At UN, Bolton softens his tone

As diplomats gather for a key summit, the ambassador is building bridges.

When the controversial new UN ambassador, John Bolton, arrived in New York last month and said he was ready to "rock and roll," the world body figured it had received the bull in the china shop that many diplomats who knew Mr. Bolton predicted he would be.

But over recent days Bolton - the first US ambassador to arrive at the UN on a presidential recess appointment and without the confirmation of the US Senate - appears to be taking a different tack. As world leaders gather in New York this week for a UN summit, he is sounding more conciliatory on key summit issues like world development goals, and saying less while spending many long hours behind closed doors in negotiating sessions. He is also working harder to bring key votes over to the US side, US and other sources say.

It's the education of John Bolton, according to some analysts, who say the diplomat and longtime critic of the UN has been a quick study when it comes to the realities of getting something done at the institution.

"There's some quick learning going on," says Michael Doyle, a former UN official overseeing US-UN relations now at Columbia University in New York. "Somebody realized that just simply ranting is not constructive, the UN is a place where you build from common ground."

Adds a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity "We don't know if [Bolton's] initial approach was just a negotiating tactic or if he's on a fast learning curve, but in any case we've noticed a change, at least in approach."

What may explain the seesaw away from "posturing" and toward conciliation is the US desire to make progress with this week's summit. Bolton "has incentives to be successful," Mr. Doyle says.

For one thing, Bush is set to meet separately with several leaders this week, and the US is still rebuilding global good will after the bitter debate over going to war in Iraq. At the same time, the White House does not want to be blamed for any collapse of a process that takes up some key reforms of the UN system - from management and international human rights oversight to peacekeeping and counterterrorism - that the US favors.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is said to have instructed Bolton to temper the polemics and focus more on common ground, according to Washington sources. At the same time, Bolton appears to have realized that just objections, both petty and substantial, were not enough - "if something is going to be achieved by this summit," Doyle says.

Nancy Soderberg, a former alternate US representative to the UN in the Clinton administration, says that one stumbling block for Bolton is that he was sent to the UN "to shake things up" as the envoy of conservatives and a wing of the administration with little interest or faith in the UN. But the confrontational approach does not dovetail easily with an organization where diplomacy and persuasion get things done, Ms. Soderberg adds.

The Bush administration was surely unfazed when certain countries were critical of Bolton's approach - as when Syria's ambassador told reporters, "We started negotiations six months ago and we were thinking that we were reaching a good conclusion, and suddenly someone comes and says, 'This is rubbish.' "

But when close US partners, including the British, expressed dismay over the scope and direction of the Bolton amendments and his approach, it was a different matter. One South African official even equated the US approach to "filibustering."

Since then, however, some US allies who were initially dubious about Bolton are now fingering other culprits as the summit's potential party poopers.

"The more obstinate blockage to progress at this point is not the US and Mr. Bolton but a hard-core group of nonaligned countries who are trying to stop any forward movement on some important areas" like human rights and management reform, says an official from a Western country.

"Some amendments the US offered on development were well received. But what's not changing for the better now is the blockage by this group of countries."

The group includes Cuba and Venezuela, two of Bolton's pet targets in the past, and Pakistan, a key Bush administration ally since 9/11. From their perspective, the management reforms sought by the US will enhance the office of the secretary general while stripping the General Assembly of any oversight powers.

But many countries agree that new management controls and independent auditing practices must be implemented - especially after the devastating findings of corruption and lax management in last week's report from the independent Volcker committee on the Iraq oil-for-food program.

Soderberg explains that there are now "two camps of ideologues butting up against each other: the ideologues from the developing world and those from the Bush administration. The result [for the summit] could still be a two-page document that doesn't really say much."

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