When it comes to the nomination of John Bolton to be our guy at the United Nations, the mystery is not why a U.N.-hater was chosen or why someone with the management skills of the late Alphonse Capone was tabbed or even why so undiplomatic a chap would be picked for the most diplomatic of all posts. Rather, it is why he was not first awarded a presidential medal and fulsomely praised by President George Bush. Bolton has been that wrong.
"That wrong" is a high standard indeed. It is the standard of George "Slam-Dunk" Tenet, the former CIA director who managed to tell the president precisely what he wanted to hear: that Iraq was awash with the most awful weapons of mass destruction, all of them so advanced and futuristic we still can't see them. It is the standard of Condi Rice, who made similar assurances to the nation, and, of course, of Colin Powell, who told the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons galore -- so many weapons in so many secret, mobile locations that had the expression not already been used, I would call it a slam-dunk.
Most important, it is the standard of Vice President Dick Cheney, who not only said Iraq had "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons program but insisted on it even after U.N. inspectors had concluded otherwise. Earlier, Cheney had said it was "pretty well confirmed" that Mohamed Atta, the lead September 11th terrorist, had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official. It has since been pretty well confirmed that no such meeting took place.
Bolton was hardly a departure from such smoke-blowing. He was wrong not only about Iraq but about Syria and Cuba as well -- a trifecta of bad judgment. In all these cases, he apparently goosed the intelligence data to fit his views, sometimes browbeating subordinates to go along. This, of course, is the mark of a juvenile personality who, when his way of thinking is rejected, simply raises his voice.
The reason the administration nominated Bolton is that his method of operating -- the exaggeration, the bullying -- was the music by which the Bush administration marched us all to war. More specifically, it was the tune played by Cheney, Bolton's chief champion. The vice president, it is both authoritatively and repeatedly said, is the one who pushed Bolton on a presumably reluctant Secretary of State Rice. (Her predecessor, Powell, refuses to endorse Bolton's nomination.)
Note that it was Cheney who belligerently told the two most important arms inspectors, the United Nations' Hans Blix and the International Atomic Energy Agency's Mohamed ElBaradei, that if the Bush administration found their judgment questionable, "we will not hesitate to discredit you" -- a Boltonesque piece of diplomacy if there ever was one. Note also that it was Cheney who applauded when he got intelligence he liked and growled when he was told something he didn't like.
Now, all these months later, it is Cheney who has been discredited. Just this week, Charles A. Duelfer, the administration's chief Iraqi weapons hunter (head of the Iraq Survey Group), reported that U.N. sanctions and inspections had actually "dampened the regime's ability to retain its WMD expertise" -- just as Blix and ElBaradei had maintained. Oops.
But taking the nation to war for false reasons is not a minor blip. It is an unpardonable feat of hubris for which, on a daily basis, Americans die in Iraq. American voters, thus far, have been oddly forgiving, and the Bush administration has neither apologized nor fired anyone for getting things so very, very wrong. The conclusion is inescapable: This was not a war for the wrong reason; this was a war for any reason.
So, in a way, I feel a bit solicitous toward the embattled Bolton. He must wonder why, of all the fibbers and exaggerators and outright liars in the Bush administration, he alone is being asked to account for what he said and what he did. It is a fair enough question and leads me to amend a recent column in which I called Bolton a nut. He is, instead, Cheney's acorn. He did not fall far from the tree.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.