Every once in a while a reporter snags what I call a Naked Lunch moment. Naked Lunch is, of course, the title of the crazed and surreal novel by William Burroughs, the Beat-friendly author. Supposedly Burroughs’ pal Jack Kerouac conjured up the name for Burroughs’ disjointed manuscript, explaining that the title referred to the instant when a person can see exactly what is on the tip of his or her fork–that is, what is truly going on. (Remember, Kerouac was a be-bopping poet.)
Such a moment came when veteran Australian journalist John Pilger interviewed John Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control, for a documentary on the Iraq war that aired in England a few weeks ago.
Sitting with Bolton in a media room at Foggy Bottom, Pilger asked Bolton about civilian casualties in Iraq. Bolton replied, “I think Americans like most people are mostly concerned about their own country. I don’t know how many Iraqi civilians were killed. But I can assure you that the number is the absolute minimum that is possible in modern warfare….One of the stunning things about the quick coalition victory was…how low Iraqi casualties were.”
This was not a surprising response, nor was it the revelatory moment I teased above. Bolton is a hawk’s hawk in the Bush administration. He is the agent conservateur in Colin Powell’s State Department. He has led the administration’s effort against the International Criminal Court. Last year, he single-handedly tried to revise U.S. nuclear policy by asserting that Washington no longer felt bound to state that it would not use nuclear weapons against nations that do not possess nuclear weapons. (A State Department spokesman quickly claimed that Bolton had not said what he had indeed said.) Bolton also claimed that Cuba was developing biological weapons–a charge that was not substantiated by any evidence and that was challenged by experts. In July, he was about to allege in congressional testimony that Syria posed a weapons-of-mass-destruction threat before the CIA and other agencies, who considered his threat assessment to be exaggerated, objected to his statement. When England, France and Germany recently tried to develop a carrot-and-stick approach in negotiating an end to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, Bolton huffed, “I don’t do carrots.”
His remarks to Pilger, then, were hardly surprising. He is a no-apologies ideologue. Pilger asked if 10,000 civilian casualties in Iraq would be a “quite high” amount. Bolton answered, “I think it is quite low if you look at the size of the military operation that was undertaken.”
Then when the interview ended, Bolton, as he stood up and removed the microphone, asked Pilger, “Are you a Labour Party member?” As if that explained Pilger’s questions about dead and injured civilians in Iraq. Clearly, Bolton had not been briefed. Pilger is an investigative reporter specializing in national security matters who has long been seen as a left-of-center crusader. A critic of his recently dubbed Pilger “the Eeyore of the left.” One wonders who at the State Department let Pilger get this close to Bolton? (By the way, when Pilger interviewed Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, a Pentagon media official ordered Pilger to shut off his camera once Pilger began questioning Feith about civilian casualties.)
Replying to Bolton’s jab, Pilger explained to him the current politics of Britain: “Well, Labour Party–they’re the conservatives.” Pilger meant “conservative” as in supporting Prime Minister Tony Blair’s embrace of the war in Iraq.
By now Bolton was walking away from Pilger, looking like he much desired a fast separation. With a mischievous (or, some might say, wicked) smile on his face, Bolton shot back, “You’re a Communist Party member?”
That was the Kodak moment, and it was captured by Pilger’s camera operator. On Planet Bolton, if you inquire too forcefully about civilian casualties, you must be a commie. The Cold War might be over. But at least one senior Bush aide is keeping its spirit alive.
Pilger’s documentary, as far as I can tell, has not aired in the United States. I’ve only seen the scenes involving Bolton and Feith. So I cannot vouch for the entire film. But in a flash, Pilger captured on tape a brief but telling exchange. Call it Bolton unplugged, and it’s mean and ugly.
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