It is almost a year since the Bush Administration sent John Bolton to the United Nations. In some ways, it is a foreign policy achievement of a high order to appoint someone who has so successfully poked his thumb up the nostrils of almost 190 other countries simultaneously. However, it is a dubious achievement.
As Bolton mouthed indignation at Mark Malloch Brown’s recent, almost grovellingly polite exhortations to Washington to show proper leadership at the UN, he compounded the immense damage he has already done to American diplomacy.
In fact, as Malloch Brown noted, albeit more politely, successive US administrations have long used the United Nations and tossed it aside after achieving their satisfaction. The difference is that Bill Clinton sweet-talked as he did it, while this administration is much more into rough wooing, berating and belittling the organization before and after its perfunctory consummations.
Clinton approved the International Criminal Court in principle, for example, but pandered to the Pentagon by having his emissaries water it down in negotiations, and then did not sign off on it until he was leaving office. It was a classic diplomatic application of Clinton’s “smoking but not inhaling” approach.
Equally typically, Bolton promptly unsigned the attenuated treaty setting up the court. But emblematic of the difficulties that brute prejudice has when it clashes with reality, Bolton is now trying to force Sudan to cooperate with the same ICC in its investigation of what the US claims is genocide.
The genocide issue itself shows a perverse continuity in American foreign policy. The Clinton Administration fought shy of calling mass murders in the Balkans and Rwanda “genocide” because it believed that would entail a responsibility to act–and Clinton was notoriously reluctant to risk American casualties.
In contrast, the Bush Administration calls events in Darfur genocide–because that is what the evangelical Christians call it–but it argues that the Genocide Convention does not actually require signatories to intervene. Indeed, Bolton is on record as saying that he does not regard any international law as binding–at least on the United States. The net effect is the same–victims die while politicians score political points in Washington.
Underlying all this is a strange subcurrent in US politics. While polls show consistently high American public support for international law and bodies like the UN, like most polls in the United States, they should carry a rider: “So, what’re you gonna do about it?” The good guys would mostly answer, “Not a lot,” while the sundry isolationists, xenophobes, unilateralists, survivalists and neocons have shown that the mere existence of the UN renders them speechful with rage.
They send donations, bombard legislators and fill the Internet with their virtual version of reality. Despite the widely different sources for their obsession with the UN, they unite in their hatred and fear of the world body. That makes them somewhat vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous, of whom there are, shall we say, a statistically significant sample in the American political classes. Senator Joseph McCarthy was one of a type, not a stand-alone figure.
The recent trials and Congressional inquiries into lobbying activities by Michael Scanlon, former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, provided the perfect description of how anti-UN campaigners can tap into this subculture. Scanlon and his associates were using Indian tribes’ money to stop off-reservation gambling, but the strategy is spot-on. “Our mission is to get specifically selected groups of individuals to the polls to speak out AGAINST something. To that end, your money is best spent finding them and communicating with them on using the modes that they are most likely to respond to. Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them. The wackos get their information form [sic] the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees.”
And how do they get away with it? They can because few politicians are prepared to put themselves on the line for a multilateral policy in a system where “all politics is local.” The exception that proves the rule is Representative Jim Leach of Iowa, one of the few Republicans whom Abraham Lincoln would recognize as a colleague.
At the same conference at which Malloch Brown barked back at attack dog Bolton, Leach said sadly, “Our policy response is an entirely parochial one, rooted in the so-called doctrine of American exceptionalism, which neocons do not define as refining a shining city on a Hill but as the right of a superpower to place itself above the legal and institutional restraints applied to others. In the neocon world, values are synonymous with power. The implicit assumption is that American security can be bought and managed alone, without allies, without consideration of contrasting international views or the effect of our policies on others.”
So, is there light at the end of the tunnel? Well, the beginning of next year’s Congressional session sees the end of Bolton’s “emergency” appointment by Bush, an action taken because he could not secure endorsement by the Senate. Ironically, Bolton has been calling for a clean sweep of senior UN officials to clear the deck for the new Secretary General, presumably in hopes that he can secure the appointment of someone abjectly servile to American policy.
The UN Secretary General holds an important position, far too important to leave to the prejudices and whims of a dyspeptic walrus. One can only hope that the saner voices such as Congressman Leach and Condoleezza Rice get involved and remind Bolton that his time is up and that the rest of the world expects more from a new Secretary General than dancing to the tune of assorted wackos.
It is time to rally the too-silent majority of Americans to redeem their nation’s plummeting international credibility–and to insure that the world body that is still the bedrock of international stability is not lumbered with a Bolton clone for the next five years, or even ten years. We really do not want to perpetuate this Administration’s creative application of chaos theory to world affairs.