John Bolton: The Angriest Neocon

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Seth Wenig / AP

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have become accustomed to taking flak from Democratic (and even some G.O.P.) legislators when she testifies on Capitol Hill, but some of the most ferocious criticism she has recently faced comes from an unlikely source: John Bolton, the fiery conservative who served under Rice as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In his new memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad, Bolton — known to be close to Vice President Dick Cheney — outlines some of the internal foreign policy battles in the Administration of George W. Bush, and paints President Bush himself as betraying his own gut instinct.

Bolton's book covers his childhood as the son of a Baltimore fireman, his days at Yale Law School and his service in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. But it's the brickbats he reserves for Rice and fellow diplomats and civil servants in the current Administration that grab the most attention. First as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and then as U.N. ambassador, Bolton emerges as an outspoken unilateralist and an opponent of treaties and international institutions ranging from the Kyoto climate convention to the International Court of Criminal Justice. And he has been a vocal opponent, both inside and outside the Administration, of negotiations with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs.

Bolton's outspoken policy views have long been familiar, but what's most interesting about his new book is the sheer enthusiasm with which he has adopted the mantle of the most vocal neoconservative critic of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, only months after resigning from the Bush team when the Senate for the second time refused to confirm his nomination to the U.N. post.

Bolton accuses the Administration of laxity in dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea and an Iran intent on obtaining the bomb, not to mention its efforts to arrange a Middle East peace conference. But implicit in Bolton's bomb-throwing is a startling admission: that his never-ending battle against "pragmatists" and those less ideologically committed inside the most conservative administration in decades has been lost. In an interview with TIME, Bolton said: "Secretary Condoleezza Rice is the dominant voice on national security and there is no one running even a close second; her ascendancy is undisputed."

So where does that leave Bolton allies like Cheney and his hard-line advisers, and the few remaining neocons scattered through the national security bureaucracy? "You will never know what the VP's exact interaction with the President is," says Bolton, "But the VP is still closer to the President's basic instincts than anyone else." Bolton's explanation for the shift in White House policy: "The President may be distracted by the Iraq war or other events... but there's no doubt that the President has moved heartbreakingly away from his own deepest impulses on the three principal issues of controversy (North Korea, Iran and Middle East peace); what is happening now is contrary to his basic instincts."

On Iran, Bolton says former Secretary of State Colin Powell was too intent on mollifying U.S. allies like France, Britain and Germany. This caused Powell to offer Iran too many "carrots" — trade and commercial inducements — if Tehran would rein in its pursuit of atomic materials. To a large degree Rice, in Bolton's view, perpetuated this strategy even though, he believes, there is almost no chance that Iran will give up its nuclear ambitions. As a result, he says, the U.S. has wasted time on "four and half years of failed diplomacy" indulging Iran with unnecessarily accommodationist negotiations, a period Iran has used to advance its nuclear acquisitions and research.

On North Korea, Bolton cites (unconfirmed) reports of the Hermit Kingdom's collaboration with Syria on a secret nuclear facility as evidence that the denuclearization deal between the U.S. and North Korea is not working. Talks with North Korea continue, he notes, and the U.S. looks set to invite Syria to its Middle East peace conference later this month. Uncomfortable issues are not being raised, Bolton charges, for fear of disrupting negotiations that he sees as pointless to begin with.

So what are the prospects for a return to the muscular unilateralism that Bolton favors? "There's a possibility that events in the external world will validate our position and give the President a means to return to his gut," the former U.N. ambassador told TIME. "But until and unless external events prove that current policies are on the wrong track, there is no countervailing or obvious force inside this administration that is going to produce a course correction. "