John Bolton, George W. Bush's astonishingly brazen choice to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came off badly at his confirmation hearings today—bloodless, evasive, and mendacious—in ways that should give senators cause to reject him, regardless of whether they agree with the president's policies or even with the substance of Bolton's views.
The hearings will continue for another day or two—to hear from officials who have had run-ins with Bolton and, possibly, to give him a chance for rebuttal—but, after today's session, his nomination should be put down for three reasons, quite apart from the many reasons that his critics (and I count myself among them) have laid out in recent weeks.
First, the evidence suggests that Bolton, while he was undersecretary of state, tried to pressure and dismiss intelligence analysts who challenged his own preconceptions.
Second, he skirted questions of whether the United Nations should have done more to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda—and thus the underlying issue of whether the United Nations should play any role in such matters. (It should be added that Bolton's evasion was matched by that of the committee's members, who failed to push the question more directly.)
Third, he looked and sounded like a man at best uninterested in, and often contemptuous of, the United Nations as an institution.
In short, John Bolton came off as strikingly lacking in the credibility, values, and basic commitment that, especially these days, the job of U.N. ambassador requires.
The first reason—Bolton's attempt to pressure intelligence analysts—has been relatively unexamined, mainly because the State Department had blocked the Senate Foreign Relation Committee's access to key documents and witnesses until last Thursday, when the Republican chairman, Richard Lugar, demanded and obtained them.
The charge, as revealed at today's hearing, is that in 2002, as the undersecretary of state for arms control, Bolton wrote a speech claiming that Cuba has an offensive biological-weapons program and is providing bio-weapons assistance to rogue regimes. The chief bio-weapons analyst in the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research challenged this view, as did the CIA's national intelligence officer for Latin America. As a result, Bolton tried (unsuccessfully) to get both analysts reassigned.
Bolton denied this charge, saying that his only problem with these analysts was "procedural." They engaged in "unprofessional conduct"—for instance, the State Department official, he said, went behind his back—so Bolton "lost confidence" in them and wanted them reassigned to other portfolios.
Bolton's account is most implausible. First, neither analyst worked under Bolton, so it's irrelevant that he lost confidence in them. Second, the "unprofessional conduct" amounted to the State Department analyst's sending Bolton's proposed speech and his own proposed modification to other intelligence officials—standard procedure for official speeches mentioning intelligence. Third, some of the panel's Democrats—Sens. Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd, and John Kerry—cited interviews, which the bipartisan staff has recently conducted with these officials and their superiors, to bolster the accusation. For instance, the State Department analyst's immediate superior was quoted as saying that Bolton "said he was the president's appointee and … he wasn't going to be told what to say by a midlevel Munchkin."