Bolton Inflated Syria Threat: Why Such Misassessments Endanger National Security


John Bolton seems to have inflated virtually every threat into which his office came into contact. I take that back. He seems to have underestimated the threat of potential rogue nuclear materials in Russia as Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) questioned his delinquency on that front several years ago.
But on Cuba, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, John Bolton spent a lot of time at war with intelligence analysts. Certainly, all of these nations are threats, but overestimating threats can be as dangerous as underestimating them.
I have known a number of people who worked around John Bolton, and in mid-2003, one of these people made an off-hand comment, which perhaps should not be taken too seriously but nonetheless was chilling. He said, “if my boss had his way, would be at war with North Korea right now.” I guess that was the moment when I realized John Bolton’s potential danger in the national security establishment.
I think North Korea is a dangerous regime, run by a tyrant. That said, the nation’s chief concern in mid-2003 and in the subsequent years when Bush’s team was in place to keep North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and capabilities from growing worse than they already were. The Six Party Talks were probably the most critical diplomatic initiative underway at the time, and John Bolton spent a lot of political capital trying to undermine them and position the U.S. in a much more belligerent stance towards North Korea.
Bolton has apparently done much the same with Syria, according to an important report by the New York Times‘ Douglas Jehl:

John R. Bolton clashed repeatedly with American intelligence officials in 2002 and 2003 as he sought to deliver warnings about Syrian efforts to acquire unconventional weapons that the Central Intelligence Agency and other experts rejected as exaggerated, according to former intelligence officials.
Ultimately, the former intelligence officials said, most of what Mr. Bolton, then an under secretary of state, said publicly about Syria hewed to the limits on which the C.I.A. and other agencies had insisted. But they said that the prolonged and heated disputes over Mr. Bolton’s proposed remarks were unusual within government, and that they reflected what one former senior official called a pattern in which Mr. Bolton sought to push his public assertions beyond the views endorsed by intelligence agencies.
The episodes involving Syria are being reviewed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of its inquiries related to Mr. Bolton’s nomination to become ambassador to the United Nations. Some of the former intelligence officials said they had discussed the issue with the committee, while declassified e-mail messages from 2002 provided to the committee by the State Department allude to one previously unknown episode.

Later in the article:

Until now, Senate Democrats leading the opposition to Mr. Bolton’s nomination have focused mostly on a 2002 dispute related to Cuba, in which Mr. Bolton has acknowledged seeking the transfer of two intelligence officials with whom he had differed. But a top Democratic staff member on Monday described the clashes over Syria as “an example, perhaps the most serious one, not of Mr. Bolton’s abusing people, but of trying to exaggerate the intelligence to fit his policy views.”
In one Congressional appearance, in June 2003 before the House International Relations Committee, Mr. Bolton offered a considerably darker view of Syria’s nuclear program than the C.I.A. had in a report to Congress two months earlier.
Among other things, Mr. Bolton said American officials were “looking at Syria’s nuclear program with growing concern and continue to monitor it for any signs of nuclear weapons intent.” The C.I.A. report to Congress in April said only, “In principle, broader access to Russian expertise provides opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons.”

John Bolton is one who seemed to have constantly exaggerated what was the “worst case scenario” in most circumstances. This is a phenomenally dangerous kind of blind spot that is ill-suited for the role of Ambassador to the United Nations where the challenge of U.N. reform and building a coalition of support around a new and revived U.N. are going to be critical.
Bolton seems both unable to see the world as anything else but “much worse” than it is — and also seems unable to stay within the appropriate bounds of a collaborate diplomatic effort.
John Bolton, I am told, reads this blog. This must be a difficult and extremely vexing time for him. Much has been dredged up in his past — and there seem to be things he has done before that he might want to have done differently.
I hope that he does reconsider this U.N. effort. He should know by now that he can’t succeed in a mission there — and his candidacy is damaging the White House each day this goes on.
Vice President Cheney should offer him some kind of Rovian-type role on his own staff to put Bolton’s abilities to work in a corner of the administration where they would be welcome — but not in a place where the sensibilities of the nation would be greatly aggravated.
— Steve Clemons