WASHINGTON—Growing up in the 1960s, John R. Bolton often debated with his high school history teacher over the dangers of America going soft on communism and giving up in Vietnam, honing a blunt hard-line style that would later become his trademark.
"He'd say `How can you let 2,000 men die there in vain?'" recalled Marty McKibbin, Bolton's teacher at the McDonogh School, then a private military academy in Baltimore. "The next year he'd come back and say, `How can you let 4,000 men die in vain?' He had his mind set on his views, and they haven't changed in 40 years."
On Monday, Bolton's views and his style will face their toughest test when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to take up his nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Of all of President Bush's second term appointments, none have raised more eyebrows—and hackles—than Bolton's, who is currently assistant undersecretary of State for arms control. Many diplomats, Democrats and even some Republicans say he is unsuitable for the job because of his sharp criticism of the United Nations and because of his disdain for some international treaties.
He was one of the leading proponents in the White House's decision to pull out of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty and called the administration's rejection of a treaty creating a new International Criminal Court "the happiest moment in my government service."
As for the United Nations, Bolton during a conference in 1994 said that if you lopped off 10 stories of the 38-story U.N. Secretariat Building "it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
Bolton's style has made him a star among conservatives, who laud him as a tell-like-it-is guy who isn't afraid to ruffle foreign feathers while putting America's interests first. They see him as in the mold of former U.N. ambassadors Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
"This (United Nations) is an international agency on the rocks, ruled by despots and dictators. It's not accountable to anyone but its members," said Richard Lessner, executive director for the American Conservative Union, the nation's oldest conservative lobbying organization. "They need a little tough love and John Bolton is just the person to dish it out."
While Bolton's supporters hail him as an ambassador with attitude, his detractors denounce him as an ambassador with an attitude problem: an acerbic, freelancing, unilateralist hawk who sometimes puts his own agenda ahead of his superiors.
In advance of Monday's hearing, Democrat and Republican congressional investigators were looking into allegations that Bolton once visited CIA headquarters to demand the removal of a top intelligence analyst who disagreed with his assessment of Cuba's biological warfare capabilities.
If true, the alleged visit risked undermining the objectivity of intelligence judgments by sending a message that analysts who don't tell policy-makers what they want to hear could face punishment.
Bolton warned of Cuba's capabilities in 2002. intelligence analysts later rejected his claims.
"He's not a healthy skeptic about the United Nations, but widely known as a committed destructive opponent, an ideological lone ranger," said Jonathan Dean, a former ambassador and advisor to the Union of Concerned Scientists. "He's been a one-man death squad for arms control and disarmament."
Late last month, 62 former U.S. ambassadors signed a letter sent to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., labeling Bolton "the wrong man for this position."
Citizens for Global Solutions, a grass-roots organization that advocates for international solutions, has begun running 60-second, campaign-style "stop Bolton" television ads in Nebraska and Rhode Island.
Those states were chosen because the group feels that Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., are the Foreign Relation Committee Republicans most likely to break party ranks and vote against Bolton. Hagel said he intends to vote for Bolton. Chafee's office says he's taking a wait-and-see approach.
Bolton supporters dismiss the Stop Bolton drive as partisan sour grapes, an effort to get back at Bush for winning a second term. Still, they are fighting fire with fire.
About 64 former high-ranking U.S. officials, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Deputy Secretary of State William P. Clark, sent a letter to Lugar last week pressing for Bolton's confirmation.
Pro-Bolton groups, like Move America Forward, are running television ads supporting Bolton's nomination. They are also pressuring Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Bill Nelson of Florida, both Foreign Relations Committee Democrats who they believe could cross party lines and vote for Bolton.
Bolton has said little publicly since his nomination last month. In an interview with his high school's alumni magazine, he merely described himself as an "advocate."
"Frequently you hear diplomacy described as a skill of keeping things calm and stable and so on, and there's an element to that," he said. "But basically, American diplomats should be advocates for the United States. That's the style I pursue."
The son of a Baltimore firefighter and a homemaker, Bolton was a voracious reader and a fervent conservative, who ran the students for Barry Goldwater campaign at his school.
McDonogh's student body was conservative back then, teacher McKibbin recalled, but Bolton was "more conservative than the other students."
While many students across the country were criticizing Johnson for being tough in Vietnam, Bolton blasted him for being soft.
After graduating from McDonogh in 1966, Bolton went on to Yale University, where he was active in the school's conservative party and served as editor in chief of a political magazine before graduating summa cum laude.
He remained at Yale for law school and spent one summer interning for former Vice President Spiro Agnew.
From 1974 to 1981, Bolton practiced law. He shifted to the public sector in 1982, rising from counsel general for the U.S. Agency for International Development under President Ronald Reagan to assistant secretary for international organization affairs under the first President Bush.
Bolton's ties to the current Bush White House go back to the 2000 Florida ballot recount when he worked as a senior member for the Republican legal team headed by former Secretary of State James Baker. Vice President Dick Cheney was so impressed with his work that when asked what job Bolton should get in the new administration, he replied, "anything he wants."
He got the No. 4 position at the State Department in 2001 in what some foreign affairs analysts say was an uncomfortable marriage with more moderate Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Bolton earned praise at State for helping strike post-Sept. 11, 2001, deals with countries designed to stop the smuggling of nuclear materials. But he was also viewed warily by some State Department officials, who thought he was trying to undercut Powell on some crucial issues.
On the eve of sensitive six-nation talks in July 2003 to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear program, Bolton gave a speech in which described life in the communist country as a "hellish nightmare." The comment enraged North Korean officials, who denounced Bolton as "scum" and threatened to boycott the talks.
In 2002, Bolton declared that Cuban President Fidel Castro was developing a germ weapon program, an assertion later rejected by U.S. intelligence officials.
"I think he (Bolton) served the secretary adequately," said a former high-ranking State Department official under Powell. "When you sometimes choose words that are inflammatory, that's not helpful. I suspect on more than one occasion the leadership of the State Department would have liked him to use his language and framework in a way that was less inflammatory."
But that's not Bolton's style, according to Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where Bolton was a senior vice president before joining the younger Bush's administration.
"The striped-pants diplomat crowd, people who know what fork to use, those are not the people that John appeals to," she said. "He's a straight-talker, and that's not admired in diplomatic circles."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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