How does it happen that the story of Colin Powell’s reservations about John Bolton shows up today simultaneously on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, just in time to fuel anti-Bolton talk on the Sunday chat shows? Because Powell and those around him are masters of the strategic leak. Friday morning’s stories aren’t technically news because it was clear that this is what was happening from the beginning: namely, that the long-running policy disputes between Bolton and Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage were simply being played out in a new forum, the battle over Bolton’s nomination to be ambassador to the U.N.
This offers an opportunity for Bolton defenders to try to get the debate back where it belongs, on the substantive merits of his nomination rather than the sideshow disputes over whether he has occasionally spoken sharply to people and the 11-year-old off-the-wall allegation of abuse by the founder of the Dallas chapter of “Mothers Opposing Bush.” Bolton has been nominated not to “serve” the United Nations, as liberals have it, but to serve the president of the United States and the goals of his foreign policy there. He is such a superb choice partly because there is as little chance of him being captured by the U.N. bureaucracy as there was of him being captured by the State Department bureaucracy. We would expect and hope that at the end of Bolton’s tenure at the U.N. he will have earned just as much enmity from recalcitrant bureaucrats at Turtle Bay as he did at Foggy Bottom.
This was at the root of Bolton’s dispute with Powell. Since he has no strong philosophical moorings himself, Powell quickly became the servant of the permanent State Department establishment, for whom Bush’s post-9/11 reorienting of U.S. foreign policy was discomfiting at best. Bolton was not just a believer in Bush’s foreign policy, but regarded it as his professional duty to represent it in a building where he knew it wouldn’t make him popular. Yes, this occasionally meant clashes with bureaucratic underlings. This was sometimes necessary–it is President Bush’s appointees who are supposed to be setting the direction of the U.S. government, not bureaucrats with their own agendas. But it mostly meant that Bolton was routinely disagreeing with Powell and Armitage, who are now bent on exacting their revenge in a campaign marked by Powell’s trademark underhanded style.
“Bolton was a Bush loyalist;
now Bush must be a Bolton loyalist.”
The Washington Post delicately described that style today thusly: “It is not Powell’s style to weigh in strongly against a former colleague, but rather to direct people to what he sees as flaws and potential problems, former associates say.”
So Powell talks down Bolton to Republican senators and assents to his former chief of staff viciously attacking Bolton in the press. President Bush shouldn’t allow this to stand. John Bolton is being attacked precisely because he is a Bush loyalist. The battle over his nomination is a proxy for what has been the essential nugget of so many of the internal fights over Bush foreign policy–whether the president gets to set its direction or not. It is time for Bush to stop making general complaints about “politics” playing a role in the nomination fight and instead call Democrats on what is their real objection to Bolton: that he will be too aggressive in representing the U.S. at the United Nations and in challenging the corrupt and ineffectual status quo at the world body. That will create a debate that Bolton’s defenders can win. Bolton was a Bush loyalist; now Bush must be a Bolton loyalist.–The Editors