John Bolton: Neoconservative? Part II

So, with terms defined, the next question is whether John Bolton is properly considered a neoconservative.

The other day, I argued that he is not, on the grounds that he doesn’t even pay lip service to the idea that, after we bomb and invade other countries and kill their leaders, we should convert them to democracy. [bold and cross-out added after posting]  JJ disagreed, arguing that neoconservatism is “an advocacy of foreign interventionalism, a certain kind of belief in society as being self-organizing–if you just blindly add the maximum amount of democracy and capitalism and then just walk away, it will be the best of all possible worlds.”

In my post below, I came to the conclusion, based on the writings of Irving Kristol and Joshua Muravchik, that neoconservatism is based on nationalism and highly removed, nonspecific us-vs-them thinking.

Over ten years ago, Bolton wrote an essay entitled “Intrastate Ethnic Conflicts and American Interests,” in which he argued:

the interventionist human-rights lament is badly flawed, both conceptually and operationally. Intrastate ethnic and religious conflict is not really within the legitimate domain of the Security Council, nor could it be without an expansion of the Council’s jurisdiction and resources, neither of which is either likely or desirable. UN or other international measures less than military force are also unlikely to have a profound or sustained impact, at least in the foreseeable future.

The real solution to intrastate ethnic conflict is not, and probably never can be, the imposition of peace and stability from outside the zone of conflict itself.

This sounds quite a bit like Bush Sr. Secretary of State James Baker’s comment, with which Joshua Muravchik disagreed, that “We have no dog in that fight” in the former Yugoslavia. However, Bolton also oriented his argument in opposition to unnamed elites “fashionable in academic settings and Washington salons” who favored the use of international institutions. As Irving Kristol’s definition of neoconservatism linked below made clear, neocons are very emotionally invested in opposing straw man liberals of the sort Bolton takes on in this piece.

In 1998, Bolton signed the famed PNAC letter urging President Clinton to work towards the long-term goal of “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power,” on the grounds that Saddam would soon obtain WMDs. (I found this argument compelling in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, FWIW). Co-signatories included Norman Podhoretz’s son-in-law, pardoned felon, and future Bush Jr official Elliott Abrams, along with Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, R. James Woolsey, and Donald Rumsfeld. So by this point Bolton was working closely with neoconservatives. Bolton’s signing on to overthrowing Saddam indicates a departure from the more cautious conservatism of folks like Colin Powell and Brent Skowcroft.

In 1999, Bolton argued that treaties are simply political obligations, not legally binding ones. State Department legal advisors from the Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton administrations disagreed in a letter to the editor intended “to correct any misunderstanding which Mr. Bolton’s piece may have created.” This kind of radical break with previous agreements— and its deep hostility to any international cooperation— fits with Kristol’s explanation of what neoconservatives believe.

During the NATO bombing designed to put a stop to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Bolton told Bill O’Reilly in March of 1999, “the United States is now involved in a conflict where it has no tangible national interest, where it has no clear objectives in mind, and where the ultimate outcome could be very risky for what our real interests are, as evidenced by the fact that we’ve already severely strained relations with Russia. I think this is a mistake.” (O’Reilly argues against him). However, in May, in an article sharply criticizing President Clinton, he argued against the use of ground forces, and for the US to insist on the removal of Slobodan Milosevic. Bolton referred to Clinton’s damage to American interests, and asserted that his plan would advance US interests, but did not define what those interests were. He does not dismiss the entire endeavor as a “mistake,” and does not explain why he has changed his mind.

On the basis of these writings, I can’t sign onto the argument that he is not a neoconservative because he “found the 1999 Kosovo war ‘very troubling’” and was “exclu[ded] from the seminal works of pre-Iraq war neoconservatism,” but I can’t tell exactly where he stands.

I’m going to leave off here, as Bolton joins the Bush administration, for two reasons. First, he now becomes a political operator rather than a theorist. Second, I’m growing weary of this post.

It’s worth coming back his somewhat muddled record in his writings in the 1990s, though. Was Bolton an ambitious movement conservative who saw which way the wind was blowing among GOP elites, and moved from a standard American-interests based approach to argumentation in the mid-1990s to a more expansive view of American power in the late 1990s?
Having read up a bit more, I’m going to concede the argument to JJ.

First off, neoconservatives are not as interested in democracy as I thought they were. Also, Bolton shares their eagerness to use force (certainly that appeared to be true regarding Iraq, based on his willingness to break the law to fire people who might make an invasion less likely, and to maybe fudge the evidence a bit), and their deep suspicion of international cooperation. (His role in assembling the Proliferation Security Initiative is a good example of the kind of US-led, informal, somewhat ad hoc approach to international agreements and organizations that he prefers).

Given that Bolton doesn’t even feel the need to doll up his preference (YouTube interview) for US military adventurism with the usual pro-democracy rhetoric, he might be seen as advocating neoconservatism without a human face.

Bonus: reviews of a new Norman Podhoretz book, “World War IV,” from Ian Baruma via tristero, and Peter Beinart (“Podhoretz shows no interest in such details. His assertions are bold, sweeping and almost wholly unencumbered by evidence. … “World War IV” is largely an excuse to insult his old foes on the left and titillate himself with fantasies of civic violence.” Sounds a bit like what I said in Part I).

Thanks to JJ, linda, and James, Los Angeles for the discussion that led to these posts. Now, let’s have some more!


5 Responses to “John Bolton: Neoconservative? Part II”

  1. James, Los Angeles Says:

    Excellent couple of posts Elvis! I’m going to have to get to all your links and give it some more thought. Thanks for doing all this work. But you know, I never bought all that “spreading Democracy” from the neocons in the first place. To me, that was just a marketing tool to gain access to the keys to American power, which they then could swing around like a big stick. I *never* thought they were trying to spread Democracy. As a matter of fact, they seem to be anti-Democracy in many ways.

    Geopolitics sure isn’t my area of expertise, however.

    I hope some of the better Swamplanders will come over and weigh in. I’ve had it with that troll pit over there!

  2. linda Says:

    EEB: 🙂

    If you aren’t exhausted Mon., Petreaus/Crocker live at 12:30p, edt on CSPAN 3 (you can get it on the CSPAN wesite) or it will be replayed at 10p, edt on CSPAN 2.

    On the OBL tape;

    and of Pentagon interest Kistler proclaims Bush earned Rapture but not the DEMS.

  3. elviselvisberg Says:

    Thanks, Linda. That’s super, what we really need in these times is a less strategic, less factual, more apocalyptic brand of thinking in the Pentagon. That oughtta do wonders for us in Iraq.

    James, LA, you are absolutely right that the neoconservative advocates of the Iraq invasion never cared about democracy. You didn’t see Donald Rumsfeld and Elliot Abrams repenting for their support of human rights abusers in Latin America and, um, Iraq.

    I have to get past my inclination to judge politicians on the very best, most polished, least offensive versions of what they say in public. Lee Atwater explained why in the early 1980s as a Reagan official:

    Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964… and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster…

    Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps…?

    Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

    And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’

  4. linda Says:

    James, I will come over here to post, but will stay at Swampland. I’m stubborn and competitive, refusing to get trolled out. Let the Progressive Voice be heard. No to ‘shout down’ tactics.

  5. Skicaighict Says:

    Sounds crazy. Do you approve of my striped composition Oh, good joke) What do you call it when instead of raining cats and dogs, it rains chickens, ducks and turkeys? Fowl Weather!

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