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On November 17, 1997, the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed in which the author expressed, in unequivocal terms, his intemperate and dismissive attitude towards Washington’s adherence to multilateral international accords, writing “treaties are law only for U.S. domestic purposes. In their international operation, treaties are simply political obligations.” The author of this piece, whose conclusions were widely disputed by individuals far more knowledgeable on the subject than himself, is current Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, the man now being mentioned to replace Richard Armitage as Deputy Secretary of State under Condoleezza Rice and an unwavering neoconservative ideologue in the most ultra sense of the word. Ultraright elements in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress are strongly pushing for Bolton to be nominated, for they see in him the ideal candidate to help Rice mold the State Department to their profile. Such an appointment will assure that State officials will harmonize their thrust with the rest of the Bush administration’s ideologically-driven foreign policy agenda.
For a government agency whose stated mission is to “create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community,” to have as one of its chief policymakers a man who whose career reads as a what-not-to-do handbook on consensus building and international diplomacy, would be totally incomprehensible. In fact, it is nearly unfathomable to imagine a candidate less qualified and more ill-prepared for the State Department’s second highest-ranking position and dangerous to long-term U.S. national interests as Bolton. The singularity of the stand that he has taken over the years on a wide range of issues underlines this claim. His nomination will signify to the world that Washington believes constructive engagement is neither required nor desirable for self-serving U.S. objectives to prevail.
Talk Forcefully and Carry a Big Stick
Throughout his career in both the public and private sector, John Bolton has demonstrated a disturbingly constant tendency to disregard facts, as well as a self-righteous attitude towards achieving selfish and even dangerous foreign policy goals, always seen through the prism of a U.S. unilateral agenda. In 2001, at the onset of the Bush administration, Bolton set the tone for what would turn out to be his unique contribution when he pontificated that, “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States.”
Accordingly, in an article published in the Winter 1998 issue of the conservative journal The National Interest, Bolton expanded on his vehement opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In it, he reasoned that if Washington were to ratify the accord, it would limit this country’s foreign policy initiatives, since “the president, the cabinet officers who comprise the National Security Council, and other senior civilian and military leaders responsible for our defense and foreign policy,” would become “the potential targets of the politically unaccountable Prosecutor created in Rome.” What he failed to consider is that prosecution before the ICC would be reserved as a last resort to redress blatantly criminal behavior such as genocide; his words suggest that, according to his view, Washington’s actions should not be restricted by or put to the test of any notion of international legality or, for that matter, morality.
In support of his position he goes on to criticize Judge Baltasar Garzón for having the audacity to attempt to detain and extradite Augusto Pinochet during a trip that the former Chilean dictator was making to the U.K. The famed Spanish jurist wanted Pinochet to be brought to Spain to stand trial for a number of Spanish victims among the estimated 3,000 killings and missing-persons cases blamed on Pinochet’s rule. According to Bolton, after seventeen years of military dictatorship, several thousand forced disappearances, institutionalized torture and politically motivated assassinations under Pinochet, “Chileans made their choice, and have lived with it.” This type of callous and uninformed assessment of the situation reflects the type of prescriptive policymaking Bolton calls for towards the region and indeed the world.
A major component of Bolton’s foreign policy agenda has focused on a strict advocacy of structural market reforms meant to further enrich multinational corporations at the expense of efforts aimed at significantly improving basic living standard in developing countries. His position on the subject is starkly evident in a June 25, 1995 Op-Ed published in the Washington Times in which he criticized the Clinton administration for continued funding of “programs on international population control and environmental matters rather than fundamental economic policy reforms in developing countries” and further assailed then Vice-President Al Gore for his “preference for condoms and trees instead of markets.” These will be the types of initiatives that are sure to gain credence if Bolton is chosen as the State Department’s second in command.
In the aforementioned The National Interest article, Bolton also briefly refers to Washington’s decision to withdraw from the mandatory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the predecessor to the ICC. In 1986, the ICJ ruled that the U.S. had violated its obligations not to use force against and not to violate the sovereignty of another state as a result of its continued “military and paramilitary operations in and against” Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Instead of Washington abiding by the ruling in other words, accepting responsibility for what was found to be its criminal behavior the Reagan administration decided to ignore the court’s decision. Washington continued to support the Contras’ violent insurgency against a government with which Washington had full diplomatic relations, until the Sandinistas were democratically defeated (with the U.S. providing major funding for the opposition) in the country’s 1990 presidential elections. Bolton refers to the ICJ’s ruling as “erroneous,” a position that is consistent with his belief that the White House must be free to act without restriction or fear of reprisal.
As Assistant Attorney General, a position he held from 1985 to 1989, he was also instrumental in Justice Department efforts to withhold information regarding the Iran-Contra affair, which included his own personal notes on the scandal, and aided Congressional Republicans who were hard at work attempting to obstruct ongoing investigations into alleged Contra drug smuggling. He even went as far as to call an unauthorized press conference in which he lashed out at the investigating special prosecutors, leading then White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, acting on behalf of the same government officials Bolton was defending, to refer to him and his actions as “intemperate and contentious.”
No Evidence? Just Make it Up
One of Bolton’s most outlandish public charges, but one that is quintessential of his method of operation, was his May 6, 2002 claim that not only did Cuba possess “at least a limited offensive biological warfare research development effort,” but that, indeed, it had provided such technology to “other rogue states.” Bolton’s career preoccupation with Cuba-bashing was now aimed at attempting to have the Castro regime included among President Bush’s infamous Axis of Evil category. In what amounted to little more than preaching to the choir, Bolton presented his thesis to an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation. As it turned out, his charges were so bereft of any substance or even a tincture of verisimilitude that even his Bush administration colleagues rushed to disavow any association with them. In addition to refutations by both Secretary of State Colin Powell (who said “we didn’t actually say it [Cuba] had some weapons”) and former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command Gen. Charles Wilhelm (who stated he had never received any evidence to support Bolton’s claim and that he was within the loop for such privileged information), even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield indicated to reporters that he was unaware of any links connecting Cuba’s biomedical industry to bio-weaponry research.
Despite being called upon to do so by several Senators, Bolton refused to attend a Senate hearing where he could present any evidence of Cuba’s alleged bioweapons program, a rather telltale admission that he would be unable to substantiate his charge under sworn testimony. The dearth of any compelling evidence linking Cuba’s highly lauded pharmaceutical industry to terrorism was eventually confirmed by a 2004 wide-ranging Congressional investigation into government intelligence estimates, which peeled away at the last vestiges of credibility behind Bolton’s assertions.
Bolton’s 2002 Cuba charge is emblematic of his contempt for the facts and his shoot-from-the-hip style for which he has become infamous. In fact, a scrutiny of Bolton’s professional career reveals why he has become such a favorite among hardline neoconservatives. Not only are his positions on a wide range of issues stridently to the right of mainstream opinion even by the standards of this administration he also has shown an uncontrollable need to engage in hyperbole, and, on more than one occasion, outright prevarication. Fortunately for his critics, his excesses, coupled with his possessing perhaps the most radicalized ideological profile in the senior ranks of the State Department or in indeed perhaps the entire Bush administration, are predictive of his habitually skewed way of thinking.
At a 1994 panel discussion sponsored by the World Federalist Association, for example, he stated “There is no such thing as the United Nations,” spookily adding “‘if the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” If anything, Bolton’s comments regarding the UN may have been born more out of wishful thinking than anything else, considering that he has always viewed the world body as an illegitimate and bothersome restraint on what he believes is Washington’s inviolable right of unilateral action. In a direct attack on the UN’s ability to restrict the use of force, published in the Weekly Standard in 1999 under the title Kofi Annan’s UN Power Grab, he reasserted his scriptural fidelity to unilateralism, writing that if Washington were to overly legitimize the UN, “its discretion in using force to advance its national interests is likely to be inhibited in the future.”
Bolton’s unqualified attacks on his chosen targets continued in 1999 when, following the Senate defeat of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a gloating Bolton characterized supporters of the ban as “misguided individuals following a timid and neo-pacifist line of thought.” In 2002 he went so far as to directly challenge Washington’s long-standing pledge to limit a nuclear response only to attacks from a nuclear-armed foe, calling any such agreement “an unrealistic view of the international situation.” More recently, Bolton has targeted two prominent and reputable international figures as part of his vindictive campaign against all those who oppose the White House’s aggressive unilateral foreign policy agenda. Both Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Hans Blix, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, had criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq, characterizing it as premature and unjustified, and consequently Bolton is adamant about their removal. On December 12, the Washington Post reported that ElBaradei has earned Bolton’s ire as a result of both his Iraq position as well as for his commitment to reaching a negotiated settlement regarding Iran nuclear programs. Bolton has been instrumental in having the CIA and the NSA spy on both men, hoping to discover evidence that would lead to their removal from their posts.
Diplomacy: Just Say No
During a 2001 UN Conference on Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, Bolton once again came out with all guns blazing, telling delegates that Washington was opposed to any move to restrict civilian access to weapons or a treaty that would serve to “abrogat[e] the constitutional right to bear arms.” This extension of NRA-type thinking into the international sphere effectively undermines even preliminary attempts to demilitarize such ongoing conflicts like those now seen in Colombia and the Sudan as well as multilateral efforts to combat astronomically high rates of gun-related crime in Latin America and elsewhere by curtailing the illegal shipment of small arms from the U.S. to the region.
His lack of diplomatic tact was again on display later that year, when he scuttled efforts to add a negotiated verification process to an international bio-weapons ban, by telling other conference participants that the provision was, “dead, dead, dead, and I don’t want it coming back from the dead.” He saw no discrepancy between his accusations against Cuba and his negative stand on the international bioweapons ban. Additionally, following the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the ICC, Bolton asked and was granted permission to sign his name on the letter notifying the UN of Washington’s actions, which was somewhat bizarre since he had played no official role in the decision-making process. The move was simply symbolic, a need for a zealot to be heard: as he later told the Wall Street Journal, it was “the happiest moment of [his] government service.”
Not surprisingly, according to Bolton’s view, constitutional protections of the right of free speech do not appear to carry the same weight as the precious right to bear arms. This is particularly true when political dissent stands in direct opposition to his myopic worldview. Regarding his ill-temper towards civic participation in the policymaking process, he criticized “the promotion of international advocacy activity by international or non-governmental organizations.”
Latin America has Much to Fear
If Bush nominates Bolton to the second highest-ranking position at the State Department, and if the latter survives what will likely be a very difficult Senate confirmation process under the scrutiny of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN), the decision will have markedly long-lasting repercussions in Latin America. Washington’s bilateral relations with the newly emerging coalition of left-of-center governments in Caracas, Brasilia, Buenos Aires and Montevideo, among others, likely will rapidly sour, as the latter will accurately interpret Bolton’s ascension as reflecting a significant shift of U.S. foreign policy much further to the right than has been in evidence even during the last four difficult years under Bush. Bolton’s past actions and public record have demonstrated that he is either oblivious to or unconcerned with the root causes for Latin America’s many ills, such as its pressing need for socioeconomic and governmental reforms and its possessing the most skewed wealth distribution in the world.
Bolton has otherwise focused on counterproductive quick-fix solutions that usually end up only responding to Washington’s narrow self interests, such as blind adherence to neoliberal reforms, while leaving a majority of Latin Americans worse off than before. Furthermore, his overriding obsession with U.S. dominance and the protection of its power, his nostalgia for Cold War-era tactics and his fervent backing of every one of Washington’s frequent interventions in the region will likely signify a quick death for whatever constructive dialogue might have been possible between Washington and a continent increasingly skeptical of the former’s goodwill regarding its basic regional interests.
Gabriel Espinosa Gonzales is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.