Washington: To the North Koreans, he is “human scum” and a “bloodthirsty vampire.” To former ultra-right US Senator Jesse Helms, he is “the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon.” His name is John Bolton; his title, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. And he is widely seen as the reliable fifth columnist within the State Department for the right-wing and neoconservative hawks who led the drive to war in Iraq from their perches at the Pentagon and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office.
North Korea, which last week agreed to engage in multilateral talks with its Northeast Asian neighbors and the United States on its controversial nuclear program, announced Sunday it will have nothing to do with Bolton and will not even recognize his status as a US diplomat.
The highly unusual statement was reportedly provoked by a speech given by Bolton in Seoul last week excerpts of which were reprinted on the highly sympathetic editorial pages of the Asian Wall Street Journal Friday in which the undersecretary, who ranks fourth in the State Department hierarchy, described life in North Korea as a “hellish nightmare” and accused Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong Il,” of being a “dictator” or running a “dictatorship” or “tyranny” no less than a dozen times.
Some US and Asian analysts indicated last week that Bolton, who has made little secret of his belief that Washington should pursue “regime change” in Pyongyang rather than a new agreement on its denuclearization, may have intended to use the speech to provoke Kim into rejecting the forthcoming meeting. Cheney and the Pentagon have long been skeptical of any negotiation with North Korea.
If so, Bolton’s role as one of the administration’s foremost agents provocateurs for any government even faintly associated with the “axis of evil” would not be a new one.
Last month, Bolton was poised to deliver what could have been the death blow to already-battered Syrian cooperation with the United States in the war against Al-Qaeda, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times. They reported that Bolton’s proposed testimony on alleged Syrian weapons programs triggered a “revolt” by intelligence experts, particularly in the CIA and the State Department, who accused him of greatly exaggerating the threat posed by Damascus.
Bolton was intending to testify that Syria’s progress on the programs had reached such a point that it threatened regional stability, precisely the kind of assessment that would have justified the adoption of a “regime change” policy urged by hawks such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that led to the Iraq war. His testimony was also expected to strengthen the case for the pending Syria Accountability Act which pro-Likud forces in Congress have been pushing hard in recent months. If approved, it would toughen trade and diplomatic sanctions against Damascus.
At the last minute, however, the State Department said Bolton would have to put off his appearance until at least September due to an engagement at the White House. Officials said the CIA had submitted a 40-page brief of objections to Bolton’s testimony and that, given the growing controversy over the apparent use of faulty and falsified intelligence in preparing the case for war against Iraq, the administration decided that discretion was the better part of valor under the circumstances.
Bolton’s anti-communism and ultra-unilateralist politics have delighted his admirers among hawks even as they caused embarrassment and some turmoil among his State Department colleagues since he took office in 2001.
A Baltimore native who veered sharply right even as many of his fellow students at Yale Law School in the early 1970s were moving in the opposite direction, Bolton held mid- to senior-level positions in the US Agency for International Development and the Justice Department during the Reagan administration.
A staunch backer of the Nicaraguan Contras, Bolton played a key role in trying to undermine efforts by Senator John Kerry to investigate drug smuggling and gunrunning by the Contras, according to Nation columnist David Corn and later was put in charge of stonewalling Congressional efforts to Justice Department documents and interview Meese’s deputies about the Iran-Contra scandal.
His effectiveness in this area gained him a promotion under President George H.W. Bush to the position of assistant secretary of state for international organizations, a post he held until 1993 when he joined first the right-wing Manhattan Institute and then the neoconservative-dominated American Enterprise Institute (AEI), home to such prominent hawks as former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle, and Cheney’s spouse, Lynne.
By the time former Secretary of State James Baker tapped him to serve as a senior member of the Bush legal team in Florida after the 2000, election, he had become senior vice-president at AEI, a position he used during the latter half of the 1990s to speak out in favor of fully normalizing ties with Taiwan (from which he was receiving money at the time, according to the Washington Post), regardless of the impact on US relations with China, and withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty while railing about the threats posed to US sovereignty by the UN and Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “nation-building,” and international arms agreements, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
So strongly was he opposed to the UN that, at one point, he suggested simply halting US payments to the world body. “Many Republicans in Congress and perhaps a majority,” he once said, “not only do not care about losing the General Assembly vote but actually see it as a ‘make-my-day’ outcome. Once the vote is lost … this will simply provide further evidence to many why nothing more should be paid to the UN system.”
Given his history of far-right positions, Secretary of State Colin Powell was reported to have been deeply skeptical of Bolton for such a sensitive position. But a combination of Cheney’s insistence that he get the undersecretary job and an assurance by Baker, who hired Bolton to help fight the legal battle over the Florida election results, that he was a loyal soldier, Powell acceded.
Within a few months, however, it became clear Bolton was far more in tune to hawks elsewhere in the administration than to Powell’s relatively moderate positions and demeanor. In the summer of 2001, he shocked foreign delegations and nongovernmental organizations at the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons when he said the US would oppose any attempt to regulate the trade in firearms or nonmilitary rifles or any other effort that would “abrogat(e) the constitutional right to bear arms.”
“It is precisely those weapons that Bolton would exclude from the purview of this conference that are actually killing people and endangering communities around the world,” said Tamar Gabelnick, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists, who charged that the US position singlehandedly destroyed any possibility of consensus.
Several months later, after the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax scare, Bolton led the US delegation to a major UN bio-weapons conference which he first inflamed by naming in his first speech six nations, including Syria, which he alleged were building bio-weapons illegally and then sabotaged by trying to terminate an effort to forge a verification protocol. The latter provoked shock and outrage from US allies in Europe.