Bolton's next hurdle: spurring UN reform

Despite a backdoor arrival, the controversial diplomat could set a tone for change.

By sidestepping the Senate and naming controversial nuclear-arms diplomat John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations during a congressional recess, President Bush has thrilled the Republican Party's right while stymieing moderates of both parties holding out for a more conciliatory choice.

The appointment ends nearly five months of political battling and stalemate over a nomination that the president insisted was "the right man at the right time" for the key diplomatic post. By appointing Mr. Bolton, Mr. Bush sends to the UN a longtime stinging critic of the international organization just as the United States is pressing for significant reforms in how the UN works.

Drawing on the difficulties it is facing in rebuilding Iraq, the Bush administration has concluded that the UN is a desirable and even indispensable partner in such international efforts as elections preparation, education, and economic development. But it has also focused on the UN-administered oil-for-food program - which became a pool of corruption while allowing Saddam Hussein to divert millions in oil revenues - viewing it as an example of the deep reforms the UN needs if it is to be effective.

The question now is whether Bolton, who has caused even US allies like the British to express private concerns in the past about his diplomatic skills, will be impaired in his ability to press the US case for UN reform.

Bolton will unavoidably start out from a weakened position, experts in the UN's workings say, just by virtue of the high-profile controversy that has swirled around him. But they add that more important for his long-term effectiveness will be the tone he sets in working with other ambassadors and countries.

"There's no question it's not a desirable way to start this job," says Edward Luck, a UN expert at Columbia University in New York. "He comes with a reputation as a UN basher and he comes without Senate confirmation, so he already has two strikes against him."

But Mr. Luck, who has worked on past UN reform efforts, says that Bolton also has important strengths for the job, including his "intelligence" and knowledge of how the UN works. "If he can undergo something of a reform himself, if he recognizes he needs to be less confrontational, less of a loner and more of a builder, then I think he can do it."

In announcing the recess appointment, Bush noted that the US has gone more than six months without a permanent UN ambassador - since the last ambassador, former Sen. John Danforth, resigned. He said the post is "too important to leave vacant any longer, especially during a war and a vital debate about UN reform."

Standing with Bush at the White House, Bolton appeared to pointedly address critics who said he had often overstepped orders in the past by pursuing his own foreign-policy agenda. "You [Bush] have made your directions for US policy at the United Nations clear," Bolton said, "and I am prepared to work tirelessly to carry out the agenda and the initiatives that you and Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice direct."

Bush nominated Bolton to the UN job in March after Secretary Rice passed him over to fill the top positions under her at the State Department. Observers speculated at the time that Bolton - who is supported by Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration members who espoused a unilateralist foreign policy in the first Bush term - did not fit the more realistic yet cooperative tone that Rice wished to set.

But even Rice has supported Bolton's move to the UN, noting that he has proved to be someone who can get things done.

One thing she may be thinking, some experts say, is that Bolton, as a hard-line UN critic, would be exactly the kind of envoy necessary to take the case of a reformed UN to a critical US Congress. Recently the House passed legislation requiring the US to cut its UN dues - it pays about 22 percent of the organization's budget - if certain key reforms aren't undertaken.

A wide range of Democratic critics are deploring Bolton's appointment, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who says Bolton will arrive in New York "under a cloud."

But many diplomats at the UN seem to believe it will be better to have the US representative's chair filled - and some say that Bolton's experience, primarily on arms issues, means there is little mystery about the kind of person they will be working with.

"When Bush first nominated him, we were stunned because we thought he didn't go well with this new tone of multilateralism the Bush White House wanted to convey, but what we do know is that we are getting someone in New York with the full support of the president," says one European diplomat.

The diplomat notes that as a recess appointee, Bolton will hold his office only until a new Congress begins, in January 2007. But that is also some 18 months that many want to see result in significant UN reforms - starting next month with a summit of world leaders in New York.

"We know Bolton is coming without Senate confirmation, but that now recedes in importance as an internal debate. What is important now," the diplomat says, "is that we all want UN reform, but the question is what kind of reform the US supports."

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