Demands by a key Republican senator for a two-week delay in the vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on John Bolton as Washington’s next UN ambassador mark a significant and potentially strategic defeat for Vice President Dick Cheney and the administration hawks he led during George W. Bush’s first presidential term.
If Bolton’s bid is defeated or, more likely, if he is forced to withdraw, chief beneficiaries will likely be the administration’s realist forces led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Robert Zoellick.
Despite their public support for the nominee, according to reports over the weekend by the Washington Post, the two had excluded Bolton from internal discussions on key issues that would normally fall within his domain.
Democrats, who emerged from the November elections dispirited and dejected, also stand to gain politically if the delay translates into Bolton’s defeat, because it shatters the air of invincibility that the White House has tried so hard to perpetuate. In what some considered a risky move, the Democratic leadership decided to oppose Bolton early in the confirmation process.
Bolton, a long-standing unilateralist with right-wing views about the UN and indeed international law in general, had been expected to be approved on a 10-8, party-line vote by the Committee Tuesday.
Anti-Bolton forces had focused their lobbying efforts on the most moderate Republican Committee member, Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, to oppose the nomination, ensuring a tie vote, which, under Senate rules, meant that the nomination would be defeated.
But Chafee, under intense White House pressure, refused to waver, while the Committee chairman, Richard Lugar, who had privately objected to the appointment, repeatedly rejected Democratic requests to put off the vote.
It thus came as a major surprise when Senator George Voinovich, who had been absent for the confirmation hearings leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, said he was not prepared to vote for the nominee based on what he heard about Bolton from his colleagues.
Without the assurance that he would have a majority voting “aye,” Lugar announced that the vote would be put off until at least the week of May 7, a move that drew expressions of relief from two other moderate Republicans, Senators Chuck Hagel and Chafee, who had reluctantly pledged to vote for the nomination in committee.
It was noted that no Republican during the often rancorous Committee debate offered a positive reason for voting for Bolton, insisting instead that the president was entitled to his choice as UN ambassador and that senators should not interfere.
While the delay does not necessarily mean that Bolton ultimately will be defeated, it makes that outcome far more likely, particularly given the virtually daily appearance in the media of more damaging revelations about Bolton’s record by former diplomats, including Republican appointees, and current officials willing to speak to reporters on background.
As Bolton’s most important backer by far, Cheney has the most to lose from his defeat, if only because of his apparent failure to anticipate the controversy that Bolton’s attitudes and past behavior would provoke.
The White House was reportedly assured by Cheney that it would not have to spend much political capital on securing Bolton’s approval, but, what with an apparent mutiny by one Republican and great discomfort with the nomination shown by three others, this now appears to have been a major miscalculation that could prove deeply embarrassing to Bush.
Conversely, Bolton’s defeat would mark a big win for Rice and Zoellick, who appear to be building a major power center at the State Department that is clearly capable of challenging the often-decisive foreign policy role played by Cheney during Bush’s first term.
Bolton, who served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, was seen as far more responsive to Cheney and neoconservative and nationalist hawks in the Pentagon during the first term than to his putative boss, particularly with respect to frustrating the State Department’s efforts to persuade the administration to engage Iran and North Korea.
It was thought that Bolton would eventually find a home either on Cheney’s huge foreign policy staff or in the Pentagon, but the vice president prevailed on Bush to make him UN ambassador, which was Bolton’s second choice.
That Bush, who had just spent more than a week in Europe trying to reassure allies there that Washington was committed to the UN, multilateralism more generally, and international law, went along with Cheney’s proposal was particularly shocking because, of all of the administration’s senior officials, Bolton probably has the longest track record of open contempt for all three, and for Washington’s European allies, as well.
Known for his belligerence, ideological certainty, self-righteousness, and a total lack of a sense of humor, Bolton, it has since been revealed, also has a history of excluding, verbally abusing, and trying to remove subordinates who disagree with him precisely the kind of behavior that Voinovich has repeatedly complained about in confirmation hearings of other nominees, both Democrats and Republicans.
Worse, particularly in light of the administration’s false claims about prewar Iraq, disclosures about Bolton’s manipulation and exaggeration of intelligence data relating to Iran and Cuba, for example, and his peculiar interest in highly classified transcripts of electronic intercepts concerning colleagues in whom he apparently lacked confidence, appear to have planted serious doubts with some Republican senators about his personal and professional integrity.
Indeed, Bolton’s nomination even appears to have divided some of the most administration’s most ardent neoconservative supporters.
While hardline neocons, including the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Richard Perle and David Frum, former CIA director James Woolsey, and even Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol publicly supported the nomination, other prominent neocons, including Kristol’s longtime foreign policy sidekick, Robert Kagan, as well as some of Perle’s AEI associates, such as Joshua Muravchik, apparently decided to stay out of the fray.
With neoconservatives and the Christian Right already in some disarray due to splits in their respective ranks over the administration’s support for Israel’s disengagement plan and its opposition to the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the hawks who led the drive to war in Iraq have not been able to gain real traction on any of their pet issues since the new term began, despite Powell’s departure.
If Bolton is now defeated or forced by the White House to withdraw his name, the perception in Washington will almost certainly be that the hawks’ influence, and particularly that of Cheney, are on the wane not only within the administration but also among Republican lawmakers for whom Cheney is still a much-feared figure.
With so much at stake, Cheney will be very reluctant to give up, and statements by White House since the Tuesday debacle so far have stressed that Bush retains full confidence in Bolton and believes he will win confirmation.
But given the unexpectedly heavy political price already paid by the White House in very unhappy Republican moderates, Bush may decide that it’s best to pull the plug sooner rather than later so as to avoid spending any more capital on an ill-advised appointment.
(Inter Press Service)
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