On Friday, the battle over John Bolton’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations ceased to be a battle about Bolton — and became a battle about the presidency.
That morning, The New York Times reported on its front page that “associates of Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state, said he had expressed reservations about Mr. Bolton in conversations with at least two wavering Republican senators.” The Washington Post carried a still more strongly flavoured story about Powell’s “private conversations” with senators on the Foreign Relations Committee: The Post quoted an anonymous Democratic staffer saying, “[Powell] has let it be known that the Bolton nomination is a bad one, to put it mildly.”
Stories like these do not (obviously) appear in newspapers by accident. Powell is not merely going to war against Bolton. He is declaring war before the whole world.
But why would Powell do such a thing? As a supremely talented bureaucratic warrior, Powell must know that the deadliest blow he could deal Bolton would be a whispered word to the Foreign Relations Committee’s more liberal Republicans: Lincoln Chafee, Chuck Hagel, George Voinovich. Bolton is backed by a re-elected President and a powerful Vice-President. By taking a public stand against Bolton, Powell is also taking a public stand against Bush and Cheney.
Is it possible that Powell did not understand that? No, it is utterly impossible. Powell is joining this fight with eyes wide open — and playing for the very grandest of stakes.
One of the most difficult manoeuvres in the Washington power game is the move from power to influence. Power comes with high office, and high office is always temporary. But rarely — very rarely — an office-holder’s reputation, or personal connections, or unique knowledge enable him to exert influence on events even after he leaves his office behind. Henry Kissinger is the outstanding example of the post-official influential, flanked perhaps by former treasury secretary Bob Rubin on the Democratic side and former secretary of state James Baker among Republicans.
Powell is now bidding to join this august group. How more dramatically to stake his claim than to take credit for defeating one of President Bush’s most high-profile nominees? The fact that Powell has long disdained Bolton may add special zest to Powell’s campaign against him. But make no mistake: Bolton is only an incidental target and only a secondary rival to Powell. Powell’s true target is the Bush administration itself — and his true antagonist is the President himself.
I disagree with Frum’s assertion in the article that “Bolton’s philosophy is uniquely aligned with the President’s own.” Bush has demonstrated far more flexibility than even the neocons give him credit for.
And I disagree with David that “we’ll yet see ambassador Bolton raise his hand over the American desk at the Security Council.”
Where he is absolutely right is that the White House has allowed the controversy over Bolton become a controversy about much greater issues than Bolton the man — but also about broad foreign policy questions and about the state of the Bush presidency itself.
The White House gambled recklessly in pushing Bolton on a Congress that may be compelled to reject him — not only because Bolton was a bad choice for the U.N. job but to prove that we do not have a monarchy.
— Steve Clemons