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Foreign Policy Disputes Are Subtext in Battle Over Bolton

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By Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

In public, the controversy over John R. Bolton's nomination as United Nations ambassador has focused on his handling of personnel issues and his managerial skills. But the first big battle of President Bush's second term also reflects long-standing tensions among Republicans over the thrust of U.S. foreign policy.

Allegations that Bolton has been abrasive have become a metaphor for the broader problem of the United States' image abroad, with Republicans who favor a less confrontational and unilateral approach seeing an opportunity to press their point of view. It is all the more striking at a time when the Bush administration, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has tried to rebuild relations with allies in Europe and Asia.

Now Bush and Rice must decide how hard they want to press Bolton's case with the bevy of Republican moderates who hold his fate in their hands. The consequences could extend beyond Bolton.

"If this nomination fails, what it tells you is that there is more than a little resistance to a foreign policy that is perceived as both unilateral and combative or confrontational," said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a top aide to Rice's predecessor, Colin L. Powell, in Bush's first term. He said it would signal that "the second Bush term is going to be operating in a more constrained political environment than the first term."

Like U.S. foreign policy at home and abroad, Bolton often was viewed in the administration either as heroic or bullying.

Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, was so committed to principles ensuring U.S. power that he was willing to make his case relentlessly all the way to the top, even with Powell or Powell's deputy, Richard L. Armitage. That won him allies, particularly among neoconservatives in Vice President Cheney's office and among Pentagon policymakers.

But in the process, Bolton alienated others who were more willing to compromise in the name of diplomacy and international cooperation, an approach Powell often championed. Some of the senators who have raised doubts about Bolton often sided with Powell in the first term when he found himself on the losing end of the debates -- notably on Iraq -- with Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Cheney is a strong supporter of Bolton's nomination.

Still, although Bolton is strongly conservative, he is not a "neoconservative" pressing for democracy across the globe, and he was not one of the main advocates of an invasion of Iraq. But his nomination has become a useful proxy for Democrats and others who harbored doubts about Bush's foreign-policy agenda, in part because Bolton was never shy about pressing his agenda within the State Department.

On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republicans Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio) have asked for more time to examine the allegations against Bolton. With all eight Democrats united against him, a negative vote by one Republican would result in a tie and possibly derail the nomination.

"A lot of people are conservative and remain conservative when they enter government. But they don't try to reshape the bureaucracies to carry out their policies or the president's policies," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. He noted that many of the people who have spoken out against Bolton to the committee are regarded as allies of Armitage and Powell, making the accusations in his view a form of "payback" for past policy disputes.

With Rice seeming to get off to a fast start as the nation's top diplomat, "this is a way of damaging Bush's foreign policy now," Kristol added.

Bolton may have appeared isolated within the State Department in the first term, but his policy objectives were often in the mainstream of the rest of the administration, especially Cheney's office and the Defense Department. That has made it difficult for opponents of his nomination to attack his policy views, and has helped keep the public focus on how he dealt with subordinates.

"The problem he faces is not that he's a tough guy and is down on the U.N.," said Geoffrey Kemp, a former Reagan administration official now at the Nixon Center. "Most of the Bush administration feels the same way. It is his peripheral managerial and personal factors that come to haunt him."

The nature of policymaking, in fact, makes it difficult to sort out the claims and counterclaims about Bolton's actions, with descriptions of policy disputes colored by personality conflicts.

A new allegation has emerged in recent days that Bolton, in the midst of the Iraq war, delayed efforts to provide military funding for Baltic and Central European countries that were to join NATO, because they had not signed agreements exempting U.S. military personnel from prosecution at the controversial new International Criminal Court. Some of the countries wanted training to assist in their deployments in Iraq.

But the description of Bolton's role in the matter differs greatly, depending on the bureaucratic perspective.

One set of current and former officials said Bolton opposed providing the funding until the countries signed what were known as the Article 98 agreements, even after a decision had been made to grant the countries a waiver. A second group of officials, including a former Defense Department official, said Bolton fully complied and in the end approved the funds. They said the Pentagon put up the obstacles.

Armitage said yesterday that he saw nothing wrong with Bolton's actions on the funding.

"I didn't consider this unusual at all," he said. "Different fiefdoms at State often had different positions, and the deputy secretary resolved them. It was part and parcel of daily life."


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