In their continuing effort to “evaluate” John Bolton’s bid to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Senate Democrats have tried to dig up every detail they can on Bolton except one: what he’s actually achieved in the last four years. The reason (besides their not wanting to) is that much of what Bolton has done has been obscured by his style, which in more respects than is generally appreciated is quite private. In fact, on more than a few occasions, Mr. Bolton challenged assumptions by the Defense Department, the National Security Council staff, and even his own department, persuaded them of his views, and then moved on. Others would have crowed or would have had someone crow for them. Bolton, though, saw no point in doing this. This makes unearthing his track record more difficult. Yet, if one bothers to look, it’s there.
What examples are there? At least three.
The Proliferation Security Initiative. Many of Bolton’s supporters credit him with this nonproliferation initiative but they don’t quite explain why. That is unfortunate, because further explanation would not only show what he contributed substantively but it would also clarify his bureaucratic skills. Certainly, if Bolton had not kept up the pressure to push this initiative, which even his most partisan critics now praise, it would not have been realized. In fact, the tipping point on whether the U.S. would encourage the interdiction of illicit shipments of strategic weapons-related goods came when the administration actually chose to loosen its grip on a North Korean shipment of 15 SCUD missiles bound for Yemen. The Spanish navy interdicted this shipment in December of 2002 but Yemen demanded that the ship be allowed to deliver its goods. Secretary of State Powell and Vice President Cheney then quickly decided to let the shipment go. The U.S., it was argued, lacked any clear legal basis for holding up the shipment (the only international embargo operating at the time was on weapons bound for Iraq). Besides, the White House needed Yemen’s support for U.S. special forces operating in that country against al Qaeda operatives.
Never mind that the government of Yemen had previously pledged to the U.S. that it would not to acquire long-range missiles from North Korea. Nor did it seem to matter that in 1992, the presidents of the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council had formally declared that the proliferation of all kinds posed a threat to international security. On the very day that the administration caved to Yemeni demands, the White House released a major policy statement, which Bolton had long worked on, endorsing the idea that the U.S. interdict illicit shipments of strategic-weapons-related goods and technology.
For Bolton and his supporters, the shipment release decision was a disappointment. Yet Bolton held his tongue and publicly backed his superiors. He did not, however, give up. Instead, he worked with the National Security Council and pushed even harder to make the interdiction of such shipments in the future more likely. As a result, within weeks, the president had a memo to sign backing such interdictions. It was unclear whether anything would come of the president’s approving the memo, though, until Bolton and his staff went to the additional bother of developing a sophisticated multilateral strategy that initially used existing national export-control authorities to garner support for conducting and training to make such interdictions. This and several months of unpublicized multilateral diplomacy executed by Bolton and the National Security Council cleared the way for the president’s May 2003 announcement of the initiative.
United Nations Resolution 1540. One of the nonproliferation ideas Rice backed early on in Bush’s first term was to get a United Nations resolution that would require all states to criminalize the transfer of strategic-weapons-related goods by private parties (e.g., the A. Q. Khan network); enact and enforce effective export controls; and secure dangerous strategic-weapons materials. This proposal now is among the most useful United Nations nonproliferation efforts currently being implemented and, again, is roundly praised by most of the administration’s harshest critics. What no one talks about, though, is Bolton’s critical role in convincing Russia and China to back it. In fact, State Department officials had all but given up moving the resolution because of Chinese and Russian opposition to having the United Nations take such issues on when Bolton volunteered and met privately in Washington and New York with Russia’s and China’s top officials. He made arguments, not concessions; explained why the United Nations actually was the right place to push the imitative; and, to everyone’s amazement, brought China and Russia on board.
Blocking Unbalanced Missile Defense Cooperation. Pushing missile defenses is one of the Bush administration’s key objectives. It is backed even more (if that is possible) at the Department of Defense and by Bolton himself, who with the National Security Council laid out the reasons for withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Yet, when the Department of Defense wanted to authorize an Israeli transfer of U.S.-origin missile-defense technology to India, Bolton intervened. First, the Israeli missile-defense system in question, the Arrow, was larger than what is generally allowed under the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral export-control understanding the U.S. helped establish during the Reagan years. Second, if the U.S. gave Israel a green light on the transfer, it would instantly prompt Pakistan to demand at least as much from the U.S., which, in turn, would excite the Indian military even more. In short, without first laying out an approach that could establish Pakistani-Indian rapprochement, forwarding Israeli missile-defense systems to India would simply aggravate the unhealthy military competitions already in play between New Delhi and Islamabad. Bolton made these points and held his ground. The transfer was never made.
There are other stories besides these three. All of them are worth pursuing. If nothing else, examining them is critical to understanding who John Bolton is and what kind of United Nations ambassador he might make. Indeed, what’s telling (and that arguably deserves a separate investigation) is how little attention his accomplishments have so far received.
–Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and editor of Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions with Patrick Clawson.