One of the strongest cards that John Bolton had to play was sitting as the titular head of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a somewhat ad hoc coaltion of willing nations concerned with stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. PSI has been lauded by some as having achieved some very important successes — particularly in rolling up the A.Q. Khan network and getting Libya to halt its nuclear program.
Others, particularly in the arms control community, have criticized PSI for how little it has achieved, and that proliferation problems have dramatically increased while this largely cosmetic, unenforced collaborate effort against proliferation has provided cover while non-proliferation regimes collapse.
What I find interesting is that many people tell me that the key elements of PSI were in play long before John Bolton came to the story. Most people give Robert Joseph, who is in line to succeed Bolton at State, much of the credit for hatching and launching PSI.
But more importantly, the two victories don’t seem to be that at all. On Libya — certainly a complicated case — the elements of Libya coming in from the cold were in play for more than a decade. While the Bush administration probably deserves credit for pushing Libya over the edge to finally ending its WMD programs and getting back into the league of semi-respectable nations, Libya had sent signals over many years that it wanted to negotiate its way out of its past identity and get somewhat of a fresh start.
But on top of that, news has already swept through the media that British negotiators with Libya actually asked the White House to block John Bolton from any involvement in the final negotiations with Libya.
Here are two key excerpts from the Michael Hirsh Newsweek story which broke the story on how Bolton threatened key diplomatic efforts involving the British:
~ Colin Powell plainly didn’t like what he was hearing. At a meeting in London in November 2003, his counterpart, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, was complaining to Powell about John Bolton, according to a former Bush administration official who was there.
Straw told the then Secretary of State that Bolton, Powell’s under secretary for arms control, was making it impossible to reach allied agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Powell turned to an aide and said, “Get a different view on [the Iranian problem]. Bolton is being too tough.”
Unbeknownst to Bolton, the aide then interviewed experts in Bolton’s own Nonproliferation Bureau. The issue was resolved, the former official told NEWSWEEK, only after Powell adopted softer language recommended by these experts on how and when Iran might be referred to the U.N. Security Council. But the terrified State experts were “adamant that we not let Bolton know we had talked to them,” the official said.
~ But the London story is further evidence that Bolton and the White House have their work cut out for them. On several occasions, America’s closest ally in the war on terror, Britain, was irked by what U.S. and British sources say were efforts by Bolton to undermine promising diplomatic openings.
Perhaps the most dramatic instance took place early in the U.S.-British talks in 2003 to force Libya to surrender its nuclear program, NEWSWEEK has learned. The Libya deal succeeded only after British officials “at the highest level” persuaded the White House to keep Bolton off the negotiating team. A crucial issue, according to sources involved in the affair, was Muammar Kaddafi’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 agreed to keep Bolton “out of the loop,” as one source puts it. A deal was struck only after Kaddafi was reassured that Bush would settle for “policy change” — surrendering his WMD. One Bush official called the accounts of both incidents “flatly untrue.”
So, Bolton had zilch to do with whatever gains America made on Libya.
And what of A.Q. Khan?
TWN has interviewed several senior foreign service and national security staff — on a background basis — and all confirm that the central players in doing the heavy-lifting in containing and rolling back the A.Q. Khan network were Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, CIA Director George Tenet, and Ambassador John Wolf — who was then Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation.
One person who is a fan of John Bolton told me that when things were heating up on A.Q. Khan, “Bolton was oblivious.”
If Libya, and A.Q. Khan were relative gains for American national interest — and Bolton had virtually nothing to do with these — what then are his accomplishments in his current position?
The record, even without all of the negative material out there, is unbelievably thin.
— Steve Clemons