At least one former member of the Bush administration’s State Department began celebrating when news of John Bolton’s imminent departure as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations broke on Monday. And, to hear him tell it, so did a lot of other people who are in the business of international diplomacy.
“I would say there is cheering both in New York and at Foggy Bottom,” said Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005.
Mr. Wilkerson was referring to the persistent tensions that have strained relations between Mr. Bolton and the State Department. Those tensions, in turn, are part of the bigger war within the administration between neoconservatives, who were in the ascendant during the first term of the Bush Presidency with the support of Vice President Dick Cheney, and the more pragmatic Republican foreign-policy establishment.
Mr. Bolton’s departure comes at a time when the neoconservatives are in retreat over Iraq, and the Republican Party is still shell-shocked from a heavy defeat in the Congressional midterm elections. Those developments helped ensure that Mr. Bolton would not have the votes to win Senate confirmation to keep him in his job. And so the blunt aggressor who charged into the United Nations with a mandate to overhaul its stagnant bureaucracy, was, in the end, a passive victim of political circumstance.
The ambassador’s defenders insist that his achievements at Turtle Bay were real, if underappreciated, in part because they belied the caricature of him as an endlessly belligerent and impatient figure. They point to the way he built consensus on North Korea, and to his work on the Security Council resolution that helped end the conflict in Lebanon earlier this year, as evidence of his solid diplomatic abilities.
But Mr. Bolton’s bigger goals, such as fundamental reform of the world body, were certainly not met. In part, this is because Mr. Bolton was simply not in his post long enough to make any real headway. Then there was the matter of his controversial style.
“Bolton has clearly been able to express the administration’s viewpoint, which is a plus,” said Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University. “But he has expressed it in such an antagonistic way at times that it may not have served the administration particularly well.”
Mr. Wilkerson, who has previously been critical of the administration, criticized the ambassador’s tendency, as he saw it, to “make an end-run” around the State Department on a host of sensitive issues, from how to deal with North Korea to possible negotiations with Iran.
And, based on his time serving alongside Mr. Bolton in the State Department during Mr. Bush’s first term, Mr. Wilkerson accused his former colleague of carrying water for Mr. Cheney, sometimes against the policy aims of the department itself.
“I saw that any time the policy of the Vice President—and notice, I said the Vice President, not the President—looked like it might be violated, he would step in,” Mr. Wilkerson said of Mr. Bolton. “The Vice President’s spy in the State Department was Under-Secretary Bolton.”
Mr. Wilkerson’s use of the language of espionage was itself evidence of the suspicion and fear of betrayal that seems to fester on both sides in this battle. Several months ago, one of Mr. Bolton’s staunchest supporters, Frank Gaffney of the D.C.-based Center for Security Policy, told The Observer that the U.N. ambassador was actively being undermined by figures in the State Department, including Nick Burns, the current under-secretary for political affairs, who served in both the Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations.
Mr. Burns’ name is among those now mentioned as a possible replacement for Mr. Bolton—yet another sign of the waning influence of the neocons.
To Mr. Wilkerson, Mr. Bolton’s departure is a chance to steer U.S. diplomacy in a more conventional direction.
His replacement, he suggested, “should be someone known and respected in the community of international diplomats. It should ideally be someone who has come up though the State Department and who would serve as a sort of appendage to Secretary Rice.
“If [the replacement] comes from that other crowd of people—the so-called neocons, or the neo-Jacobins, as I call them—then generally speaking, I think it will be another Bolton. But I don’t think this President is that dumb.”
Told about the remarks, Mr. Bolton’s spokesman, Rick Grenell, said: “We’ll take the high road there. We have no comment about that.”
Where some see Mr. Bolton as a stout defender of U.S. interests, and figures like Mr. Wilkerson loathe him for his abrasiveness, others offer a more mixed evaluation. Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a onetime Clinton administration official, recalled he was one of the few Democrats not to oppose Mr. Bolton’s appointment at the outset of his term.
“I thought there was some virtue in having a critic in that position if he was willing to fix the problems,” Mr. Feinstein said.
“I never thought this was an issue of manner—there have been U.S. permanent representatives with hot personalities and with cold personalities. But I think Bolton ultimately preferred to criticize rather than do anything about solving the problems at the U.N.”
At the U.N. itself, even the first rumors of Mr. Bolton’s departure were met, unsurprisingly, with a sense of relief. “We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we would think it couldn’t be worse than Bolton,” one diplomat whose nation serves as a permanent member of the Security Council told The Observer.
Even so, he added, “We are not really dealing with a man or a woman, but with a country, and it is the policies of that country that matter.”
Whether Mr. Bolton’s departure presages a fundamental change in policy from the administration remains highly debatable. Mr. Bush’s aggrieved comments as he accepted the ambassador’s resignation—the President blamed “a handful” of Senators for “stubborn obstructionism”—hardly indicated that a new course of moderation was imminent. And interviews with Democratic staffers on the Foreign Relations Committee also suggested that they saw Mr. Bush’s earlier declaration that he would try to get Mr. Bolton approved as ambassador by the lame-duck Senate as a calculated insult.
Among the rumored candidates to replace Mr. Bolton, in addition to Mr. Burns of the State Department, are Congressman Jim Leach and Senator Mike DeWine, both of whom are considered relative moderates. Both men are serving out their final days in office after being defeated in last month’s elections. (A letter advocating Mr. Leach’s appointment was circulated in the House of Representatives last month by Republican James Walsh of New York and Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.)
Candidates likely to engender more enthusiasm among neocons include U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Paula Dobriansky, currently under-secretary of state for democracy and global affairs. Both were signatories to the 1997 Statement of Principles drawn up by the Project for the New American Century.
No one is placing bets with any confidence, however.
“Nobody knows who the next ambassador will be,” the Security Council diplomat said wryly, “but everybody here is wide-eyed and expectant.”
Despite the jubilation in some quarters, not everyone is happy to see Mr. Bolton depart.
“John Bolton is the most talented and capable man to have ever served in that position,” Tom Kilgannon, president of the right-wing Freedom Alliance, said in a statement. “All Americans should be grateful that this good man took a year and a half out of his life to serve his country at the U.N., which required him to consort with anti-American crooks and bozos.”