David Frum April 26th, 2005 at 12:00 am
On Friday, the battle over John Bolton’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations ceased to be a battle about Bolton–and became a battle about the presidency.
That morning, the New York Times reported on its front page that “associates of Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state, said he had expressed reservations about Mr. Bolton in conversations with at least two wavering Republican senators.” The Washington Post carried a still more strongly flavored story about Powell’s “private conversations” with senators on the Foreign Relations Committee: The Post quoted an anonymous Democratic staffer saying, “[Powell] has let it be known that the Bolton nomination is a bad one, to put it mildly.”
Stories like these do not (obviously) appear in newspapers by accident. Powell is not merely going to war against Bolton. He is declaring war before the whole world.
But why would Powell do such a thing? As a supremely talented bureaucratic warrior, Powell must know that the deadliest blow he could deal Bolton would be a whispered word to the Foreign Relations Committee’s more liberal Republicans: Lincoln Chafee, Chuck Hagel, George Voinovich. Bolton is backed by a re-elected President and a powerful Vice-President. By taking a public stand against Bolton, Powell is also taking a public stand against Bush and Cheney.
Is it possible that Powell did not understand that? No, it is utterly impossible. Powell is joining this fight with eyes wide open–and playing for the very grandest of stakes.
One of the most difficult maneuvers in the Washington power game is the move from power to influence. Power comes with high office, and high office is always temporary. But rarely–very rarely–an office-holder’s reputation, or personal connections, or unique knowledge enable him to exert influence on events even after he leaves his office behind. Henry Kissinger is the outstanding example of the post-official influential, flanked perhaps by former treasury secretary Bob Rubin on the Democratic side and former secretary of state James Baker among Republicans.
Powell is now bidding to join this august group. How more dramatically to stake his claim than to take credit for defeating one of President Bush’s most high-profile nominees? The fact that Powell has long disdained Bolton may add special zest to Powell’s campaign against him. But make no mistake: Bolton is only an incidental target and only a secondary rival to Powell. Powell’s true target is the Bush administration itself–and his true antagonist is the President himself.
If Powell prevails, the former secretary will have seized for himself a unique and arguably unprecedented role in U.S. foreign policy. From now on, nominees to foreign-policy positions will be on notice that Powell’s endorsement or veto could make or break their careers–and they will, if wise, make sure to stop by Powell’s office for a session of forelock-tugging before their Senate hearings.
For Powell, the ego rewards from such a victory would be sweet. The material rewards would be even sweeter. It’s widely expected in Washington that Powell and his old deputy and friend Richard Armitage will soon launch a consulting firm together on the model of Henry Kissinger’s immensely lucrative Kissinger Associates. The success of the Powell/Armitage firm will greatly depend on whether Powell and Armitage are perceived to possess continuing influence. And how more splendidly to create that perception than to score a hugely publicized victory over a Republican president in a Republican Senate?
For those same reasons, though, the administration cannot allow Powell to prevail. True, all presidents from time to time have to accept defeat in a confirmation battle. President Bush’s first choice for Labor Secretary, Linda Chavez, had to withdraw in 2001, and many of his judicial choices have been stymied as well.
Bolton though is different from those previous cases.
First, Bolton’s philosophy is uniquely aligned with the President’s own.
Second, the arguments against the Bolton nomination are so flimsy and absurd that they don’t even ask to be believed. (On a list of Washington’s worst bosses, Bolton would not make the top 500. It’s obvious to all that the objection to Bolton rests not on his alleged lapses in etiquette but on his well attested lack of illusions about the UN system.)
Third, the challenge to Bolton comes not from the opposition party but from dissident factions within the president’s own party.
If Bolton loses, George W. Bush will have lost too: lost control of his party, his administration, and his foreign policy. This scrappy president does not like to lose–and he does not lack means to convey his displeasure to the senators and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and even to Powell himself. I’ll predict that we’ll yet see ambassador Bolton raise his hand over the American desk at the Security Council.