Confirmation hopes dim for Bolton at UN
The controversial ambassador is in political limbo with a Senate committee vote deadlocked.
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has pleaded the case for smooth and timely political appointments, saying officeholders need a transition period to prepare as well as settle their personal lives.
Mr. Bolton was referring last week to the ongoing process to find a successor to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose term ends at the end of the year. But the controversial diplomat could have been talking about himself.
Bolton, who has been serving without Senate confirmation since August 2005 under a presidential recess appointment, had appeared to be cruising toward a Senate vote last month. But then a surprise flat note from the Republican side of the aisle threw things off. With Congress now in recess for midterm elections, Bolton is in political limbo again – with even some Republican supporters saying his job in New York is doomed.
"The skies aren't looking too favorable for Bolton," says one US official who did not want to be named because the official was less than upbeat about confirmation. "If he wants to plan anything, it might be a move back to Washington."
Others say the ball is now in the White House court. Andy Fisher, spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, says that while a committee vote is "still possible," it is now "up to the administration as to how they want to push it following the election."
To some, Bolton has been a poster boy for all that's wrong with Bush foreign policy. But to some conservatives and UN skeptics, he's a darling for his tough-minded approach to the international organization.
During his 14 months as UN ambassador, Bolton has allayed some fears that he would be too strident for his job and has reassured some senators that he is pursuing American interests over his own ideological goals. Most notably, he won over Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, who held up a confirmation vote last year but announced in July that a year of Bolton had persuaded him to vote in the affirmative.
But Bolton has not been able to throw off his close association with the unilateralist, our-way-or-the-highway approach for foreign policy in the first Bush term. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which takes up ambassadorial confirmations, was caught off guard last month when Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, fighting a tough reelection campaign, informed Chairman Lugar he was not prepared to vote for Bolton. His explanation: He has questions about Bush administration policy toward the Middle East – specifically, what he considers favoritism toward Israel. Bolton is a staunch advocate of pro-Israel policy.
The loss of one Republican senator's support nixed a vote to send the nomination to the full Senate, since committee Democrats – uniformly opposed to Bolton – hold eight of 18 votes.
Behind the political wrangling in Washington is the question of what kind of job Bolton has done in New York. Many UN officials and experts judge him by the results of a UN reform effort that spanned his year here. But on that score, many say the outcome is hardly a recommendation.
"[Bolton] is certainly intelligent and was more productive in the Security Council than I would say some people around here anticipated, but that positive note doesn't extend to his tactics on reform," says one UN official who did not want to be identified as commenting on a particular ambassador. "Some countries, among them some US allies, think he took an 'all or nothing' approach that scrapped the best chance of the US getting what it wanted."
According to the official, that led some UN members to "question whether Bolton was out to achieve his own ideological convictions, or to further US policy."
The criticism that Bolton should have been able to use the weight of the United States to deliver a better result on UN reforms is not limited to UN officials. Last month, a bipartisan group of 64 former US diplomats and officials sent a letter to Lugar opposing Bolton's confirmation, saying among other things that the ambassador's actions "deprived the US of the votes and support of other countries."
"The record of reform in the past year isn't as good as it could have been or should have been," says Lee Feinstein, a UN expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "But US priorities were unclear," he adds. For example, did the US really want broad UN reform, or more limited changes to strengthen the Security Council?
Bolton did help promote Security Council resolutions on Lebanon and Sudan that have deepened the international imprint on conflicts there, and he engineered a resolution last summer on North Korea's nuclear program that won broad Council support and could serve as a template for further Council action on Iran.
Still, most supporters consider Bolton a "success" more for domestic political reasons. "The main thing Bolton has achieved is raising the profile of UN issues with the American people," says Nile Gardiner, an expert in international organizations at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Beyond that, he says Bolton has "turned up the heat" on the world's despots, something he says explains some of the animosity directed toward Bolton – and the US. "The UN is an organization that is traditionally tolerant of tyranny," Mr. Gardiner says, "but Bolton has upset that apple cart."