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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

In Yer Face

I’ve worried in the recent past that Democrats will fail to pick their fights carefully on Bush administration appointments, and just submerge their principled objections in a white noise of white-hot rage. But Bush sure seems inclined to pick our fights for us, as evidenced by the, shall we say, rather provocative choice of John Bolton for U.N. ambassador. Is there a single constructive impulse in administration foreign policy that Bolton hasn’t mocked or rejected in the past? Hard to think of one. U.N. reform? Bolton seems to think the organization is inherently an affront to U.S. power. Collective action to stop genocide? Bolton has opposed any U.N. role in “civil conflicts,” up to and including genocide, and as the country’s best-known critic of U.S. cooperation with the International Criminal Court, he’s certainly not in a good position to propose any immediate effort to bring the Darfur murderers to justice. Engagement with China to bring that country more fully into the community of rules-observing nations? As a former hired hand of the Taiwanese government, and an outspoken proponent of formal Taiwanese independence, Bolton isn’t likely to get onto drinking-buddy terms with Beijing’s representatives at the U.N. And then there’s the really big issue on which Bolton has had formal responsibility in his current gig at the State Department: trafficking in nuclear materials. It’s no big secret that the administration until recently treated this rather urgent threat to our lives and limbs as a second- or third-order problem, on the bizarre theory that terrorists are too frightened of George W. Bush to consider setting off a nuke in one of our cities. The current Proliferation Security Initiative that Bolton has directed is a lot better than nothing, but typically, Bolton has pushed it in the direction of ad hoc, U.S.-led action to interdict and inspect suspect cargo, rather than the full-fledged, top-priority international effort to prevent “leakage” of nuclear materials that we need. Aside from his foreign policy views, Bolton is also a stone partisan warrior. I did a couple of radio shows with him back during the madness of the 2000 election cycle, and found him to be genial and cerebral until the mikes went live; at that point, he was indistinguishable from Tom DeLay. I’ll never forget turning on the tube during one of those Florida court hearings on the presidential vote and seeing Bolton sitting there in the front row of the phalanx of GOP lawyers, hour after hour. Since I don’t think the Bush legal team was in need of foreign policy advice, it was clearly an act of hyper-partisan solidarity. (According to this morning’s Post, Bolton even got into the chad-counting act at one of the county-level election boards). Soon we will begin to hear suggestions that Bolton’s appointment may be one of those Nixon-to-China things: you know, let’s go out and find the most abrasive unilateralist in the administration to patch up our relations with the rest of the world. This only makes sense if the Bushies are afraid a more constructive attitude towards the U.N. and the world in general will make them vulnerable to criticism from the almightly Conservative Base. But if this is what’s really going on, then Bolton better make it pretty damn clear during his confirmation hearings. He’s sort of the Robert Bork of foreign policy nominees: a guy with enough material in his public record to script two or three days of tough Democratic questioning. If he expects any Democratic votes at all, he’d better start wolfing down a lot of crow. Otherwise, this is just another in-yer-face appointment that begs for a fight.

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