John Bolton refused to come clean at his confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, playing down his contempt for the UN and for international law. Bolton, who claimed in 1994, “there is no such thing as the United Nations,” pledged to forge a “close partnership” with the UN if confirmed as US Ambassador to the United Nations.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Cal) confronted Bolton with a videotape of a 1994 speech in which he said, caustically, “If the U.N. Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Boxer said, “I see the anger, the hostility. What we saw here was the real John Bolton.”
Boxer then observed, “My overall assessment, Mr. Bolton, is that you have nothing but disdain for the United Nations. It’s hard for me to know why you’d want to work at an institution that you said didn’t even exist.”
Bolton, Bush’s most controversial nominee among many, explained his statement that the UN “does not exist” with his theory of “the fallacy of false concreteness” – the United Nations does not exist apart from the member states which comprise it. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill) turned Bolton’s characterization back on him, saying it follows that we should not then blame the United Nations for the corruption in the oil-for-food program – the responsibles were member states, not the UN itself. Conservatives have recently used the oil-for-food scandal to discredit the UN.
The major theme that ran throughout the questioning was that Bolton is an ideologue who manipulates intelligence to fit his own analysis, and his acrimonious temperament may pose a threat to our security.
Obama challenged Bolton for his overstatement of Syria’s aggressive capabilities, saying, “The CIA had to reign you in.” He criticized Bolton’s claim that Libya surrendered its weapons of mass destruction program as a result of watching the US get tough with Iraq. Obama contended that diplomacy convinced Libya. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) pointed out that Bolton may have actually tried to scuttle the diplomatic dialogue between the US and Libya. Bush also shuns diplomacy in favor of bullying less powerful nations.
In North Korea, Iran and Syria “we can’t afford to cry wolf,” Obama told Bolton. “If we gild the lily and overstate our case,” said Obama, it will harm our troops abroad and our national security.
Kerry also zeroed in on whether Bolton might make us less safe, saying, “We’ve just come off the most massive intelligence failure in history.” Kerry maintained it’s vital to the security of the American people to know whether Bolton was a party to that failure.
Much of the questioning focused on Bolton’s allegation that Cuba had a biological weapons program, and his retaliation against two intelligence experts who challenged his now-discredited view. Bolton insisted his differences with the two were procedural, that they had gone behind his back with their suggested changes to his proposed speech. The Senators successfully established that Bolton really quarreled with the content of the criticism.
Bolton had wanted to say, “The United States believes Cuba has a developmental offensive biological warfare program and is providing assistance to other to rogue state programs.” After it was vetted by numerous intelligence agencies, the language was softened to say, “Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states.” Cuba, which has an advanced biomedical program, adamantly denies it has ever had a biological weapons program of any sort. And ironically, two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bolton vehemently opposed the Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention that would have required member states, including the US, to submit to inspections of their biological weapons.
Bolton denied trying to have the two men who disagreed with him fired. Members of the Senate committee, however, spoke with seven intelligence officials who contradicted Bolton’s assertion. One said Bolton had dismissed the opinion of Christian Westermann, the chief bioweapons analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, as “a midlevel INR munchkin analyst.” Boxer noted that this “midlevel munchkin” was a war hero who served in the US military for 23 years.
The toughest questions didn’t come just from the Democrats on the committee. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska, referring to Iraq, asked Bolton, “How could the UN weapons inspectors be so right and us so wrong?… How could the UN inspectors be right and how did we miss it?” To bolster the case for war with Iraq, Bolton pushed for Bush to include in his State of the Union address the false statement about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger, over the opposition of the State Department.
When Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis) asked Bolton whether the United States made a mistake by failing to stop the genocide in Rwanda 11 years ago, Bolton had no substantive response. “We don’t know if it was logistically possible to do anything different,” Bolton replied. “Your answer is amazingly passive,” Feingold told Bolton.
Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he had “grave concern” about Bolton as UN ambassador. “We need a strong voice in New York who knows the UN and who can advance our reform agenda,” Biden asserted. “And I fear that knowing your reputation – and your reputation is known well at the UN – people will be inclined to tune you out.” Biden was concerned that sending Bolton to New York would be “like sending a bull into a China shop.”
Even if all 8 Democrats on the committee vote against the Bolton nomination, it could go to the full Senate unless at least one Republican joins them. Senator Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican from Rhode Island, who faces reelection next year, has received tremendous pressure from his heavily Democratic constituency, “overwhelmingly” opposed to Bolton’s nomination. Although Chafee charged that Bolton’s sharp comments about North Korean president Kim Jong Ill “seem to be impeding our progress” in the talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the Senator said he was leaning toward voting for Bolton anyway.
Yesterday’s hearing was interrupted by protestors from Code Pink, a women’s peace group, who carried signs saying “No Bolton – Yes UN” and “Bolton = Proliferation.” They were escorted out of the hearing room.
The hearing continues today with the testimony of other witnesses, including some of the intelligence officials who dispute Bolton’s report of his handling of the Cuba intelligence matter.