| John Bolton: an insolent mess
For those in Washington who have been practising or reporting diplomacy, the last two months have been a thriller of sorts. Much of these thrills are owed to one person: President George W. Bush's nominee for the job of the United States of America's permanent representative to the United Nations, whose confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill have already yielded
such colourful epithets as 'treaty-killer', 'under-secretary for chads' and 'anti-diplomat'.
As America's under-secretary of state for arms control and international security for the last four years, at least two of India's ambassadors are familiar with John Bolton's acid tongue, although India has seldom been the direct target of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of vitriol reserved for America's enemies. It is not merely his views which have put the milky-moustachioed Bolton under the arclights since his surprise nomination by the White House in March. His appearance has elicited lively discussions in the blogosphere. 'Bolton is one wrinkled suit away from being an insolent mess' is a comment that is typical of popular interest in the man who has been struggling to get the senate's confirmation of his nomination. 'His locks are drooping over his forehead as if he had stepped from the shower and shaken his hair dry in the manner of an Afghan hound' is another.
For liberals, had Bolton been an unknown, he would still have been instantly damned because the former arch-conservative Republican senator and one-time occasional India-baiter, Jesse Helms, described him as 'the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at the gates of Armageddon'. That is roughly the equivalent, in the Indian context, of appointing as Union home secretary a person who has been praised by Praveen Togadia as someone the Vishwa Hindu Parishad would swim with or sink in the Ganga. As a high school student, Bolton volunteered for Barry Goldwater's bid for the presidency.
For Washington's tribe of foreign correspondents who have been covering Capitol Hill, Bolton's significance is that he helped America's senators re-discover their spine, having lost it since Bush was chosen president in 2000. Unexpectedly, senators ' Democrats as well as Republicans ' have fought a battle of attrition against Bolton's confirmation. Sure, Bolton has given them ample reason from his past to campaign against his installation at the UN. Even then, it has been a rare departure from the norm during the last four years, when the US Congress virtually abdicated its role of enforcing checks and balances on the administration and simply gave in to pressure, cajoling, threats and inducements to play second fiddle to the White House on such issues as the war in Iraq. Across the world, foreign offices are aghast that Bush has chosen, as his ambassador to the UN, a man whose most memorable remark about the world body is that 'if [the UN building in New York] lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference'. He has spent a large part of his career opposing any co-operation between the US and the UN.
Bolton has been a tireless campaigner for unfettered American power, and believes that the only law is the American 'domestic law'. He has forcefully argued that 'it is a big mistake for us [Americans] to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so ' because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the US.' Hence, his efforts within successive Republican administrations and outside to abrogate America's key international treaties and agreements and to sabotage the International Criminal Court. On the expansion of the UN security council, an issue in which India has a big stake, Bolton is on record as saying that 'if I were re-doing the security council today, I would have one permanent member because that is the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world'.
The list of Bolton's acts of omission and commission, which have come out during the congressional hearings, is too long to be confined to a column. But what tilted the balance against him at a senate foreign relations committee hearing that was about to approve of his nomination was something bizarre. A woman told the committee that some years ago, Bolton, then a practising lawyer, chased her through the halls of a Moscow hotel throwing things at her and later banged incessantly on her door several times in the night, shouting abuses. No, Bolton was not after the woman, who was then working for the US Agency for International Development. He merely disagreed with her on matters related to her work. That woman's tale raised questions about Bolton's equanimity and sanity.
It is quite likely that the senate may eventually confirm Bolton when it reconvenes in a few days after its recess. Even though several Republicans have hauled him over the coals and despite the low opinion that the Republican chairman of the senate foreign relations committee has of Bolton, many senators believe that it is the president's right to choose members of his administration. Besides, the White House is pulling out all stops to ensure that Bolton's nomination does not sink on Capitol Hill.
The final outcome of the senate vote on Bolton notwithstanding, there is a lot that India can learn from the American institution of legislative confirmation of executive appointments. South Block has produced many fine diplomats who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their peers anywhere in the world, but it also has a long tradition of rewarding incompetence, and lately, corruption. That trend started right after independence, when tin-pot rajas, offspring of otherwise insignificant royal families, conveniently sought and found sinecures in newly-independent India's diplomatic service. In a democracy, ministers are often the product of political compromise or expediency: South Block has had its share of ministers who have been an embarrassment to the very idea of diplomacy. It cannot be helped. One raja who did not make the grade in the Indian foreign service ended up some 15 years ago as the minister for external affairs, albeit one of the most ineffective ministers ever to rule South Block.
India took small, gingerly steps during P.V. Narasimha Rao's prime ministership to move in the direction of American legislative procedures when Rao persuaded parliament to create standing committees for several ministries in addition to the consultative committees, which have long been in existence. But these standing committees lack clout, and more often than not, they are hamstrung by the bureaucracy and successful efforts by the babudom to stem any flow of information to its members. It is beyond the realm of even fantasy that India's parliamentary committees will be asked to scrutinize ambassadorial appointments the way they are done in Washington.
Since the likes of Laloo Yadav, Phoolan Devi and Mohammed Taslimuddin get elected to Lok Sabha, it may not even be advisable to throw prospective ambassadors at the deep end of a legislative cesspool. But it is imperative that those who represent India abroad and those who fashion India's external policies, which cause the rest of the world to have an impact on the country and its people in an era of growing globalization, should be called to account in some fashion. Such accounting is now conspi-cuous by its absence and it has enabled an irresponsible and patronage-dispensing political leadership in South Block to run amok with a string of senior appointments.