If Mitt Romney plans to make even a slight move toward the middle in the general election, campaigning with John Bolton is not a great way to do it. Bolton, a key foreign-policy advisor to Romney, created a stir recently by appearing to rejoice in an op-ed in The Washington Times that talks between Iran and the U.S. and the "P5 plus one"--the U.N. Security Council members and Germany - had "produced no substantive agreement." Bolton said any talks with Iran were merely "a well-oiled trap" and declared that President Obama had become "increasingly a bystander" in Iran's development of a nuclear weapon (despite the disclosure that Obama has authorized aggressive cyber-attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities).
"Bolton has made it clear that he's rooting for American diplomacy to fail and has repeatedly called for a rush to war with Iran," said Michelle Flournoy, the Obama administration's former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, in a statement issued by the Obama campaign on Tuesday.
What is less understood about Bolton -- and what is truly one of the great oddities in the career of any diplomat in U.S. history -- is that for more than a decade the former undersecretary of State and U.N. ambassador has stood fast consistently against most diplomatic efforts, to the point of regularly belittling his former colleagues at the State Department. Both as a Yale-trained lawyer and a public official, Bolton has long campaigned against U.S. fealty to international agreements and multilateral treaties, and he was so extreme in these views that he proved to be too far right even for the George W. Bush administration, according to several former senior Bush officials. A favorite of Vice President Dick Cheney, Bolton ran afoul of senior officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and failed in successive bids to be named her deputy and to replace Douglas Feith as No. 3 at the Pentagon. He was given the U.N. job as a consolation prize, at the urging of Cheney's office, in part to keep him out of Washington, according to the former senior officials.
Even the British, America's closest ally in the war on terror, found they could not work with Bolton diplomatically. On several occasions, Britain was irked by what U.S. and British sources said were efforts by Bolton to undermine promising diplomatic openings. In 2003, U.S.-British talks to force Libya to surrender its nuclear program succeeded only after British officials "at the highest level" persuaded the White House to keep Bolton off the negotiating team, my then-Newsweek colleague John Barry and I reported at the time. A crucial issue, according to sources involved in the affair, was Muammar Qaddafi's demand that if Libya abandoned its WMD program, the U.S. in turn would drop its goal of regime change. But Bolton was unwilling to support this compromise. The White House finally agreed to keep Bolton "out of the loop," as one source put it. A deal was struck only after Qaddafi was reassured that Bush would settle for "policy change"--surrendering his WMD.
Often misidentified as a neoconservative because of his ultra-hawkish views, Bolton told me in an interview in the early 2000s that he is actually a libertarian conservative, albeit not of the Ron Paul variety. Based on that interview and on his writings, in such essays as "Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?" (Chicago Journal of International Law, 2000), Bolton has made plain that his career-long goal has been to unwind America's deep ties to the international community, including the U.N. and multilateral treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which he believes is based on an unsound legal concept. Bolton believes that international law in effect doesn't exist and has no sway over U.S. sovereign prerogatives, especially whether to go to war.
At one point, Bolton even appeared to undermine the president's own wishes in pursuing his personal agenda of undermining multilateral affiliations. In a landmark speech at the National Defense University in February 2004, Bush had called for a toughened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Bolton, who as undersecretary for arms control was supposed to be in charge of that project, "was absent without leave" when it came to implementing the agenda that the president laid out, failing to prepare for a five-year review conference of the NPT in 2005, a former Bush official who worked with Bolton told me at the time. "Everyone knew the conference was coming and that it would be contentious. But Bolton stopped all diplomacy on this six months ago," another former official told me then. "The White House and the National Security Council started worrying, wondering what was going on. So a few months ago the NSC had to step in and get things going themselves. " Bolton also held up a plutonium disposal project that required agreement with the Russians; it was completed after he left office.
Bolton is sometimes described as the author of the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative--a multilateral agreement to interdict suspected WMD shipments on the high seas. But the former senior Bush official who criticized Bolton's performance on the NPT conference said that in fact Bolton's successor, Robert Joseph, deserved most of the credit for the PSI. This official adds that it was Joseph, who was in charge of counterproliferation at the NSC, who had to pitch in when Bolton fumbled preparations for the NPT conference as well.
After he left the Bush administration, Bolton also became a vocal critic of its turn toward diplomacy, openly criticizing then-Secretary Rice's efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea, which ultimately failed. "This is classic State Department zeal for the deal," Bolton said on Fox News. He also declared, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that the Bush administration, having purged or sidelined most of its hardliners, was "in a state of total intellectual collapse."
And now John Bolton is back.