The Battle over Bolton: The Costs of Winning are Going to Be High for Either Side


Very high-handed politics have erupted in the Bolton Battle. All players must take a step back and consider options, figure out how much they want to gamble to make a point and secure victory.
The battle has reached new lows with the Center for Security Policy’s recent release of its “Sore Loser” ad arguing that the battle over Bolton is all about the 2004 election. Frank Gaffney and friends have not fully internalized the reality that if the Republican side was solidly behind the President’s bad choice, this debate would not be taking place. There is no battle over Rob Portman at USTR, or about Bob Joseph to take Bolton’s position, or any real battle over Negroponte. This is about a bad choice the President has made — and the Center for Security Policy has made a bad choice in promulgating this ad.
But to be clear — victory for any one who wins in this battle, including those who oppose Bolton, will be costly. Lots of political capital will be spent.
Let’s look at the players and what’s at stake.
The White House showed its cards some time ago when it failed to withdraw Bolton’s nomination, and he failed to step back. That was a signal that Cheney’s wing of the White House and Republican Party — the “win at all costs” wing — was ready to gamble it all to win on Bolton — in part because of the fear that a loss would trigger a decline in their own influence. That decline now seems somewhat assured no matter what the outcome because they have overpaid and over-invested in the Bolton nomination.
Beyond the headlines, it is abundantly clear that Lincoln Chafee — though he may very well support Bolton — does not want to vote for this person. He offends Chafee’s sensibilities, and more important than him, those of a vast majority of Rhode Island voters. When Bolton was a relatively obscure bureaucrat whom few had heard of before being assigned to the United Nations — which rarely has as much importance as it does now during institutional transformation negotiations — the Bolton vote was inconsequential for Chafee and other Republican Senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But the real achievement of those who have worked hard to oppose John Bolton’s nomination on the grounds that we should be sending someone with impeccable credentials, someone with a brilliant vision of an effective and reformed United Nations, and someone that Americans can feel instantly proud of is that John Bolton is now part of pop-culture. John Bolton is a household name. I’m flying back to Washington from Europe with a group of American rugby players — and all of them know of the Battle over Bolton — and only one of the twelve or so I have chatted with here — all from Florida — thinks Bolton should get the U.N. post. Of the twelve on the plane, ten are Republicans.
While not scientific, it’s patently obvious to any serious observers that the battle over Bolton is really NOT a battle between Democrats and Republicans. It does reflect an internal battle inside Republican circles. Bolton has been reckless on many fronts — national security and work place ethics — and it is those behaviors which have teased a fault line that exists between people like George Allen, Norm Coleman and Dick Cheney on one hand — and folks like Lincoln Chafee, Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel, Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski on the other. In the end, the Republicans may get Bolton out of Committee, but I still hope that the conscience of these Senators triggers real resistance. But the price that will be paid for these votes will be high.
I suspect that whereas Chafee is trying to forestall a challenge from a Republican candidate more conservative than he, his vote on Bolton is now consequential enough that it blurs substantially his opposition to Bush on nominations of anti-abortion judges. Bolton is now tangible — for both sides. He matters, and Chafee’s vote will be remembered, as a benchmark of conscience or lack thereof.
My point is that for the White House to win, moderate Republican Senators are being plowed over, and this makes their support of other Bush initiatives more complex. A Bolton win for them means no more Bolton-like behavior ever, no more Bolton-like nominees ever. Maybe one Bolton-like circumstance is enough for the White House, but frankly, the White House has increased the fragility of its situation dramatically by shoving Bolton down the gullet of moderates.
Hagel has similar problems. Voinovich will have to sign off on a bad boss — something very important in his State of Ohio where workplace relations and labor support is so important. Murkowski will have to sign off on someone whom she knows abused several women in important policy positions. All of these can and will come back to haunt them if they vote in Bolton’s favor. The White House doesn’t seem to care.
On the other hand, the opposition has lots of calculations to make as well. Biden and his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the Democratic Leadership need to decide how much they will want to spend fighting Bolton. They can make the obvious point that principle is at stake here — both the separation of powers and the importance of checking bad decisions by the Executive branch of government. The Senate has oversight functions over the Executive, and the administration by way of Condoleeza Rice is cherry-picking what materials they will and will not share with the Senate in a confirmation investigation.
Condi is cherry-picking. Bolton and his chief of staff Fred Fleitz cherry-picked. It’s dangerous — wrong — and antithetical to our form of government.
Biden now needs to calculate whether he will use every tool in his power to stick it to the White House, embarrass the weakness of the moderate Republicans who are fearful of their master, and stop the normal functioning of the Senate over the John Bolton nomination. There is the chance, of course, that Democrats and Republicans may square off over the nomination of judges — and the so-called “nuclear option” — and Bolton’s nomination troubles would get kicked into this bigger mess.
I believe that the Battle over Bolton is over big principles, about checks and balances in government, about principled American engagement in the world. I think that those concepts are worth fighting hard for, and Biden needs to figure out how willing he is to fight for those.
The White House is counting on Biden not having staying power and yielding. The White House screwed over Richard Lugar who is still supporting Bolton besides being denied the NSA intercepts along with Biden. Lugar’s considerable prestige has already been harmed by the Bolton nomination, and I imagine that he thinks his other contributions to national security discourse and the fact that he is the Chairman after all will keep the Bolton costs low. He may be miscalculating.
John Bolton himself is going to be followed by this controversy for a very long time. He could have withdrawn, taken a senior position in Cheney’s office and maintained well his role as a significant force in the Bush administration.
He won’t be now. Every move he makes — if confirmed — will be watched. Any misstep with subordinates leaked. Any bombastic bursts or immaturity with allies instantly reported.
Karl Rove called Bolton a “champion of multilateral diplomacy properly deployed.” I still think that John Bolton may never get the Ambassadorship of the U.N., but it is ironic that Bolton will not be allowed to “be Bolton” if he takes this job.
TWN and many others will make sure that any mistake haunts athose who put him there. And if the Iran situation explodes during Bolton’s tenure — the White House’s options will be hampered rather than helped by Bolton — as there is nothing in his demeanor or profile that will make it easy for him to recruit allies to our position if things with Iran go south.
Much to consider. The price is higher for all players. TWN encourages Biden and team to raise the stakes on the other side.
Make them gamble everything.
— Steve Clemons
(ed note: Thanks to J.E. for sending the ad to my attention.)