The Magazine

The Borking of Bolton

From the May 2, 2005 issue: To dismiss the assault on John Bolton as farcical and inconsequential is to miss its real meaning, and its impact if successful.

May 2, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 31 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.


--Karl Marx

THE MISREPRESENTATION of Robert Bork's views and character in 1987, and his subsequent defeat by the Senate for a Supreme Court seat, may not have risen quite to the level of tragedy. But a serious blow was delivered to the political health of the nation, and to the prospects for restoring sound constitutionalism to the Supreme Court.

The assault on John Bolton, on the other hand, seems to be a farce. The notion that bureaucratic infighting and occasional abruptness of manner should disqualify one from high office is laughable. Unable to defeat Bolton in a debate on the merits of the foreign policies he has advocated or implemented, the Democrats, the media, and some in the foreign policy establishment have resorted to a childish form of character assassination. Bolton disagreed with--he even disliked!--a couple of bureaucrats. He challenged them. But no one has really accused Bolton of doing anything fundamentally inappropriate. In fact, so far as anyone can tell, there seem to have been almost no formal management complaints filed against him--and very few informal ones--in his 16 years in government, which is fairly amazing.

But it is ridiculous to spend time dealing with these charges. Indeed, I suspect even the anti-Bush Doctrine Republican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee will ultimately be too embarrassed to hang a "No" vote on such flimsy scaffolding. And do the Democrats--the party of Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright--really want to have as a new standard for exclusion from high office whether an official has ever lost his or her temper? For future government jobs, perhaps the Democrats should add to the job description: Only girlie men need apply.

But to dismiss the assault on Bolton as farcical and inconsequential is to miss its real meaning, and its impact if successful. True, if Bolton is not confirmed, another Bush-doctrine believer will be nominated for U.N. ambassador, and, under Condoleezza Rice's direction, the Bush foreign-policy caravan will move on.

But that's not all this fight is about. Bolton's accusers want to send the message that it's okay, perhaps, to agree with a conservative president's policies--but it's a career-ender if you take on the bureaucracy or the establishment aggressively on behalf of the president.

In this respect, the fight over Bolton is like the fight over Bork. One hoped-for effect of Bork's defeat was to deter possible candidates for the Court from even considering certain judicial interpretations--just as the assault, in different circumstances, on Lawrence Summers at Harvard is intended to rule out of bounds the raising of certain questions in the academy. Bork's defeat had real consequences: 18 years of intellectual mediocrity and constitutional incoherence from the Supreme Court. Only now do we have the prospect of once again advancing a constitutionalist reformation for the courts.



Similarly, if the Bolton nomination is lost, there will be real consequences, as presidential appointees start shying away from tough decisions, confrontations with the permanent foreign policy bureaucracy, and "controversial" ideas so as not to be "Boltoned." Republicans lost the Bork fight--partly through failures of nerve and intelligence--and the country has paid a price in constitutional jurisprudence. Now, however, there is a Republican Congress and a determined president--and also, perhaps, a greater willingness to undertake such fights among conservatives. A good thing, too, for we could pay almost as great a price in foreign policy if the Borking of Bolton is allowed to succeed.



--William Kristol