Peter Scoblic: Bolton & North Korea


The timing of John Bolton’s possible recess appointment early next week just as we’re sitting down with the North Koreans after a year-long hiatus in the six-party talks reminds me that, however sketchy Bolton’s conduct at State, the chief reason to oppose his appointment is the blow it would deal to U.S. national security. Bolton, after all, is one of the diplomatic masterminds whose chief contribution to solving the North Korean nuclear crisis was to routinely insult Pyongyang’s leadership, with no apparent goal other than gaining personal satisfaction for “telling it like it is” and undercutting any diplomatic progress. The United States will have a tough enough time crafting a deal on North Korea’s nukes even if Bush representatives are acting in good faith and with reasonable latitude to negotiate. This is hardly the time for Bolton to begin lobbing grenades from a high perch at Turtle Bay.
The broader context of the North Korea negotiations — and the role that Bolton would play should he get a recess appointment — is the administration’s fealty to the hardline conservatism that governed its first term and kept it from, among other things, negotiating (seriously) with North Korea and (at all) with Iran. This is a point I discuss in a long piece I’ve just written for The New Republic, in which I argue that the administration’s focus on the character of states has always eclipsed its focus on their capabilities-especially their nuclear capabilities-even though those capabilities constitute an immediate threat. To the extent that conservatism is captive to the notion that the moral character of a state determines whether or how we engage it, then conservatives are incapable of defending the country, in particular from nuclear weapons.
The exception to this rule was the Libya episode, in which we cut a deal that left the country’s regime in place but got rid of its unconventional weapons program. Alas, as Steve has pointed out on this site, that success was only possible after Bolton was removed from the U.S. negotiating team at the behest of the British. If the Libya model is to be applied to North Korea or anywhere else-i.e., if the administration is going to sacrifice its ideological obsessions for a pragmatism that actually advances U.S. interests in North Korea or elsewhere — having Bolton at the UN will be a real problem. Of course, maybe it doesn’t matter: after all, if Bush appoints Bolton, he’ll have sent a clear signal that he’s not interested in sacrificing conservatism for progress — and we’d see little progress on the Peninsula anyway.
Peter Scoblic