Jeffrey LewisSteinbruner on Bolton

John Steinbruner shares his thoughts on John Bolton, in an Arms Control Wonk exclusive:

It is reasonable to see the Bolton nomination as a small but potentially significant episode in what will ultimately have to be a more general reckoning.

As usual Bolton’s conservative supporters have so far framed the issue to their advantage: the peculiar details of his individual personality. They depict him as a tough patriot and thereby play to the tidal emotions that have engulfed the American political system in the aftermath of the September 11 events. If the question is restricted to personal characteristics, one can expect the nomination to be confirmed after a carefully negotiated measure of diligence has been displayed.

There are much more fundamental issues looming in the background, however, that would presumably sink the nomination if they are engaged. The extent to which they are engaged will be a practical test of whether the American political system is yet prepared to deal with issues of accountability and judgment that, let us all hope, will eventually have to be confronted.

The issue of accountability is superficially visible in the specific charges that have been raised about private intimidation of intelligence officials and public distortion of their assessments. Dedicated defenders of the appointment can be expected to denigrate the victims, perhaps citing some variation of Harry Truman’s famous quip: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Indeed the details of the charges do not appear to suggest criminal abuse, but that is hardly the point. The relevant fact is that the United States initiated war against Iraq on the basis of an indictment that was false and could reasonably have been known to be false at the time. Bolton is not the most culpable of the officials who did that, but he is among the more flamboyant. If accountability first descends upon him, he will have nothing to complain about.

The issue of judgment has not yet been prominently mentioned and probably will not be, but it is at least as serious. John Bolton certainly appears to be a person obsessively driven to prove – presumably to himself – how tough he really is. People of that sort should not be trusted to wield the instruments of power for they will assuredly abuse them. The United States ambassador to the UN does not directly wield major instruments of power, but the incumbent in that position does represent those who do. This is not the person for that position. It is very important for the United States to convey to an increasingly doubting world that it is in our interest and within our capacity to apply higher standards of judgment.