell stepped down and Bush promoted Bolton to the ambassadorship at Turtle Bay, where his term was limited by a now-Democratic controlled Senate that refused to confirm him.
Bolton’s primary focus in his year in New York was reforming the world body, a longstanding imperative made even more pressing by the billion-dollar corruption scandal attending the UN’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq. But as Bolton found, it would take more than an irresistible force to budge an object as immovable as the UN bureaucracy. “Sisyphus in the Twilight Zone” is Bolton’s description of endless meetings to review discussion-documents written in UNspeak. The title of another Bolton chapter here—“Why Do I Want This Job?”—is apt, given the few satisfactions, apart from a suite in the Waldorf Astoria, that his relatively brief stint as UN ambassador entailed.
What then are we to make of John Bolton, and of his memoir? To take the second question first, anyone expecting a tirade will be happily disappointed. Having intermittently occupied a series of mid- to high-level posts in the diplomatic machinery of the U.S. government over more than two decades, Bolton is a meticulous observer of what he saw and heard and did. The result is a volume that is not just the story of one man’s career but a remarkably informative account of how our government works to formulate and execute foreign policy.
Thus, anyone seeking to understand bureaucratic warfare—the battles that go on among agencies, the battles between temporary political appointees and tenured Foreign Service officers, the production of diplomatic cables, talking points, demarches, and every other non-military instrument at the disposal of the U.S. government—will find this an indispensable inside account of how sausage, not always Grade A, is made at the Department of State. My one complaint on this score pertains to the endless array of acronyms that dot these pages—from UNMEE to G-77/Nam to JUSCANZ. These can induce fatigue even in a close student of international affairs, and the absence of a glossary to help sort things out is a crime worthy of an INTERPOL probe.
Altogether, Bolton comes across here as a figure strikingly different from the reckless, unilateralist, right-wing ideologue conjured up by the New York Times and others on the Left. Though in private practice he may have represented the reelection campaign of Jesse Helms, his patron if not his hero is none other than James Baker, the ultimate realist-pragmatist, a man whose political instincts, according to Bolton, were usually correct, and who sought to “maximize the yield in any given battle, rather than just opining about it, however satisfying opining might be.”
Bolton also comes across, surprisingly, as a stalwart champion of multilateralism and the very international organizations he is accused by his critics of wanting to wreck. But he is a defender of a particular kind of multilateralism and a particular kind of international organization. The campaign he led to repeal the shameful UN resolution equating Zionism with racism illustrates the point.
The General Assembly’s action in 1975, Bolton explains, was an attempt to delegitimize Israel. But, along the way, “it had instead delegitimized the UN,” especially in the minds of many Americans who became convinced, correctly, “that the UN was the hopeless captive of Soviet manipulation and third-world radicalism.” If the UN was to have a legitimate place in the American quest for a tranquil world order, freeing it from such captivity was an essential step.
Indeed, the nature of multilateralism itself had become perilously misconceived by the State Department bureaucracy. Addressing burning issues, like North Korea’s nuclear weapons, via endless discussions at hexagonal tables leading nowhere at the pace of coagulating molasses is not the only course open to us. The Proliferation Security Initiative that yielded such impressive results was the work of an ad-hoc alliance that included not only such friendly democracies as Japan, Spain, France, Germany, and the UnitedKingdom, but also, strikingly, Russia. This is a precedent rich with possibility for future American foreign policy.
If Bolton’s appointment to the United Nations was a “terrible choice at a critical time,” as the Times had it, one can only hope that more such terrible choices lie ahead, and that additional chapters, perhaps with titles like “Sisyphus in the CIA” or “Sisyphus in the Pentagon” or even “Sisyphus in the Oval Office,” will one day appear in Surrender Is Not An Option: Volume II.