Colin Powell plainly didn't like what he was hearing. At a meeting in London in November 2003, his counterpart, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, was complaining to Powell about John Bolton, according to a former Bush administration official who was there. Straw told the then Secretary of State that Bolton, Powell's under secretary for arms control, was making it impossible to reach allied agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Powell turned to an aide and said, "Get a different view on [the Iranian problem]. Bolton is being too tough."
Unbeknownst to Bolton, the aide then interviewed experts in Bolton's own Nonproliferation Bureau. The issue was resolved, the former official told NEWSWEEK, only after Powell adopted softer language recommended by these experts on how and when Iran might be referred to the U.N. Security Council. But the terrified State experts were "adamant that we not let Bolton know we had talked to them," the official said.
The incident illustrates a key allegation that now bedevils Bolton's nomination to be America's next ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton's critics contend that he has consistently taken an extreme and uncompromising line on issues and that he has bullied subordinates and intel analysts who disagreed with him. President Bush last week stood by his embattled nominee, blaming "politics" for Bolton's difficult confirmation process. But it was members of the president's own party who were holding things up. After GOP Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, unexpectedly blocked a vote last week, it was clear that Bolton's nomination was in trouble. Powell himself, in reported remarks to several senators, expressed worries about Bolton's temperament. Because the eight Democrats on the 18-person committee are solidly against Bolton, a single GOP defector could kill the nomination when it comes to a vote on May 12. The White House still believes that only a hard-liner like Bolton can reform the U.N.
But the London story is further evidence that Bolton and the White House have their work cut out for them. On several occasions, America's closest ally in the war on terror, Britain, was irked by what U.S. and British sources say were efforts by Bolton to undermine promising diplomatic openings. Perhaps the most dramatic instance took place early in the U.S.-British talks in 2003 to force Libya to surrender its nuclear program, NEWSWEEK has learned. The Libya deal succeeded only after British officials "at the highest level" persuaded the White House to keep Bolton off the negotiating team. A crucial issue, according to sources involved in the affair, was Muammar Kaddafi's demand that if Libya abandoned its WMD program, the U.S. in turn would drop its goal of regime change. But Bolton was unwilling to support this compromise. The White House agreed to keep Bolton "out of the loop," as one source puts it. A deal was struck only after Kaddafi was reassured that Bush would settle for "policy change"--surrendering his WMD. One Bush official called the accounts of both incidents "flatly untrue."
As the Senate hearings continue, the fired-up Democrats are focusing not just on Bolton's allegedly abusive treatment of intel analysts. They are also examining whether Bolton has told the truth under oath in recent weeks in responding to his critics. And the committee is examining fresh allegations that Bolton misused or hyped flawed intelligence against Syria, China and Iran. The steady rain of complaints about Bolton may or may not finish him, but there's no sign that the clouds are clearing.