Charles Brown: John Bolton versus the Process Police


One thing that’s become quite apparent over the course of the debate on John Bolton is what happens when very capable and experienced people have tried to “supervise” him. When it comes to working within the system, Bolton doesn’t just push the envelope – he rips it to shreds.
Boy, the State Department must have driven him absolutely nuts. Based on my experience there (I served in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor during the Clinton Administration), no institution on the face of the earth has ever so fetishized “process” for its own sake. Anyone – and I mean anyone – who consistently breaks Departmental rules on clearing documents becomes a problem, an outsider, an enemy.
Clearance is a sacred principle at State. Every single piece of paper produced at Foggy Bottom must have a second piece of paper attached to it: the clearance page, which lists every single person who has signed off on it. Without a clearance page, the document is not Department policy and cannot be used.
From their first day on the job, junior Foreign Service officers are taught that their careers will prosper if they properly clear documents – and wither if they do not. The process has even generated its own lingo inside the building. My favorite: when someone insists on an inconsequential semantic change to your document – say by replacing a word with its synonym – it’s known as a “happy-to-glad” change.
Some documents – say, I don’t know, key speeches on North Korea – can require dozens of approvals. When I drafted the introduction to the 2000 edition of the Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, I had to get more than two hundred people to clear the damn thing before it could be released. I wasted weeks of my life negotiating petty disputes generated by officers demanding mutually exclusive changes to a given word or phrase.
And to make matters even worse, anyone clearing any document can execute a cute little maneuver known as the “CYA clearance,” whereby his or her approval is contingent on you getting one or more clearances from other officers on your list. A document you thought needed three people’s approval suddenly needs thirty.
And once you get the document cleared, you still have to face the gauntlet known as the executive secretariat, which manages all paper flowing to the Secretary. Its rules require every document to look exactly the same. Same font, same font size, even the same margins. The idea is to prevent the Secretary from favoring something because of its formatting. If your document doesn’t pass muster, it gets “bounced” and you have to redraft it.
So it’s no wonder that John Bolton is so disliked within the Department. In his four years as Undersecretary for Arms Control, he regularly ignored the rules, cherry-picking policy and making statements without clearing them. He even had the audacity to tell State and CIA officials that they didn’t have the authority to review his speeches. He sought the demotion or firing (depending on who you ask) of those who had the audacity to make changes.
As a result, Bolton’s four years at State are littered with clearance battles. Bolton fought back whenever Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage insisted that he or Secretary Colin Powell clear his speeches in advance. The man hates process. It probably gives him hives just thinking about it.
Perhaps the most infamous example of his disregard for the clearance process took place in 2003. Before he gave what was perhaps the single most ill-advised speech of his career (and that’s really saying something, given his track record), a speech that almost single-handedly derailed arms control talks with axis of evil charter member North Korea, he went not to Powell, not to Armitage, not even to Jack Pritchard or Tom Hubbard, the officials responsible for Korea policy. He sought out Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly — who, in what Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s Chief of Staff, calls “a moment of weakness,” approved it.
That’s not how the system works, Mr. Bolton. And despite my horror stories about working within the system, I am not sympathetic to your plight. Like it or not, the Department’s clearance process is designed to prevent loose cannons like you from making an end run around policy. In fact, it is expressly designed to protect “the weak” (e.g. career foreign service officers) when challenged by “the strong” (e.g. high-ranking political appointees).
And for all my dislike of the system, it works. I served in the human rights bureau, which is known inside the department as the “NGO within the building.” We were not (and my successors are not) the most popular folks around, especially in the regional bureaus and embassies, where many folks like to forget to mention pesky issues like human rights when dealing with a given country.
What protected my bureau – and helped us win numerous battles – was the clearance process. The China desk didn’t have the power to ignore human rights. They had to deal with us.
Now think about what John Bolton’s hatred for process means if he actually (God forbid) makes it to Turtle Bay. He didn’t behave himself within the (un)friendly confines of Foggy Bottom. Just imagine how frequently he’ll go off the reservation when he’s in far-away New York.
Secretary Rice may be thinking she’s outsourcing her John Bolton problem, but the reality is that if he does make it to New York, he will be even worse. It’s no wonder that the Foreign Service (not exactly the most revolutionary body) has almost to a person fought his nomination.
And come on, Mr. Bolton, this can’t be very much fun for you. Wouldn’t you be much happier in a nice little think tank where you can growl to your heart’s content – and without worrying about getting anyone else’s approval?
But if Bolton continues to insist on going to New York – and President Bush accommodates him with a political appointment – I have a suggestion that should make Secretary Rice’s life much easier.
Tell Bolton that before he packs his bags, before he can utter a word in New York, before he can even get back into the Department for meetings, he has to go back to school. Send him to the Foreign Service Institute out in Arlington, which is responsible for teaching junior Foreign Service officers (and political appointees to ambassadorships) the art of diplomacy.
Tell him that if he doesn’t obey his instructors, that if he fails the class, he doesn’t get to go to New York. Tell him that he has to learn to listen to others – even seek their approval, perhaps for the first time in his life.
Maybe then he’ll understand why there’s a clearance process. I doubt it, but it’s worth a try.