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A Nuclear Blunder?

Critics say U.N. Ambassador-designate John Bolton didn’t properly prepare for a key nonproliferation conference, which could be a serious setback in U.S. efforts to isolate Iran.

Nuke conference: A diplomacy failure for Bolton?
Nuke conference: A diplomacy failure for Bolton?
Katsumi Kasahara / AP

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By Michael Hirsh and Eve Conant
Updated: 1:37 p.m. ET May 11, 2005

May 11 - George W. Bush has said it often enough. The No. 1 security challenge for America post-9/11 is to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes. In a landmark speech at the National Defense University in February 2004, the president called for a toughened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other new initiatives. “There is a consensus among nations that proliferation cannot be tolerated,” Bush said. “Yet this consensus means little unless it is translated into action.”

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By action Bush meant the hard work of diplomacy, John Bolton, the president’s point man on nuclear arms control, told Congress a month later. For one thing, America needed to lead an effort at “closing a loophole” in the 35-year-old NPT, Bolton testified back then. The treaty’s provisions had to be updated to prevent countries like Iran from enriching uranium under cover of a peaceful civilian program—which is technically permitted under the NPT—when what Tehran really sought was a bomb, according to the administration.

But if the NPT needed so much fixing under U.S. leadership, why was the United States so shockingly unprepared when the treaty came up for its five-year review at a major conference in New York this month, in the view of many delegates? And why has the United States been losing control of the conference’s agenda this week to Iran and other countries—a potentially serious setback to U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran?

Part of the answer, several sources close to the negotiations tell NEWSWEEK, lies with Bolton, the undersecretary of State for arms control. Since last fall Bolton, Bush’s embattled nominee to be America’s ambassador to the United Nations, has aggressively lobbied for a senior job in the second Bush administration. During that time, Bolton did almost no diplomatic groundwork for the NPT conference, these officials say.

“John was absent without leave” when it came to implementing the agenda that the president laid out in his February 2004 speech, a former senior Bush official declares flatly. Another former government official with experience in nonproliferation agrees. “Everyone knew the conference was coming and that it would be contentious. But Bolton stopped all diplomacy on this six months ago,” this official said. “The White House and the National Security Council started worrying, wondering what was going on. So a few months ago the NSC had to step in and get things going themselves. The NPT regime is full of holes—it's very hard for the U.S. to meet our objectives—it takes diplomacy.”

Diplomacy is just a fancy word for salesmanship—making phone calls, working the corridors, listening to and poking holes in opposing arguments, lobbying others to back one’s position. But “delegates didn’t hear a peep from the U.S. until a week before the conference,” says Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s no sign of any coordinated U.S. effort to develop a positive program.” One diplomat involved with the conference agrees. “There were a number of the issues Bush raised in his February 2004 speech that needed to be taken up here, like the establishment of a special committee at the IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency] to go after [treaty] noncompliers. But painfully little has been done on that a year later.”

A spokesperson for the NSC referred all questions about Bolton and its own role to the State Department. Asked to respond to the criticism, a State Department official denied that the United States had been unprepared for the conference or was underplaying it. He said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn’t attend because she was caught in between back-to-back foreign trips to Latin America and to Russia. Bolton himself was preoccupied with his Senate confirmation, and Robert Joseph has yet to be confirmed as Bolton’s replacement as undersecretary, the State official said, adding, “We had several prep conferences for the NPT.”

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