Who’s Afraid of John Bolton?

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George Bush’s nomination of John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has provoked a storm of controversy, setting off cries of “loose cannon!” and “unilateralism!” from the more internationalist of the American interventionists. Currently undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, Bolton is a figure whose study provides a telling illustration of the current debate within the foreign policy establishments in the U.S. and the EU. Should the U.S. government, for example, kill people in foreign lands as it alone sees fit, or only when approved by the French and the Russians on the UN Security Council?

Although he is such a lying warmonger that he is often mistaken for a neoconservative, Bolton positions himself rhetorically somewhere closer to libertarians and antiwar conservatives regarding the application of international law to the United States. Tom Barry, co-founder and policy director of the International Relations Center (IRC), no fan of Bolton’s, and my radio show guest on March 19 [stream] [download mp3], has written of Bolton on IRC’s RightWeb:

“From the early days of the first Bush administration, Bolton mounted a campaign to halt all international constraints on U.S. power and prerogative, fiercely opposing existing and proposed international treaties restricting landmines, child soldiers, biological weapons, nuclear weapons testing, small-arms trade, and missile defense.

“In a 1994 speech at the liberal World Federalist Association, Bolton declared that ‘there is no such thing as the United Nations.’ To underscore his point, Bolton said. ‘If the UN secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.'”

What’s so wrong with that? The question is not whether one approves of child soldiers, germ weapons, or landmines, but whether “international law,” which clearly implies international force, is the best way to accomplish the goal of stopping their use. Do we really need foreigners to tell us not to use child soldiers, germ weapons, or landmines? Aren’t we smart enough to recognize SDI as a ridiculous waste of money ourselves?

It is true that the UN would probably sanction any just defense of America, but their approval does not “bestow” legitimacy, it could only be a recognition of it. The idea that the U.S. may not act without the approval of “the international community” is quite dangerous to our independence. As Bolton correctly notes in an article in the January/February 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs:

“If the American citadel can be breached, advocates of binding international law will be well on the way toward the ultimate elimination of Treaty of Westphalia-style nation-states. It is thus important to understand the root of American intransigence: namely, the fact that the United States and its Constitution would have to change fundamentally and irrevocably before binding international law becomes possible. This constitutional issue is not merely a narrow, technical point of law, certainly not for the United States.”

As Ludwig von Mises Institute scholar [.pdf] Joseph Stromberg put it: “The problem is this: can the president and Senate in effect repeal or overturn fundamental provisions of the Constitution by colluding with foreign states?”

The reason people are having such a hard time hearing this truth from John Bolton is because he is an eager operative of one of the most belligerent and murderous regimes on Earth.

Right now, the U.S. government is picking a fight with Iran based on their supposed failure to live up to their obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty. The Iranians are put in the position of kneeling before the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to attempt to put off war with the U.S., a war that could never be waged without the requisite accusations that Iran is violating their international agreements. Who cares if Iran did have the bomb? That would just be all the more reason for us to avoid conflict with them in the first place – a lesson North Korea has apparently taken to heart.

According to former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, the Bush administration is preparing to use the same script against Iran that they used, for “bureaucratic reasons,” against Iraq. Namely: accuse them of developing WMD, demand the IAEA refer them to the Security Council for Sanctions, complain when Russia and China veto, say something about “I’m going to do whatever it takes to defend America,” then attack. The nomination of Bolton to the UN would seem to fit right into that plan. If anyone can accuse the UN of not doing enough, it’s him.

It would be a mistake to think that principles of independence must be intertwined with the type of hypocrisy toward the subject of international law possessed by the Bush administration, which always cites the enforcement of “international law” as the excuse for their violence.

Take Dr. Ron Paul, for example. He’s a libertarian Republican representing Texas District 14 in the U.S. House of Representatives who each session files the “Sovereignty Restoration Act,” which would get the United States out of the United Nations and end the practice of suborning American law and policy to international consensus. Dr. Paul is the harshest critic of the warfare state in the U.S. House by far. Before the invasion of Iraq, he filed a declaration of war just to vote against it, and to call out the War Party cowards among his colleagues who would support aggression against a country that had never attacked us, but would pass their authority and responsibility to choose to do so over to George W. Bush.

Paul is no isolationist. He supports open relations with the world; he just doesn’t support the arrogant and costly idea of America as world savior, or the UN as a body that helps to keep us out of foreign conflict.

The anti-UN positions of Bolton, Reagan-era neocon UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Richard Perle, are being used to co-opt this traditional conservative sentiment against foreign intervention in U.S. policy and turn it into anger at the UN for standing in the way of our wars. How dare they? Don’t they know we’re fighting to enforce their decrees?

It is interesting to see American politicians worried at the thought of ever being held responsible for their crimes by the international system they created, such as the International Criminal Court. Though it may seem like justice to see someone like Kissinger or Cheney thrown in the dock, when our politicians are criminals, we are the ones who should prosecute them. If foreigners can grab Bush and Cheney, they can grab us, and to turn them over to a court that can’t even define the crimes over which they supposedly have jurisdiction would hardly measure up to our rules of due process or our concepts of national sovereignty.

Try to see a bright side to the appointment, which still awaits Senate confirmation, of John Bolton to the UN ambassador spot: he may continue to help undermine the multilateralist Wilsonian ideology that is so often used to justify American Empire. And since he’s such an outspoken proponent of violent solutions to problems that really don’t concern us, perhaps he can help to discredit the more nationalistic brand of empire in the minds of more Americans as well.

Secretary General Kofi Annan is proposing changes to the UN Security Council. Let’s abolish it. John Bolton would be out of a job, and our excuses for meddling in country after country would disappear. Let the U.S. be unilaterally at peace.

Author: Scott Horton

Scott Horton is editorial director of Antiwar.com, director of the Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from ScottHorton.org. He’s the author of the 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, the 2017 book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, and the editor of the 2019 book, The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019. He’s conducted more than 5,500 interviews since 2003. Scott’s articles have appeared at Antiwar.com, The American Conservative magazine, the History News Network, The Future of Freedom, The National Interest and the Christian Science Monitor. He also contributed a chapter to the 2019 book, The Impact of War. Scott lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, investigative reporter Larisa Alexandrovna Horton. He is a fan of, but no relation to the lawyer from Harper’s. Scott’s Twitter, YouTube, Patreon.