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May 19, 2012

Dear Gov. Romney, John Bolton Is Not Serving / Will Not Serve You Well
Posted by David Shorr

BoltonBigThe arrival in New York today of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family got me thinking about accountability in the foreign policy world, the subject of an interesting recent Stephen Walt post. Walt was scratching his head over the continued high profile of people associated with George W. Bush's foreign policy disasters. In a nutshell, why do these guys still have any credibility? 

Thanks to the Romney camp's exploitation  hyperventilation statements about US handling of Mr. Chen, we don't have to look all the way back to the Iraq War or detainee torture. We can have real-time accountability. What's more, we can point the spotlight at one of the most notorious far-right foreign policy figures of all: Ambassador John Bolton. And Mr. Bolton made it easy for us by publishing an op-ed on Chen Guangcheng in the Washington Times on May 7

A piece in last Sunday's New York Times by David Sanger exposed tensions among Romney's foreign policy advisers -- and concerns over Bolton's role -- which I'll address further down. (Short version: Bolton's advice is bound to hurt Romney more than help him.) But first, it will be my pleasure to parse for you Amb. Bolton's recent op-ed on China. The piece reads more like a series of Tourette's outbursts than a serious foreign policy critique.

In his lede graf, Bolton hedged his position by noting the possibility that China would indeed to let Chen and his family leave. Yet in the very same sentence, Bolton says "that deal is no more certain than the earlier, failed deal, announced just days before" under which the Chen family would stay. The last sentence in the lede reads:

Many basic facts remain unknown, but the historical tides sweeping across the Pacific will not wait until we have perfect information, if we ever do.

Translation: 'I can't restrain myself from molding this dramatic episode into my favorite narrative about what constitutes American strength and weakness, and talking about historical tides in the Pacific will make it sound gravitas-ey.'

Bolton then extends this big-strategic-thinkers-talk-about-history approach with an 18th Century anecdote about how the symbolic import of certain individuals can set larger geostrategic forces, including wars, in motion. Next comes this:

Washington-Beijing relations are hardly so strained and hopefully will not end so badly. Nonetheless, the skirmish over Mr. Chen reflects poorly on the United States.

Translation: 'Things aren't nearly so bad as that war I just told you about.'

We're only 2-1/2 paragraphs in, and some readers might start complaining about whiplash. But that's not the real problem with Bolton's argument. Major problem #1: the only issue basket of US-China relations mentioned in the entire piece is human rights. No context, no mention of other US interests, no explanation of the stakes, bupkis. Major problem #2: it isn't clear at all from Amb. Bolton's argument whether he wants good relations with China or not.

The middle of the piece tries to make some points about the specifics of how US diplomats handled Chen. Bolton reminds readers of how Chen came to be at the American embassy -- not by showing up at the door but by US diplomats collecting him in an official vehicle and provoking local security officers to make chase. Here's what Bolton says about this:

Our intervention was correct and consistent with prior U.S. practice in difficult refugee cases. Incomprehensibly, however, the State Department apparently failed to realize we were dramatically escalating the Chen matter, raising the political stakes by directly confronting China and also significantly increasing the risks to Mr. Chen, his family and dissident colleagues not under American protection.

Translation: 'American embassy staff somehow thought the Chinese would be cool with all this.'

When you're done choking on that one, I want to raise another question. Was Chen Guangcheng not aware of the stakes for himself and his family?  As Bolton takes his shots at President Obama's State Department, it's Chen's own wishes and decisions that get lost in the mix. Rather ironic in an article intended to affirm human rights and individual freedoms. 

Bolton's next point concerns the deal originally negotiated on Chen's behalf, to relocate from the countryside to a metropolitan area to attend law school. 

But the real issue is why responsible U.S. authorities had any reason to believe the Chinese government, which had imprisoned Mr. Chen and kept him under house arrest the past seven years, would cheerfully assent to freeing him to attend law school in China, thereby inevitably maturing into an even greater threat to Communist Party supremacy. Chinese human rights advocates did not believe Beijing’s assurances; why did our State Department?

Translation: 'Never mind what the human rights advocate in question wanted, nor the advocate / advisers who were working closely with Chen.'

This is the part where I ask what Bolton thinks should have been done. As with so much of the Republican argument these days, the op-ed is long on second-guessing yet the author doesn't have the guts to present an alternative course. Chen wanted to stay in the country and was actively engaged in negotiating the arrangement Bolton disparages. Would Bolton have refused to seek the deal Chen wanted? Should Chen have gone back to the home where he was being persecuted? Did it worsen matters for Chen to obtain an agreement with authorities, witnessed the United States, or did that put Beijing under some pressure to back off? As we know, Chen changed his mind, and the Obama administration kept on the case to reach the solution that was implemented today.

In the last couple grafs, Bolton lands on the same vacuous points he always does:

At a time of potentially enormous upheaval within China, America’s current foreign-policy leaders had no strategy to advance our interests and support those of like mind inside China. Instead, we find ourselves more vulnerable to China and other present and potential adversaries exploiting our weaknesses and inattention.

Translation: 'Weakness something something adversaries.'

Pardon the snark, but these words don't have meaning just because someone puts them in a sentence. Unless we're talking about specifics, alternatives, and likely impact, then it's an affront to serious foreign policy debate.

Which brings me back to the Sanger piece and Team Romney. There's no immutable reason that the Republican foreign policy platform has to be as ridiculous and weak as it's been thus far. I don't think the raw tally of Bush 43 alumni on Romney's foreign policy team does justice to the abilties of many of its members. (There, I just bolstered Walt's theory; but then I'm just an old-fashioned bipartisan kind of guy.)  It's not that there's a much more solid platform waiting to be put on the table; they'd have a lot of work to do. But they do have it in them.

I will say this, though, if Bolton's is one of the most influential voices, we'll keep hearing a lot of shrillness. And God help us if he's ever Secretary of State.

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