For years, a key U.S. program intended to keep Russian nuclear fuel out of terrorist hands has been frozen by an arcane legal dispute. As undersecretary of state, John R. Bolton was charged with fixing the problem, but critics complained he was the roadblock.
Now with Bolton no longer in the job, U.S. negotiators report a breakthrough with the Russians and predict a resolution will be sealed by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin at an international summit in Scotland next month, clearing the way to eliminate enough plutonium to fuel 8,000 nuclear bombs.
The prospective revival of the plutonium disposal project underlines a noticeable change since Bolton's departure from his old job as arms control chief. Regardless of whether the Senate confirms him as U.N. ambassador during a scheduled vote today, fellow U.S. officials and independent analysts said his absence has already been felt at the State Department.
Without the hard-charging Bolton around, the Bush administration not only has moved to reconcile with Russia over nuclear threat reduction but also has dropped its campaign to oust the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and made common cause with European allies in offering incentives to Iran to persuade it to drop any ambitions for nuclear weapons.
Bolton had also resisted using the so-called New York channel for communications with North Korea, a one-on-one meeting used sporadically through Bush's presidency and most recently revived in May. And fellow U.S. officials said Bolton had opposed a new strategic opening to India offering the prospect of sharing civilian nuclear technology, a move made in March.
For some of Bolton's fans, the changes appear worrisome, signs perhaps that the Bush administration may water down some of its most principled stands without a vocal advocate in the inner policymaking circle. But for many arms-control advocates and even fellow diplomats, Bolton's departure is a welcome relief and an opportunity to restore a more pragmatic approach to international relations.
"Throughout his career in the first Bush administration, he was always playing the stopper role for a lot of different issues and even when there was obvious interest by the president in moving things forward, Bolton often found ways of stopping things by tying the interagency process in knots," said Rose Gottemoeller, a Clinton administration official who worked on nonproliferation issues. "That's the situation we're seeing dissipate now."
Whether the shifting policies reflect Bolton's absence or his absence reflects shifting policies remains a point of debate. When she took over as secretary of state in January, Condoleezza Rice moved to sideline Bolton and reverse some of his approaches, U.S. officials said. By proposing him for the United Nations, she effectively moved him out of the policymaking center at the department's Foggy Bottom headquarters.
"It's less a question of these decisions being taken because John was no longer in the policy loop," said Robert J. Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation at the beginning of the Bush presidency. "It's that John was no longer in the Washington-based policymaking loop because the second Bush administration wants to adopt a different approach to dealing with the rest of the world."
Still, other specialists cautioned against overstating the extent of the changes since Bolton's departure and noted that he was always acting in concert with the president's broad wishes. "He was a lightning rod because of his strong and blunt statements," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an advocacy organization. "But this Bush administration is not going to become the Adlai Stevenson administration just because John Bolton has left the State Department."
The shift in Bolton's role occurred shortly after Bush named Rice as his second-term secretary of state. As the administration's point man confronting Iran's nuclear program, Bolton had blocked U.S. support for a European bid to negotiate a settlement with Tehran, arguing that such talks would legitimize Iran's clerical regime without stopping any secret weapons development.
But Bolton was shut out of Iran after Rice's ascension, according to two U.S. officials, and his policy was reversed. In early January, officials from France, Britain and Germany flew secretly to Washington for a brainstorming session on Iran. Bolton was not invited, European diplomats said. Instead, they met with Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council.
"We weren't the ones who wanted to keep the meeting secret," one European diplomat said. "It was the American side that didn't want him there."
In March, after Bush met with the leaders of France and Germany, Rice announced that the United States would support the European bid to offer Iran incentives such as the right to apply for World Trade Organization membership and to buy badly needed airplane parts in exchange for stopping any weapons program.
"When a draft of the announcement was circulated through the interagency process," one U.S. official said, "Bolton's office wasn't on the list" of people asked to approve the wording.
Bolton's departure also ultimately spelled the end of the administration's campaign against Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director general leading nuclear inspections in Iran. Administration officials said the effort was primarily driven by Bolton despite significant internal disagreement about investing time and energy in the effort.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Rice's predecessor, Colin L. Powell, told a Senate committee in April that Bolton went "out of his way to bad-mouth" ElBaradei and "to make sure that everybody knew that the maximum power of the United States would be brought to bear against them if he were brought back in."
But the campaign backfired and the administration had to drop the effort this month after gathering no significant support.
The nuclear dispute with Russia attracted less public attention but proved important internally. A program designed to dispose of 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium stalled in 2003 when agreements expired. The Bush administration would not renew the pacts unless they included stronger language holding Russia accountable for any nuclear accidents in its territory and protecting U.S. contractors building disposal facilities from liability, even in the case of premeditated actions. Russia refused, and the Bolton-led talks went nowhere for two years.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), one of the architects of the plutonium program, grew incensed that such a technical impasse could hold up a program of "global importance." He showed up at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee last year to berate Bolton on the matter.
"I submit that Mr. John Bolton, who has been assigned to negotiate this, has a very heavy responsibility" for the impasse, Domenici said at the hearing. "And I hate to say that I am not sure to this point that he's up to it."
"I raised a lot of hell with him," Domenici recalled last week in an interview. Then when Rice took over, he raised it with her as well. "There's no question she got it from me," Domenici said.
Rice pressed for the issue to be fixed, leading to a new framework that the two sides hope to ratify at the Group of Eight summit in Scotland in July. "I'm pleased," Domenici said, "because I'm finally getting some very positive feedback."