On the eve of the annual 9/11 observances, America's National Security Advisor John Bolton was either fired (per Trump) or resigned (per Bolton). The dispute is being portrayed as one between a Bush-era neocon and an "America First" Trump. But that is something of an over-simplification. As I wrote upon Bolton's appointment a year and a half ago:
Bolton is viewed with suspicion as a 'neocon', which is not a term of much practical use these days. But then so was his predecessor - H R McMaster. So the substitution might be of no more significance than a neocon whom Trump likes the company of taking the job of a neocon whom Trump finds a bit of a cold fish. There may be a little more to it than that: McMaster was complacent, and conventional to a fault; Bolton is a realist, and harder-headed about the illusions of mankind. Beyond that, McMaster belonged to the group of foreign-policy panjandrums who expected Trump to move towards them; Bolton has moved towards Trump.
And, having moved towards Trump, he came to have ever more reservations about what he found there. Whatever the President now says, at the time Bolton's appointment was a Trump choice reflecting a desire to regain control of an administration in danger of being neutered by the GOP establishment:
At this stage the Gullible Old Pussies of the Republican Party are pretty much openly advertising that giving them control of the House, the Senate and the White House is the equivalent of giving Yosemite Sam three sticks of dynamite to shove down his pants - with the additional nicety that this time round they're actively flipping the finger at their president's bedrock issue. I reiterate the point I first made on the radio a year ago: On January 20th 2017 Trump should have taken all those showboating showbiz no-shows at face value and held a businesslike inauguration at the southern border while laying the first brick. The brick remains unlaid - not because Vicente Fox refuses to 'pay for Trump's f**kin' wall' but because Paul Ryan does.
I've given up trying to discern ideological themes in Trump's firings and hirings: as far as I can tell, it's mostly about people he likes to hang out with - until he decides he doesn't. In the case of John Bolton, I first met the new National Security Advisor a decade and a half or so back, in a roomful of European prime ministers and foreign ministers. He delivered a line that stunned the joint:
International law does not trump the US Constitution.
I was standing next to the Finnish Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, who had a genuinely puzzled looked on his face and eventually inquired of me: "He is making a joke, no?"
No. Since then, I've interviewed him at Fox a couple of times and passed him in the green room on many others. Once, when I was guest-hosting, he talked very amusingly about "the European Unionization of the world", and I got a laugh out of him with a couple of Herman van Rompuy cracks. Off-air on on another occasion, during a break in "Fox & Friends" and after the Perth Declaration on proposed changes to the Succession to the Throne in Commonwealth realms, he asked me, seriously, what the governments of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands made of the end of male primogeniture: it surprised me - not because he was interested in the topic so much as that most commentators would be so entirely unaware of the topic as to not even know they were entirely uninterested in it.
Still, I can see why Princess Charlotte's chances of becoming Queen of Belize might not be a priority issue with Trump voters - although, to be honest, I doubt it has much less appeal to the base than "doing something for the Dreamers", which was the alleged GOP priority at the time of Bolton's appointment. I first wrote about him fourteen years ago, after Bush nominated him as UN Ambassador. This is from The Spectator of March 19th 2005 - and my remarks about "the code-speak consensus of the global elite" are relevant, I think, to what drove Trump's rise - as Mr Bolton was surely aware:
If you're going to play the oldest established permanent floating transnational crap game for laughs, you might as well pick an act with plenty of material. What I love about John Bolton, America's new ambassador to the UN, is the sheer volume of 'damaging' material. Usually, the Democrats and media have to riffle through decades of dreary platitudes to come up with one potentially exploitable infelicitous soundbite. But with Bolton the damaging quotes are hanging off the trees and dropping straight into your bucket. Five minutes' casual trawling through the back catalogue and your cup runneth over:
The UN building?
'If you lost ten storeys, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.'
Reform of the Security Council?
'If I were redoing the Security Council, I'd have one permanent member ...the United States.'
The International Criminal Court?
'Fuzzy-minded romanticism ...not just naive but dangerous.'
International law in general?
'It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law.'
Offering incentives to rogue states?
'I don't do carrots.'
But he does do shtick. I happen to agree with all the above statements, but I can see why the international community might be minded to throw its hands up and shriek, 'Quelle horreur!' It's not just the rest of the world. Most of the American media are equally stunned. The New York Times wondered what Mr Bush's next appointment would be:
Donald Rumsfeld to negotiate a new set of Geneva conventions? Martha Stewart to run the Securities and Exchange Commission?
Okay, I get the hang of this game. Sending John Bolton to be UN ambassador is like ...putting Sudan and Zimbabwe on the Human Rights Commission. Or letting Saddam's Iraq regime serve as chair of the UN conference on disarmament. Or sending a bunch of child-sex fiends to man UN operations in the Congo. And the Central African Republic. And Sierra Leone, and Burundi, Liberia, Haiti, Kosovo, and pretty much everywhere else.
All of which happened without the UN fetishists running around shrieking hysterically. Why should America be the only country not to enjoy an uproarious joke at the UN's expense?
In recent years, I've had the pleasure of watching John Bolton in action on a couple of occasions at semi-private gatherings comprised mainly of — what's the word? — foreigners. They were remarkable performances. Most of the Americans who hit the international cocktail circuit are eager to please. In Davos the other week, for example, CNN honcho Eason Jordan declared that US troops in Iraq were deliberately targeting journalists. Thanks to an enterprising blogger in attendance, this got him into hot water back home, and he wound up having to resign, mainly because it's completely untrue. Also in Davos, Bill Clinton endorsed the mullahs: 'Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that the ideas that I subscribe to are defended by a majority.' That's true in the very narrow sense that in both Mr Clinton's sex life and the ayatollahs' repressive theocracy it's the gals who wind up as the fall guys. But Slick Willie was making a broader point about the perfect harmony between him and Iran: 'In every single election, the guys I identify with got two thirds to 70 per cent of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own.'
I've never been to Davos, but I've sat next to the hot-looking Eurototty in the Alpine bar and tried to wangle me a little après-ski action and there comes a point in the evening when she says, 'Zat Jhorjhe Boosh. What an idiot, hein!' And you start to bristle, but then you realise that America and Old Europe are riven by as deep a divide as the magnificent plunging cleavage beckoning from her low-cut Fahrenheit 9/11 T-shirt and maybe now would be a good time for some transatlantic outreach in a very real sense, so you say, 'Yeah, Bush. What a chump. Not like that Ruud Lubbers, eh?' And you stare down her cleavage and catch your creepy sweaty face reflected in her shoes and feel momentarily ashamed, but not for long. My guess is that that's what Bill Clinton and Eason Jordan were up to when they respectively hailed the progressivism of Iranian politics and defamed the entire US military. You're with a bunch of foreigners and you want them to like you and it's easy to get carried away.
That's what was so stunning about Bolton. In a roomful of Euro-grandees, he was perfectly relaxed, a genial fellow with a rather Mitteleuropean moustache, but he thwacked every ball they served back down their gullets with amazing precision. He was the absolute antithesis of Schmoozer Bill and Pandering Eason: he seemed to relish their hostility. At one event, a startled British cabinet minister said to me afterwards, 'He doesn't mean all that, does he?'
But he does. And that's why the Bolton flap is very revealing about conventional wisdom on transnationalism. Diplomats are supposed to be 'diplomatic'. Why is that? Well, as the late Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson used to say, diplomacy is the art of letting the other fellow have your way. In other words, you were polite, discreet, circumspect, etc., as a means to an end. Not any more. None of John Bolton's detractors is worried that his bluntness will jeopardise the administration's policy goals. Quite the contrary. They're concerned that the administration has policy goals — that it isn't yet willing to subordinate its national interest to the polite transnational pieties. In that sense, our understanding of 'diplomacy' has become corrupted: it's no longer the language through which nation states treat with one another so much as the code-speak consensus of a global elite.
For much of the civilised world the transnational pabulum has become an end in itself, and one largely unmoored from anything so tiresome as reality. It doesn't matter whether there is any global warming or, if there is, whether Kyoto will do anything about it or, if you ratify Kyoto, whether you bother to comply with it: all that matters is that you sign on to the transnational articles of faith. The same thinking applies to the ICC, and Darfur, and the Oil-for-Fraud programme, and anything else involving the UN. It was at the heart of Clare Short's freaky objection to the Aussie–American post-tsunami relief effort. 'I think this initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to co-ordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN,' she told the BBC. 'Only really the UN can do that job. It is the only body that has the moral authority.'
Leaving aside the question of whether one can be the only body with moral authority when one's tastes run mainly to bodies under the age of twelve, the reality is that the UN couldn't do the job. Its permanent 24/7 365-days-a-year humanitarian bureaucracy took a month to get to Banda Aceh. The ad-hoc US–Australian operation was on the ground within hours. Miss Short's position seems to be that she'd be willing to forgive Washington's very effective relief effort as long as the Americans were more rhetorically submissive to the UN. In that sense, it's not so much that the American rapid response 'undermined' the UN as that the normal Western deference to the organisation has grossly over-inflated its 'legitimacy' and 'moral authority'.
That's what John Bolton had in mind with his observations about international law: 'It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so — because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States.' Just so. When George Bush Sr went through the UN to assemble his Stanley Gibbons coalition for the first Gulf war, it might have been a 'diplomatic triumph' but it was also the biggest single contributing factor to the received wisdom in the decade and a half since that only the UN has the international legitimacy to sanction war — to the point where, on the eve of Iraq's liberation, the Church of England decided that a 'just war' could only be one approved by the Security Council. That in turn amplifies the UN's claim to sole global legitimacy in a thousand other areas, big and small — the environment, guns, smoking, taxation.
Yet the assumption behind much of the criticism of Bolton from the likes of John Kerry is that, regardless of his government's foreign policy, a UN ambassador has to be at some level a UN booster. Twenty years ago, the then Secretary of State George Schultz used to welcome the Reagan administration's ambassadorial appointments to his office and invite each chap to identify his country on the map. The guy who'd just landed the embassy in Chad would invariably point to Chad. 'No,' Schultz would say, 'this is your country' — and point to the United States. Nobody would expect a US ambassador to the Soviet Union to be a big booster for the Soviets. And, given that in a unipolar world the most plausible challenger to the US is transnationalism, these days the Schultz test is even more pertinent for the UN ambassador: his country is the United States, not the ersatz jurisdiction of Kofi Annan's embryo world government.
A slyer argument is that yes, the UN's in a terrible state, what with the Oil-for-Fraud and the Congolese moppets and the flop response to Darfur and the tsunami, but that's all the more reason why America needs an ambassador able to build consensus for much-needed reforms. The problem with that seductive line is that most of the proposed reforms are likely to make things worse. Again, Bolton is right to be dismissive about restructuring the Security Council. Even as the Second World War victory parade preserved in aspic, it makes little sense: in 1945, both de Gaulle's France and Chiang Kai-shek's China had less convincing claims to a permanent seat at the table than my beloved Canada. Today, Russia is literally the sick man of Europe and the emaciated cadaver of Central Asia. Midway through its transition from 'superpower' to ghost town, the country already has lower male life expectancy than Bangladesh; by 2050, it will have a smaller population than Yemen. As for Germany, why should a European Union with a European foreign policy and a European foreign minister get a third permanent vote on the council? India? Brazil? South Africa? To be sure, they're all important regional powers, but regionalism is the curse of the UN: it's the division of the organisation into regional voting blocs with regional candidates that leads to the absurd elevation of Libya to the chairmanship of the Human Rights Commission. Giving every corner of the world its own permanent member and veto will only ensure that the response to the next decade's never-again genocide is even more sclerotic.
The Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, isn't as pithy as Bolton, but an unreported speech of his in 2003 captures the mood of Washington, too:
Increasingly multilateralism is a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator....We are prepared to join coalitions of the willing that can bring focus and purpose to addressing the urgent security and other challenges we face.
The UN is structurally unable to address those challenges. In recent years, for example, I can find only one example of a senior UN figure having the guts to call a member state a 'totalitarian regime'. It was former secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali last autumn, and he was talking about America. John Bolton's sin isn't that he's 'undiplomatic', but that he's correct.
~Alas, the US Senate decided to hold all that scoffing at ineffectual transnationalism against Mr Bolton. This is from my column in The Irish Times of a month later, April 18th 2005, when the ambassadorial nominee found himself singlehandedly provoking a #MeToo movement among hippaphobic members of the diplomatic corps. Aside from the cheap gags, the point about bureaucratic resistance to any meaningful reform remains pertinent:
Mr Bolton is the president's plain-spoken nominee for UN ambassador ("There is no such thing as the United Nations") and the Democrats in the US Senate are reluctant to confirm him for anything other than the title role in the next Incredible Hulk movie. Senator Barbara Boxer, the Democratic Party's comely California obstructionist, has charged that Bolton needs "anger management lessons".
I don't know about you, but nothing makes me want to hurl a chair through the window and punch someone's lights out like being told I need anger management lessons. So I was interested to hear about the kind of violent Boltonian eruptions that had led Senator Boxer to her diagnosis.
Well, here it comes. (If you've got young children present, you might want to take them out of the room.) From the shockingly brutal testimony of Thomas Fingar, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Intelligence Research:
Q: Could you characterise your meeting with Bolton? Was he calm?
Mr Fingar: No, he was angry. He was standing up.
Q: Did he raise his voice to you? Did he point his finger in your face?
Mr Fingar: I don't remember if he pointed. John speaks in such a low voice normally. Was it louder than normal? Probably. I wouldn't characterise it as screaming at me or anything like that. It was more, hands on hips, the body language as I recall it, I knew he was mad.
He was "standing up" with "hands on hips"! Who does he think he is - Carmen Miranda? Fortunately, before Bolton could let rip with a "pursed lip" or escalate to the lethal "tsk-ing" manoeuvre, Fingar was able to back cautiously out of the room and call the FBI anger management team, who surrounded the building and told the deranged diplomat to come out slowly with his hands above his hips.
Well, I haven't been so horrified since, well, since David Gest split from Liza Minnelli and launched a multimillion dollar suit for damages because she'd beaten him up. As Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show", observed: "There is no conceivable amount of money worth telling the world that you were beaten up by Liza Minnelli." Likewise, whatever one's feelings about the UN and Kofi Annan and multilateralism, there's nothing that could get most self-respecting men to appear in front of a Senate committee and complain that John Bolton put his hands on his hips to them. At least, Liza allegedly beat her ex to a pulp.
True, she'd recently had two hip replacements, so if she'd slapped her hands on her hips, she'd have fallen to the ground howling in agony. But my point is: even David Gest might have balked at complaining about hands on hips.
Still, in the ever accelerating descent into parody of the Senate confirmation process, nothing is too trivial. By the time Senator Boxer & Co are through huffing about the need for anger management lessons, Two-Hips Bolton will be able to walk into every saloon in Dodge and the meanest hombres will be diving for cover behind the hoochie-koochie gals' petticoats before his pinky's so much as brushed his waist.
If the Senate poseurs and the media wanted to mount a trenchant critique of Bolton's geopolitical philosophy, that would be reasonable enough. But there's not even a pretence of any of that. Instead, his opponents have seized on one episode - an intelligence analyst in a critical position with whom Bolton and others were dissatisfied - and used it to advance the bizarre proposition that every junior official should be beyond reproach, and certainly beyond such aggressive "body language" as putting one's hands on hips. Or as Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, complained to the BBC the other night: Bolton was "disloyal to his subordinates".
It's been obvious for three years now that the torpid federal bureaucracies - the agencies that so comprehensively failed America on 9/11 - are resistant to meaningful reform, but Beinart, in demanding that the executive branch swear fealty to the most incompetent underling, distils the "reform" charade to its essence: we'll talk reform, we'll pass reform bills, we'll merge and de-merge and re-merge every so often, we'll change three-letter acronyms to four-letter acronyms (the immigration agency INS is now BCIS) just to show how serious we are, and a year or four down the line we may well get real tough and require five-letter acronyms (BCINS?). But in the end we believe under-performing bureaucrats in key roles should be allowed to go on underperforming until retirement age. And, if you happen to show you're just the teensy-weensiest bit upset with one of them, we'll blow it up into a month of hearings on TV.
So vast battalions of America's "public servants" sit around all day cross-examining each other about some guy's unacceptably aggressive body language. He put his left hand in! His left hip out! In, out, in, out, he shook them all about!
As for the job Bolton's up for, what would make Barbara Boxer and Joe Biden put their hands on hips? Child sex rings run from UN peacekeeping operations? Sudan sitting on the Human Rights Commission while it licenses mass murder in Darfur? Kofi Annan's son doing a $30,000-a-year job, but somehow having a spare quarter-million dollars to invest in a Swiss soccer club?
There are tides in the affairs of men when someone has to put his hands on his hips and toss his curls.
Whoops, I shouldn't have mentioned "tossing his curls". From Friday's Washington Post:
John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, desperately needs a haircut. His hair was so poorly cut, it bordered on rude. Bolton might well argue that appearance has nothing to do with capabilities. But it certainly can be a measure of one's respect for the job.
They mean it. When it comes to the present depraved state of the UN, John Bolton is hip to the scene, and that's why the multilateral blatherers are wigging out.
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