Did Richard Armitage REALLY endorse John Bolton?


The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler reveals today the story running around town about Richard Armitage “endorsing” John Bolton.
Kessler writes:

In a boost for Bolton, however, Powell’s closest friend, former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage, endorsed Bolton in a statement to the Associated Press. “John Bolton is eminently qualified,” Armitage told a reporter as he entered an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He’s one of the smartest guys in Washington.”
Asked if Bolton was a good choice, Armitage replied, “It was the president’s choice and I support my president.”
Armitage had many testy battles with Bolton during President Bush’s first term, and his positive remarks surprised Bolton’s supporters. Many of the former State Department officials who have emerged to criticize Bolton are close associates of Armitage.

Yes, I agree. Richard Armitage’s comments confuse.
I’ve been thinking about his words all day, wondering how to respond and suggest an alternative context for the Armitage comments that were not instantly tainted by my own biases that John Bolton is not the kind of Ambassador that will either make Americans feel proud nor be able to seduce and encourage other major stake-holding nations to go as far as America might like in reforming the U.N.
I don’t know Richard Armitage well — but I do know well many who do.
I have served on at least one Council on Foreign Relations study group on Japan co-chaired by Rich Armitage, and I know most of his close acolytes including Paul Giarra, Sak Sakoda, and Michael Green.
My views on Japan and America’s general security engagement in the Asia Pacific region do not match Armitage’s — but they are the kind of civil discussions and debates where people agree to disagree. I have also had numerous other policy encounters with Armitage and have seen him in action dozens upon dozens of times over the years.
He is one of those “behind-the-scenes” types who wield power with tremendous precision and effect.
In Japan, which is a nation that Armitage has spent a lot of time in over the years, there is a useful social and language architecture that allows Japanese to feign politeness and courtesy while perhaps having different feelings or intentions.
Tatemae means the surface or veneer. While honne means reality or one’s true feeling or intent.
In other words, Japanese people — operating from a thousand year orientation that some have called “village mentality” — learn to get along by overdoing the courtesy — but privately hiding the negative or what could be genuine concerns. Karel van Wolferen once wrote that tatemae was nothing more than ‘socially sanctioned deceit,” but I am less harsh. I think societies sometimes need this sort of mechanism — and Washington may be using it too ala Armitage.
In American politics, there is a tatemae/honne game constantly underway. Having a sense of the “political” is a prized trait in most DC staff positions — which means being able to sense opportunity, position, and/or leverage in some political matter — no matter what one’s own views.
Richard Armitage has clearly been working to expose the full dossier on John Bolton. He encouraged various of his and Secretary Powell’s staff to share what they knew. On one hand — in the cynical political marketplace of Washington — Armitage was clearly working against Bolton by trying to get all that was known into the open. On the other, it could be alternatively argued that encouraging Wilkerson or others to speak the truth is ethical and honest — and has nothing to do with stopping or helping John Bolton. It’s a strategy to just let the cards fall where they will.
Armitage no doubt took the same course in conversations with Colin Powell before the former Secretary of State held private phone conversations with Senators Chafee and Hagel about his own reservations about John Bolton.
We don’t know much about what Powell said other than it doesn’t appear to have been positive.
This is total behind-the-scenes leverage. . .operating at the most elite level.
Why are they doing this? Well, the honne is that Armitage is really working against Bolton’s nomination but doesn’t want any formal, explicit, or overt corroboration of this activity. In Washington, it is honorable to work in the shadows, pull strings from behind — particularly if the objective is good, which upending the Bolton nomination would be.
However, going public — signing a letter against another colleague or making a highly negative public statement — would violate the “good soldier” spirit that Armitage tries to bring to his positions.
While I don’t always agree with his views, Armitage clearly is a patriot, believes first in the nation, believes in principled American engagement in global affairs, wants an improved and healthy U.N. in the future, stood by his friend and boss Colin Powell through a lot of muck, and stands by his President as long as that President is in office…and perhaps after.
Armitage’s tatemae is that he supports the President’s choice for the U.N. ambassadorship. His honne, in the view of TWN, is that he has done his utmost to encourage his President to reconsider his decision — and if the White House proceeds with Bolton, it at least proceeds with eyes wide open about the potential problems Bolton may bring to this foreign policy portfolio.
When Brent Scowcroft recently spoke at SAIS about John Bolton (will hyperlink later), he also commented that Bolton was a very smart man who knew a lot about the U.N. — pretty much the same as Rich Armitage.
What Scowcroft then proceeded to say is that what mattered with Bolton were the instructions he would be given and whether he would follow them. This is Scowcroftian language translated to mean that Bolton can’t be readily trusted to do what he’s told.
Richard Armitage had a small team of folks constantly watching Bolton and trying to end-run him before he did too much damage in his various crusades. Armitage reportedly resents years of tension not between himself and Bolton, but rather that Bolton so frequently tried to undermine Powell or tried to keep him uninformed about some particular matter or other so that Powell found himself often “surprised” at morning staff meetings because of things Bolton had done, not done, had promulgated, or hidden — at odds with the rest of the State Department.
Armitage has been one of the key players behind-the-scenes on Bolton, but I won’t expect a confirmation from him of that. . .ever.
That would disrupt the terms of his obligations and social contract with President Bush to be a good soldier. But privately, Armitage has worked hard to expose Bolton’s failings and errors in judgment and behavior also as an act of loyalty to the President, and to Colin Powell for that matter.
I think Armitage could have been more robust in his support of Bolton had he wanted to in what sounds like an off-hand, quick Q&A in passing with an AP reporter.
Had it been on stage, I could easily see and hear Armitage adding a cryptic line like Scowcroft did outlining a question without publicly undermining Bolton.
So, I don’t know if I have achieved my objective — which was to analyze why Richard Armitage’s public and private comments seem to be at odds without overly indulging my own biases about John Bolton.
Just given the empirical reality that most know, Armitage’s comments only seem to make sense in some formulation of private duty and public veneer that packaged together seem honorable. I know some will disagree — but I think that this is an accurate accounting.
Some more cynically think that Armitage’s endorsement of Bolton — well, let’s not call it an endorsement (now my bias appears) , let’s call them unharsh and rather surprisingly positive commentary on Bolton — is tied to a campaign by Armitage to succeed Don Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.
I don’t think so. He’s more complex than that — and does believe in duty. He may not want to ‘disrupt’ the possibility of such an appointment, but I don’t think it’s the primary driver here.
He probably deserves any one of a number of roles. He could have headed the CIA, or had Negroponte’s job as Director of National Intelligence, or headed the National Security Council. Some wanted to suggest him as an Ambassador to the U.N. — but he’d never take that job, regrettably.
Thus, to those who think that Armitage gave a strong endorsement to Bolton, I’d say take another look — and consider the tatemae/honne dimensions at play here. Armitage knows Japan well — very well — and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he imported this device to help manage his campaign against Bolton while serving his President.
— Steve Clemons