Senate Narrowly Confirms Bolton To Top Arms Control Post

Philipp C. Bleek

By a vote of 57-43, the Senate confirmed controversial nominee John Bolton as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security on May 8. Bolton’s confirmation to the most senior administration post specifically tasked with the formulation of arms control policy was opposed by all but seven Democratic senators.

During the confirmation process, Bolton came under fire for views he articulated while serving as senior vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Bolton has called the United Nations ineffective and been generally dismissive of multilateralism. He has also called for full diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and spoken out against the “illusionary protections of unenforceable treaties,” referring to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

At Bolton’s March 29 confirmation hearing, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) stated that the “inflammatory rhetoric” Bolton had displayed gave him “pause over [Bolton’s] capacity for handling the job.” Biden said, “I have always voted against nominees who oppose the avowed purpose of the position to which they have been nominated.” Senator John Kerry (D-MA) agreed, saying the nominee’s views on arms control issues were “inconsistent with the best interests of the United States.”

However, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, effusively praised Bolton as the “most qualified man for the job” and as “the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon.”

Eschewing his past provocative language, Bolton downplayed the concerns raised by Democratic senators at his confirmation hearing and said little of substance on the most controversial issues. When asked about topics such as missile defense and the CTBT, Bolton simply quoted comments made by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. On other issues, he avoided the most pointed questions altogether. Repeatedly asked about his stance on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Bolton replied that he had yet to do the “couple of hours” of “intellectual heavy lifting” required to formulate a firm position on the legal status of the agreement.

Attempting to assuage his critics, Bolton remarked, “I personally consider that sound, verifiable arms control agreements and energetic non-proliferation strategies can and should be critical elements of American foreign policy.”

Bolton previously served as assistant secretary of state for international organizations under President George Bush, and he held several positions in the Reagan administration, including assistant attorney general and assistant administrator and counsel at the Agency for International Development. Before his confirmation, he had worked at AEI for more than four years.

The Senate vote followed the Foreign Relations Committee’s narrow approval of the nominee by a 10-8 vote April 26, with Democratic Senator Russell Feingold (WI) joining Republican members of the committee in supporting Bolton. All 50 Republican senators voted to confirm Bolton. They were joined by Democratic Senators Feingold, Evan Bayh (IN), John Breaux (LA), Mary Landrieu (LA), Joseph Lieberman (CT), Zell Miller (GA), and Ben Nelson (NE).