In a few months all the hullabaloo over the nomination of Undersecretary of State John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations will be forgotten. Since President Bush has chosen to appoint him while Congress was in recess, meaning he can serve until January 2007 without Senate confirmation, he will have a record, for better or worse, representing U.S. interests within the great Hall of Winds on the East River.
Trouble is, it is always difficult to determine just what the United States should be doing — if anything — in that assembly of superannuated diplomats, many sent there as a kind of gold-plated retirement program on the presumption that at least they can do their countries little harm in New York City.
President Bush is said to have more ambitious goals for Bolton’s tenure. He believes the United Nations, as exemplified by the Oil for Food scandal and other outrages, is in serious need of reform, and that Bolton, with a record as a vigorous yet generally constructive critic of the institution, is just the man for the job.
By sending him to the United Nations without Senate approval, however, he weakens Bolton’s ability to get much of substance done within the labyrinthine byways of the U.N. bureaucracy. Senate approval, of course, was held up by an aggressive campaign by Senate Democrats, who didn’t have the votes to deny him confirmation but enough to keep the Republicans from the 60 votes needed to close debate and move to a vote.
Some of what came out during hearings was potentially troubling but not necessarily disabling to serving at the United Nations. Bolton has strong opinions and a knack for bureaucratic infighting that seems to have led to behavior some view as bullying subordinates. He has a quick tongue and little respect for conventional wisdom.
Those aren’t necessarily the usual templates for diplomatic success, but sending a sharp-tongued critic with no illusions about the United Nations rather than somebody who respects that shabby institution more than it deserves isn’t a bad idea.
Patrick Moynihan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, two former U.S. ambassadors who were seldom shy about dressing down the majority of the General Assembly when it was doing something unusually foolish, acquitted themselves well and sometimes neutralized a tendency at the U.N. to bite the U.S. hand that hosts and feeds it.
We wonder whether Bolton has the requisite combination of bluntness, humor and savoir-faire to poke at U.N. windbags effectively. And his policy record, which includes apparent participation in exaggerating Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities and eagerness to talk of military action against pipsqueaks like North Korea, is not always in line with our preferences.
The U.N. ambassador, however, does not make policy, and in fact is not all that important a job. If John Bolton punctures a few pompous egos and doesn’t take himself too seriously, he’ll do fine.