October 31, 2003

A Neo-Con in London So

A Neo-Con in London

So I went to hear John Bolton speak last night here in London. The talk was hosted by a British think-tank shop called the Bruges Group.

In the audience you had MPs, former British ambassadors, Boris Berezovsky, some expat Americans like myself. Bolton was to speak on the new world order after Iraq.

Instead, however, Bolton (who is commonly described as the neo-con 'spy' in dovish Powell's State Department) gave a hard-hitting speech that mostly centered on counter-proliferation efforts, various countries WMD capabilities, and the like.

I say "instead". Why?

Well, you might have thought the speech would be more expansive thematically given the theme of a new world order post-Iraq. But I suspect, for Bolton, the new world order after Iraq is much like the new world order after 9/11. It's all about the WMD.

His list of rogue states was impressively long. Of course, NoKo and Iran. But Syria, Libya, Cuba as well (and perhaps others but memory fails me--there were so many!)

He comes off as deeply expert on matters arms control, missile defense (a topic which clearly excites him and came up in the Q&A) and the WMD programs of various "states of concern".

Where Bolton didn't come off as expert was under questioning from some, like a retired British Ambassador to the Middle East, about issues like the potential perils of democratization in the Middle East.

What, the questioner asked, if free elections install Islamist regimes in power? The one man, one vote, one time issue. A theological party comes into power and bans, going forward, free and fair elections.

This scenario is likely hyped a bit among the crusty Whitehall old guard chuckling about the clumsy neocon Yanks (there were quite a few of those types in the audience)--but Bolton's response didn't give confidence that he had given such 'deeper' issues much thought.

He glossed over the current state of play in Iraq so I asked him about that. I prefaced my Q by relaying that guys like John McCain, Bill Kristol and his fellow AEI'er Tom Donnelly (Bolton used to be affiliated with that think-tank) were calling for more troops in Iraq.

What did Bolton think? Was he comfortable with the Iraqification strategy? The number of boots on the ground?

Oh, and Bolton painted Syria in pretty poor colors--though stated Damascus had been more amenable to Washington's demands lately. But I pushed him on the porousness (or lack of porousness) of that border. He conceded that the real foul play from Syria occurred during the "major combat operations" stage and they had cooled it recently.

On the troops issue--he passed the buck--like Rummy and Dubya--leaving such ruminations to the commanders on the ground. But he stressed that he felt that passing more responsibility over to the Iraqis, as quickly as possible, was good for us and good for them.

He didn't pause to query whether we might be training them in too hasty a manner and that, consequently, they wouldn't be ready for prime time given the sophisticated insurgency campaign we are facing.

All in all, I was impressed by Bolton. His command of counter-proliferation issues is truly impressive. I'm glad folks like him are keeping an eagle eye on WMD issues from Beltway vantage points.

But I would have liked to have seen more of a facility with historical undercurrents in complex regions like the Middle East, more thought given to ethnic and secretarian subtleties/issues, and, overall, a slightly less myopic view of the post 9/11 scene.

WMD proliferation is a hugely important issue--perhaps the defining threat of the post 9/11 era. But we have to put the issue in context and pursue more sophisticated strategies that take into account the individual factors driving each states' weapons programs.

To often, I fear, a guy like John Bolton will come at the issue solely from the prism of diktat-like clarion calls to disarm, disarm, disarm--without a deeper sense of regional dynamics or how best to apply the pressure points vis-a-vis the relevant government.

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