Bolton’s Not Nice. But He’s Good.

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Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Nomination battles are known for introducing new standards for officeholders. John Tower’s failed bid to be Defense secretary in 1989 meant that public drunkenness was now a disqualification. The near-failure of Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991 added sexual harassment to the list. The withdrawal of Zoe Baird’s name for attorney general in 1993 made failure to pay nanny taxes a no-no. (I’m tempted to add that Robert Bork’s rejection for the Supreme Court in 1987 ruled out nominees with scraggly facial hair.)

Now, John Bolton’s nomination to be United Nations ambassador is in serious jeopardy, according to the senators who oppose him, because he’s not nice enough.

But do we really want to add nastiness to the list of disqualifications? If we did, America’s most effective diplomatists would have been kicked out of office. Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Baker III and Richard Holbrooke, among others, were all tough customers. Those are exactly the qualities you need in dealing with the hard cases who rule much of the world. No milquetoast need apply for the post of U.N. ambassador, or any other demanding diplomatic job.


Bolton has been an effective diplomat and bureaucratic operator precisely because he has not tried to win any popularity contests. He has fought for his beliefs, and usually prevailed. In 1991, for instance, he helped push for repeal of the U.N.’s infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution. More recently, he has marshaled an impressive coalition behind the Proliferation Security Initiative designed to stop the spread of nukes. And he did it not by being polite but by being forceful and persuasive.

I don’t see eye to eye with Bolton on everything. His animus toward the International Criminal Court -- which led him to antagonize valuable allies because of his insistence that they sign treaties pledging never to refer U.S. soldiers for prosecutions -- seems excessive to me. And he has never been known as a fan of nation-building or humanitarian interventions, which I believe are necessary in the post-9/11 world. But he seems like a good choice to help drain the U.N. cesspool of corrupt bureaucrats and self-serving tyrants, and nothing in his confirmation hearings has led me to think otherwise.

I’m not impressed by unverified allegations made by an anti-Bush partisan that, as a private citizen, Bolton pounded on her hotel room door in 1994. Same with claims that he yelled at a co-worker in the early 1980s. Even if true, so what?

More serious is the charge that he misused intelligence. But these accusations break down upon close examination. In both of the instances cited, which concern Bolton speeches about the dangers posed by Cuba and Syria, he did push initially for tougher language than the intelligence community was comfortable with. But when the CIA told him to tone down his remarks, he complied. His unwillingness to blindly accept initial CIA judgments should be applauded, not reviled, in light of numerous commission findings that our spooks are often clueless.

Bolton is also accused of intimidating analysts who disagreed with him. He purportedly threatened to fire Christian Westermann, a State Department analyst who disagreed about whether Cuba is developing weapons of mass destruction. What critics neglect to mention is that Westermann sent Bolton’s draft speech for review to the CIA with a cover letter falsely claiming that State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research disagreed with its conclusions. In fact, no official determination had been made. Westermann was then said to have denied what he did. Westermann’s own boss apologized to Bolton for his “entirely inappropriate” conduct. No wonder Bolton got steamed.

If you doubt that these are reasonable grounds for rejecting Bolton’s nomination, you would be right. All the harrumphing about how Bolton is no Mr. Nice Guy is only a pretext. The real issue is that liberal Democrats, Republican squishes and their allies inside the State Department are mad at Bolton because he has been a committed champion of President Bush’s “unilateralist” foreign policy. But as a “top Senate Democrat” told Time magazine: “We can’t argue that this guy is unfit just because he’s said mean things about the U.N. Don’t forget, most Americans agree with him.” So instead of debating the real issues, they’re making his personality the issue. That’s, umm, not very nice.