Page van der LindenJohn Bolton’s Bizarro World

As anyone who follows foreign policy and national security issues knows, officials from past presidential administrations have a way of somehow remaining relevant, regardless of their area of expertise — or, in some cases, their total lack of expertise. No matter how wrong they’ve been on national security issues, they never seem to go away.

John Bolton is one of those people. For the past year or so, he’s made himself comfortable on the op-ed pages and the airwaves. He even appeared on The Daily Show, summing up his world view as:

There is not that much difference between me and the people who want a world where no government has nuclear weapons. I only want one government to have nuclear weapons.

He was, of course, referring to the United States. Keep in mind that this is the man who helped orchestrate US withdrawal from the ABM, personally impeded strengthening the BWC, and was instrumental in cooking the Bush administration’s intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs. The only interest Bolton has in arms control is to dismantle it.

Now that the US Senate’s lame duck session has begun, and the push for approval of the Senate’s resolution of advice and consent to ratification of the New START treaty is foremost on the administration’s agenda, John Bolton has decided, yet again, to insert himself into the discussion. He and infamous torture memo author John Yoo co-authored an op-ed that was published in the New York Times/International Herald Tribune today. To put it politely, the op-ed is so bizarre that it’s difficult to imagine the authors are living on the same planet as the rest of us.

To call this piece “reality-challenged” would be an understatement. It goes through all the tired, predictable (and repeatedly debunked) Heritage Foundation-style talking points about missile defense, verification, “modernization”, and the preposterous claim that the modest cuts defined by the treaty will somehow leave us defenseless. Been there, done that; we’ve seen this movie before.

But where Bolton and Yoo really go off the rails is when they try to convince the reader that the New START resolution is basically a meaningless document:

The Obama administration hopes to sell this dangerous bargain with a package of paper promises. The Foreign Relations Committee’s resolution contains various “conditions,” “understandings” and “declarations” holding that New Start doesn’t “impose any limitations on the deployment of missile defenses” or dilute Congress’s aspiration to defend the nation from missile attack. A second understanding exempts conventional weapons systems with a global reach. A third affirms Congress’s commitment to the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

…They are mere policy statements that attempt to influence future treaty interpretation. They do not have the force of law; they do not bind the president or future Congresses. The Constitution’s supremacy clause makes the treaty’s text the “law of the land.”

As Jeffrey quipped this morning, “Yoo seems to like torturing logic as well as people”. The convoluted dismissal of the New START resolution of advice and consent to ratification seems to be Yoo and Bolton’s way of setting up their next big idea, which is — you guessed it — reject the treaty altogether:

To prevent New Start from gravely impairing America’s nuclear capacity, the Senate must ignore the resolution of ratification and demand changes to the treaty itself. These should include deleting the preamble’s language linking nuclear arsenals to defense systems, and inserting new language distinguishing conventional strike capacities from nuclear launching systems or deleting limits on launchers entirely. Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start.

(Emphasis mine.)

In other words, kill the treaty by delaying it indefinitely, so we can come up with something completely new that includes developing and testing new nuclear warheads.

I shouldn’t have to point out the sheer insanity of that suggestion, and the global repercussions it would have. It should be obvious.

It’s also obvious that opposition to New START has become entirely political, as Kelsey Hartigan has described here. Conservative opposition essentially has nothing to do with the treaty itself as much as “if the President wants it, we’re going to block it, delay it, and try to kill it,” an altogether dangerous and toxic situation.

Finally, it’s important to note that those arguing in favor of treaty ratification far outweigh those arguing against it, and have considerably greater experience in national security issues. The worrying part is that though the opposition voices are loud, inexpert, and coming from a far-off fantasy land, there’s a chance they may be influencing the opinion of Senators whose votes are needed to pass the resolution.

Update: Fred Kaplan has thoroughly dissected the op-ed. It’s well worth your time to read the whole thing. Click here.


  1. joshua (History)

    Well, the good news is, if that’s the best they can do, the opponents of New START have no case.

    Without the celebrity names attached to this op-ed, it’s difficult to imagine that anything so specious would have been published in such a high-profile venue. For the rest of us, there are standards. Since it was published, though, maybe it’s worth commenting on its empty assertions. I’ll address just one.

    My favorite sentence: “The Senate should heed the will of the voters and either reject the treaty or amend it so that it doesn’t weaken our national defense.”

    And what is the will of the voters? That’s not obvious, since New START wasn’t much of a campaign issue. We’ll have to settle for the CNN poll from April that found 70% of American adults in favor of ratifying New START.

  2. P.E.T. (History)

    “John Bolton has decided, yet again, to insert himself into the discussion.”

    So what’s so wrong with that-You’ve done the same. Public debate of this issue is important.

    Some think the public should not be in the loop – I do.

    • page (History)

      Nothing’s wrong with anyone having an opinion and expressing it. I’ve made it very clear why I think John Bolton is absolutely the last person anyone should listen to on arms control, and have provided examples why that is the case (please click the links), and that’s the difference. He’s in the unique position of having given nothing but bad (and completely wrong) advice for the better part of the past 10 years. He’s the last person who should have anything to say about New START, and his statements prove that.

  3. Jeffrey (History)

    I think the best evident that Bolton and Yoo’s criticisms are convenient, rather than substantive, arises from looking at the “alternatives” put forward by various groups over the past few months in opposition to the treaty.

    For a while, as I noted in this post, the Republican Policy Committee initially tried arguing that the Administration should have extended START instead — something many of us tried to get the Bush Administration to pursue with little success.

    Then, Heritage started arguing the Administration instead should have negotiated a verification protocol to the Moscow Treaty — although a good idea that I would have supported. Guess how many times the Heritage Foundation made that helpful suggestion before New START was completed? That’s right: BAGEL.

    Now, the argument is that the Senate should “amend” the treaty, which of course will prompt the Russians to do the same, preventing the Treaty from entering into force.

    The first two proposals were reasonable, but — like the third — were not intended to be helpful. All three were offered in a spirit of partisanship and obstruction. I wish there had been a coherent Republican argument about how to approach New START. The arms control process produces better results when the skeptics participate in good faith.

  4. Scott Monje (History)

    Speaking of arguments of convenience, I especially like . . .

    …They are mere policy statements that attempt to influence future treaty interpretation. They do not have the force of law; they do not bind the president or future Congresses. The Constitution’s supremacy clause makes the treaty’s text the “law of the land.”

    . . . because Bolton frequently says the same thing about treaties themselves, that they are mere policy statements with no legal validity.

  5. P.E.T. (History)

    “I’ve made it very clear why I think John Bolton is absolutely the last person anyone should listen to on arms control, and have provided examples why that is the case (please click the links), and that’s the difference.”

    I understand your point, but I too live in a world that totally disagrees with your position. Yet, you seem more focused at attacking the person because of his differing opinions.

    Yes, he’s been & is in a unique position, but one you’ve not experienced.

    • Smith (History)

      “I understand your point, but I too live in a world that totally disagrees with your position.”

      No, you don’t live in a world that “totally disagrees.” A number of responses to this post make this assertion false.

      “Yes, he’s been & is in a unique position, but one you’ve not experienced.”

      His position is only unique in the context of the administrations he worked in (and, arguably, the damage he’s done while holding said positions). There have been multiple Ambassdors to the UN and Under Secretaries for Arms Control and International Security. Furthermore, other individuals have experienced being in his position and disagree with many of the points stated in the op-ed (see

      This is a curious statement to make. Are you positing that individuals who haven’t been in his position have no basis to criticize? Are the examples presented in the post invalidated or summarily wrong due to the author not having held the position of Under Secretary? What are you trying to say here?

    • FSB (History)

      I agree with you — unfortunately the ACW bloggers took down my earlier post due to obscenity…I think.

      Anyway, since SecDef and joint chiefs and any other military official that is pertinent agrees we should go ahead with New START to improve our security, John Bolton and Yoo are flat-out wrong.

      P.E.T. — which of Bolton’s statements to you think are true?

      e.g. Col Saltzman (chief of the air force’s Strategic Plans and Policy Division) has said we need about 311 nukes:

      arguments about living in an alternate world hold no water — one could go to a lunatic asylum — or Heritage — and find people or gerbils who agree with Bolton, but their alternate worlds and realities do not interest the rest of us much.

      I will go with the SecDef and Joint Chiefs over Bolton, PET, Heritage, gerbils and Yoo.

  6. archjr (History)

    This is so embarrassing. I used to read everything Heritage had to say, as a way of making sure I understood all the arguments. When a respected think tank allows its political arm (I guess Hezbollah has an equivalent) to spout such nonsense, it has sold its soul to cheap-eats politics. Bolton is not an idiot, but he is a far cry from the earlier version of the Committee on the Present Danger: Gene Rostow, Richard Burt and Perle, Midge Decter, Irving Kristol, even Paul Wolfowitz, who remains smart after some time off the reservation. At least these latter folks had been there and done that. These new poseurs are just that, poseurs. I support New START for all the obvious reasons, but if I were really convinced it was wrong, I sure could make a more convincing argument than these dopes. And they are getting away with it because anyone will publish them and nobody really cares. Sorry for the rant, folks, but this stuff really gets me in the craw.

  7. Andrew (History)

    Am I the only one who finds it ironic that this great champion of Senate power only found an incredibly short lived foreign policy position by “completely disregarding the Senate’s role in foreign policy”? (See link:

    Opinions are a lot like something else that won’t come to mind, everyone has one.

    • FSB (History)

      Nice! 😉

  8. Chaz P. (History)

    I am surprised no one has mentioned John Yoo’s participation yet, as his explanation of treaty ratification is at best duplicitous.

    True, the Senate’s consent is required by the constitution, but an alternative vehicle for treaty ratification is through the regular legislative process (majority passage by both houses).

    His history is also pretty rough. Withdrawal from the Taiwan defense treaty WAS challenged, in Goldwater v. Carter, but Carter pulled a fait accompli as the Supreme Court considered this a political question beyond its prudence to resolve – a stretch to “without judicial complaint”. Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty required consent by Russia, not exactly by virtue of unilateral power. At best, to invoke Justice Jackson’s concurrence in the Steel Seizure Case, this is at best an area of Executive authority where congress has been silent, which is to say, not exactly constitutional terra firma.

    So to summarize, Yoo pulls his legal support from 1) a period where constitutional law was still in its infancy, 2) where a weak President had been turned upon by his own party in Congress for political purposes, 3) a Supreme Court punt, and 4) one whose long-term precedent has yet to be fully flushed out by any branch of government. None of which really support his “plain meaning” jurisprudence, while the ‘advice’ part of “advice and consent” of the Senate is generally, or, dare I say, plainly, understood to mean the recommendations from the Foreign Relations Committee.

    Not bad for a Paleo-Con law student, eh?

    • Chaz P. (History)

      I had an additional thought re: election mandate, and this is one that the wonkier of you would be able to answer – what would be the net savings gained by the reduction of arms in compliance with the treaty?

      I’m no rocket scientist (or rocket science budget analyst), but one might guess that treaty compliance would lead to a marginally smaller governmental force in this sector as well as a decrease in required tax revenues, two things that were somewhat higher in the mandate than a plain reading jurisprudence.

    • anon (History)

      Just a small point, U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty did not require any approval by Russia. The withdrawal clauses in Treaties are designed to give each party the right to withdraw if its own national security interests demand it; there is no need for agreement or approval from the other party.

  9. FSB (History)

    Can we bring back the old ACW blog where obscenity was ok, nay, encouraged?

  10. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The op-ed piece read like the ravings of a lunatic, but they represent the beliefs of the new republican party.

    There is a slim chance of pushing the treaty through the Senate before January, but no chance after the new Senate is seated.

    What is curious about the op-ed piece in the NY Times is that the newspaper chose to give it’s forum to such a pair of wing-nuts as Boulton and Yoo.

  11. FSB (History)

    Chaz — in any case, any net savings that the Treaty would result in the tax-and-spend republicans would have us “invest” in NNSA and other pet projects like making new warheads.

    Amazing that these people can get away with calling themselves conservative.

    • anon (History)

      Implementing New START will not result in any budget savings. It would not lead to the cancellation of any procurement programs (to the contrary, it will be accompanied by the initiation and expansion of procurement programs for modernization.) It will not lead to the reduction in any infrastructure, to the contrary, the treaty limits and U.S. force structure plans are designed to ensure that the U.S. will not have to close any bases or eliminate any significant force structure.

      Because the U.S. will not cut force structure or infrastructure, the treaty will not produce any savings in operations and maintenance. If anything, the cost per deployed warhead will increase.

    • FSB (History)

      Well, well, cost PER deployed warhead may, arguably, increase, but since the number of deployed warheads will go down, there may be savings yet.

      If we go down to one warhead, the cost/warhead will indeed be astronomical.

      Arithmetic is powerful.

      That said, it is charming how the tea-baggers and conservatives (so-called) would like us to expand government in their own pet spheres.

  12. Andreas Persbo (History)

    I haven’t done constitutional law in a while, and am no expert on the US constitution by any means, but I thought that the “law of the land” locution had been significantly constrained by the US Supreme Court, and starting with the 1804 ruling in Murray v. Schooner.

    John Bolton is a very skilled lawyer, so I’m surprised by this statement.

  13. Anon (History)
  14. FSB (History)

    “seven of the last eight commanding generals of the U.S. Strategic Command (which controls the nuclear arsenal), five former secretaries of defense, and three former national security advisers (including Stephen Hadley from the George W. Bush White House) endorse the treaty.

    What do Bolton and Yoo—who almost certainly have never seen a nuclear targeting list in their lives—know that these generals and top officials don’t?”

  15. FSB (History)

    Not one of the letters to NYT supports the douchebags’ OpEd:

  16. bobbymike (History)

    Here’s a question; Around the web on places like Armscontrolwonk opposition to New START is said to be ONLY because those same people are opposed to President Obama.

    OK, so if that is true then; If Obama came out and codified SORT (and say added expired START verification) plus a robust nuclear modernization plan that included new warheads and testing it stands to reason Bolton and others would be opposed to that?

    Is that what you are saying?

    • FSB (History)


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