Can an Asshole Be a Good U.N. Ambassador?


In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Carl Ford, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, described how John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for U.S. ambassador to the U.N., bawled out a lowly State Department analyst who disagreed with Bolton's claim that Cuba was developing biological weapons. Bolton, then (and currently) the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, "reamed him a new one," Ford said. "There are a lot of screamers that work in government. But you don't pull somebody so low down the bureaucracy that they are completely defenseless. It's an 800-pound gorilla devouring a banana." (More generally, Ford described Bolton as a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy" who "abuses his authority with little people.") The episode shook up the analysts in the State Department's intelligence bureau so much, Ford said, that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had to intervene, reassuring them that they should continue to tell the truth as they they saw it.

Aside from making Bolton look like an asshole (which most members of the committee did not seem to think was a disqualifying trait), Ford's testimony once again raises the issue of whether Bush administration officials have pressured intelligence analysts to exaggerate the weapons capabilities of America's enemies, particularly in the lead-up to the war with Iraq. "I suspect that this is the tip of the iceberg with respect to Mr. Bolton only wanting to hear what he wants to hear on the intelligence front," says Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who worries that confirming Bolton "sends a signal that it is open season on intelligence analysts."

"Only wanting to hear what he wants to hear" is a weird way of putting it. The usual phrase is "only hearing what he wants to hear," and clearly that was not Bolton's problem, although it may have been Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's in connection with Iraq. Nor was Bolton, per Ford's account, simply guilty of tautologically wanting to hear what he wanted to hear. Rather, he was guilty of trying to silence someone who disagreed with him, either because he was certain the analyst was wrong or because he thought the truth didn't matter. Either way, such a habit (assuming it was a habit) does not bode well for the accuracy of future intelligence assessments. Presumably Bolton will have less of a hand in those at the U.N., so maybe his reassignment will be an improvement–although he may have trouble filling his staff.