Bolton Nomination is Toast

John Bolton was such a loose cannon that his boss at the State Department ordered that any public statements he made first be cleared through him, according to a report in today’s New York Times.

No. 2 at State Dept. Was Said to Put Restrictions on Bolton (NYT)

A new portrayal of John R. Bolton describes him as having so angered senior State Department officials with his public comments that the deputy secretary of state, Richard L. Armitage, ordered two years ago that Mr. Bolton be blocked from delivering speeches and testimony unless they were personally approved by Mr. Armitage.

The detailed account was provided to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Lawrence S. Wilkerson, a longtime aide to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Mr. Wilkerson said that Mr. Bolton, who was then an under secretary of state, had caused “problems” by speaking out on North Korea, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other delicate issues in remarks that had not been properly cleared. “Therefore, the deputy made a decision, and communicated that decision to me, that John Bolton would not give any testimony, nor would he give any speech, that wasn’t cleared first by Rich,” Mr. Wilkerson said, according to a transcript of an hourlong interview with members of the committee staff last Thursday. In an e-mail message on Monday, Mr. Wilkerson said of the restrictions imposed on Mr. Bolton that “if anything, they got more stringent” as time went on. “No one else was subjected to these tight restrictions,” he said.

The Senate committee is to vote Thursday on Mr. Bolton’s nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, and the Republican chairman, Richard G. Lugar, has said he believes that the nomination will be sent to the Senate floor on a 10-to-8 vote, along party lines. But only on Monday, after a 10-day recess, were senators beginning to review the documents and interview transcripts assembled by the staff over the past three weeks.

Mr. Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who was Mr. Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to early 2005, was among the last of more than 30 witnesses to be interviewed by the committee staff. The transcript shows that Mr. Wilkerson made clear that he was speaking for himself, not for Mr. Powell or Mr. Armitage.

If Wilkerson’s testimony is accurate–and there is no reason to believe otherwise–it’s inconceivable that Bolton will be confirmed. Indeed, it’s baffling that he has flourished as long as he has, continually getting higher level appointments and easy Senate confirmation until now.

While this in one sense merely corroborates a long string of reports that Bolton has a prickly personality and plays hardball if he doesn’t get his way, this goes deeper than previous accounts. Heretofore, the charges basically amounted to “Bolton is an asshole.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing and, certainly, there have been people of that description who have risen to the top of bureaucracies. This says, “Bolton’s judgment can’t be trusted.” If that’s the case, he can’t be our voice at the U.N.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kappiy says:

    Most honest critics of Bolton have been making the argument that he is incompetent. This latest report is more evidence of that fact.

    The “Bolton is an asshole” portrayal of his opposition was nothing more than Bush apologists’ spin to distract substantive discussion of Bolton’s record.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, no. The charges were basically that 1) he yelled at subordinates and 2) he put serious pressure on underlings who presented him with information that went against his own views. The latter is potentially problematic, but not necessarily a matter of competence.

  3. Kappiy says:

    James, The critique of Bolton on competency has been persistent and has centered around various transgressions: notably his “analysis” of Cuba’s biological weapons capability was way off base; his “analysis” of Syrian WMDs; his role in obfuscating Senate efforts to investigate Contra drug-running; his role in promoting the lie linking Iraq and Nigerian uranium.

    Who cares about his personality or if he’s–to use Bush’s favorite platitude–“a good man.” The guy is not adept at analyzing evidence, which seems to be a basic requirement for any top-level government position.

  4. James Durbin says:

    The whole thing sounds fishy. The chasing through the halls woman, Melody Townsel, is now saying she wasn’t actually chased, per se, but rather, that it felt like she was being chased because everytime she saw Bolton, he would try to speak with her about her expense accounts.

    If this is true about Bolton, it would not necessarily be a nail in the coffin – it might have been Armitage’s concern that Bolton was not taking the political considerations of the higher-ups into account when he spoke.

    Considering the record of State, this is not exactly a bad thing. If this were the CIA, Bolton would be receiving high praise for speaking inconvenient truth to power.

    Personally, I think it takes someone known for a loose cannon to take on the current UN. I’d like it if our top UN official came out and said, “UN peacekeepers are raping children in Africa while it seems that every country that opposed the Iraq war was taking money from Saddam Hussein. This has to stop.” There is no diplomatic way to address those issues – and the confirmation process for Bolton is not about him – it’s about opposing Bush.

  5. McGehee says:

    Indeed, it’s baffling that he has flourished as long as he has, continually getting higher level appointments and easy Senate confirmation until now.

    Which raises the question of why these matters haven’t come up before. If it’s as big a deal as Wilkerson’s making out, shouldn’t Armitage be saying this instead of his underling?

  6. Scott Dillard says:

    The man has been confirmed four times by the Senate, and this all comes up now? Rubbish. I hope he gets to the UN and starts chasing Kofi Anan down the hall yelling about his expense account.

  7. Hal says:

    Yea, because chasing Anan around the halls is so much more important than trying to make our case about Iran, N. Korea and lord only knows what else is coming down the pike.

  8. Anderson says:

    Armitage is said to be angling for Defense, which is an excellent reason for him to be on the record as supporting Bolton, while quietly trying to ensure that the idiot isn’t in any kind of position to muck things up further for the U.S.

  9. Beldar says:

    It’s implicit in Anderson’s comment above, and perhaps McGeehee’s question above (“shouldn’t Armitage be saying this instead of his underling”?) was rhetorical, but I found it odd that Dr. Joyner relies so heavily on this report without noting, at least in passing, that Armitage has specifically and publicly endorsed Bolton’s nomination.

    An obvious hypothesis for reconciling the muzzle policy and the endorsement is that Armitage thought Bolton was a lightning rod for controversy, and lacked (in his prior job) either the pay grade and/or (perhaps as a result thereof) access to the highest levels of administration policy and info to be calling discretionary shots about who to lambaste and with what particular rhetoric and arguments. Those problems might actually be solved, cured, by a promotion.

    In any event, I don’t agree with Dr. Joyner that the muzzle policy is a particularly damning bit of evidence in and of itself, and I don’t think one can persuasively suggest that it is such without at least mentioning the apparent contradiction between the policy and the endorsement.

  10. bryan says:

    while quietly trying to ensure that the idiot isn’t in any kind of position to muck things up further for the U.S.

    I thought ambassador to the U.N. was exactly such a position. Why would Armitage muck that up?

  11. Bithead says:

    Will someone please explain to me, given the state of the UN, what harm a real ass-kicker’s gonna cause? I mean, how can the UN get WORSE?