Taking Stock: John Bolton's Resignation

A former diplomat I greatly respect advised me to avoid dwelling on the John Bolton confirmation and to move on to new policy subjects. He wrote:

steve -- he's resigned. let it go. . .you have other and better causes, and it only makes you appear petty and vindictive to continue to harp on the issue. in your terms, you won... be gracious and move on.

He's absolutely right -- and I have in fact tried to do this a number of times, but the administration was as unwilling to let go of the contest as were those who opposed Bolton's confirmation. I believe in graciousness after political battles involving non-elected officials just as much as genuine elections.

Despite a rather loud outcry from numerous TWN readers, I tipped my hat to Ambassador Bolton and wished him well after a post I wrote that was the first among blogs as well as mainstream journalism to call the end to the real battle for Bolton's 'confirmation.'

I want to do the same thing again. I do wish Ambassador Bolton and his family well. He is a brilliant person who cloaked his designs in a style of pugnaciousness and occasional bullying that served his ends -- though I think not as often the country's.

My problem with Ambassador Bolton was never his cosmetic behavior, it was the content of his views and policy objectives, and the numerous times in which he undermined or sabotaged fragile diplomatic efforts underway and conducted by his colleagues and direct superiors.

John Bolton, in my view, saw a significant portion of his job as not to achieve success at the United Nations but rather to set the UN up for failure.

I do hope that I one day get the chance to encounter John Bolton in a public forum and debate national policy with him as well as how civil society managed the debate about his nomination and confirmation process. I commit to be a gentleman and genuinely civil when that future meeting takes place.

Oddly enough, I have been paired increasingly frequently on radio programs and in public policy events with a good friend of John Bolton's from the American Enterprise Institute, Joshua Muravchik. I ran into Muravchik again today at the Arab Strategy Forum here in Dubai -- and Muravchik and I manage quite well a serious ongoing debate about tough policy differences and divergent world views.

I do hope that Ambassador Bolton and some of those who supported and opposed him during his service in the Bush administration maintain a respectable demeanor.

Now for a quick take on outstanding issues, winners and losers, and other thoughts on implications of the Bolton resignation:

1. John Bolton's resignation reflects a loss of ground by Jesse Helms' inspired 'pugnacious nationalists'. It is also a clear loss for Vice President Cheney and his loyal followers. Jim Lobe captures this quite well in a piece he has written tonight on Bolton.

2. Bolton's resignation also hurts Condoleezza Rice in the short term because while she had to "manage" him more frequently than she liked -- often sending Undersecretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns to manage the most fragile diplomatic agendas -- Rice now has NO Deputy Secretary of State, and will soon face in January NO Counselor and NO Ambassador to the United Nations.

Losing Robert Zoellick, Philip Zelikow and John Bolton is an awful lot to lose without having clear successsors in place and ready to go. The already stretched thin Secretary of State will be stretched even thinner with Bolton's departure.

3. On the good side, if the White House and State Department get their mutual acts together, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is 'likely' to expedite at lightning speed reasonable, even partly controversial, nominees to both Bolton's UN position and to the Deputy Secretary position. This Bolton Battle won't be replayed soon. I think the incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden will bend over backwards to help Rice get a full team back in place at State as fast as possible.

4. This has not been picked up by the press, but I believe that the theatrical dimensions of the Bolton resignation were designed to make it look like the President was giving up something he really, really wanted in order to encourage Dems to 'de-complexify' the confirmation process of Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates. Watch for Dems who previously opposed Gates or had serious concerns about his Iran Contra involvement to ratchet down their concerns.

The President's dropping of Bolton may very well be designed to facilitate a fast confirmation process for Gates.

5. Who will succeed Bolton is unclear. I have written about Jim Leach in the past -- as well as many others including Paula Dobriansky and Zalmay Khalilzad.

I think Dobriansky has a strong chance of getting the job as she is respected around DC, is acceptable to both Rice and Cheney, and is not a complete rejection of John Bolton's views. She is neocon-friendly if not a true neoconservative, and she manages diplomacy and achieving America's diplomatic objectives well.

Jim Leach could also be extraordinary -- and Khalilzad could be an important asset there too as a Muslim envoy from America to an institution representing the nations of the world. He is also a well-experienced strategist and diplomat.

There are other choices I won't list here tonight as I think that these three are all qualified and realistic choices given the fact that George W. Bush is going to make the appointment.

6. Finally, it is important to remember that the Bolton Battle was not a true partisan struggle. It was one in which many Republicans covertly supported leading Democrats in the process -- and on the other side, some Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Ben Nelson openly advocated Bolton's confirmation.

Bolton did not get confirmed because of the failure of the White House to either unite the Republican caucus behind Bolton or to select a candidate that was easier for the whole Republican caucus in the Senate to accept. Republicans with a conscience stopped Bolton's confirmation process, with support from the Democrats who were in the minority.

This effort took about 21 months from the time Bolton was nominated for his current position.

It's been a long time. But again, I do insist on tipping my hat to Ambassador Bolton after this long fought campaign and wish him well.

I don't know if the story is true, but one reporter who works for one of the more right of center Northeast publications interviewed John Bolton some time ago and asked him "So are you aware of what the opposition is saying?"

Allegedly, Bolton replied "I tune into The Washington Note every morning."

I don't know if the story is in fact true -- but it was something I thought about often when writing the blog -- knowing that Ambassador Bolton would be reading it.

It's important to maintain balanced but tough debate in our society -- and now it's time to move on to the next big challenges.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note