President Bush's nomination of John Bolton, the tough-talking neoconservative arms-proliferation expert, as US ambassador to the United Nations is raising a lot of eyebrows and questions at a time when it was thought the administration was out to set a more diplomatic tone.
Certainly on the surface, the tapping of Mr. Bolton - who as undersecretary for arms control gleefully signed the letter informing the UN of the US withdrawal from the International Criminal Court - seems at odds with the tone of multilateralism and reconciliation that Bush promoted in his week-long trip to Europe last month.
But the key to understanding such a controversial nomination may lie more in Bush's own calls for the world body to become a more effective global forum - in particular by enforcing its own decisions - than in speculation that the administration wants to antagonize what it sees as a stodgy talk shop.
"If he's being sent to New York to throw rocks, it won't do a lot of good," says Michael Doyle, a professor of law and international affairs at Columbia University in New York. "On the other hand, if he's being sent to provide leadership for reform, that's a different story. He's the kind of person who could bring on board many skeptics in the Congress."
Emphasis on an effective UN was the dominant theme when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the appointment Monday with Bolton at her side. "John Bolton is personally committed to the success of the United Nations," she said, "and he will be a strong voice for reform at a time when the UN has begun to reform itself..."
And Bolton himself added that he has long held the view that "American leadership is critical to the success of the UN, an effective UN, one that is true to the original intent of its charter's framers."
Bolton was the inspiration for the Bush administration's proliferation security initiative (PSI), which seeks to curtail the sale and trade in weapons materials through such things as joint ship inspections. And Bolton was seen as effective in negotiating European and Asian participation in the PSI - even though it is a signature Bush administration "coalition of the willing" initiative that sidesteps the UN.
"His idea was to create a new initiative without any international institution participation at all, so it's hard to see that as a recommendation for making him ambassador to the UN," says Nancy Soderberg, a security expert at the International Crisis Group in New York.
Vice President Dick Cheney pressed for Bolton's appointment to the UN, according to Washington sources - a fact that has some observers highlighting both the vice president's continuing influential role in foreign affairs, and the continuing influence of the foreign policy establishment's neoconservative wing.
But Ms. Soderberg, who was also on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, says the nomination doesn't dovetail with the recent tone of the White House or with the tenor of the top appointments Rice has made at the State Department. "It doesn't fit with the second term conversion to greater cooperation with allies and international institutions. It's a sop to the conservative wing," she says. "If you look at the people [Rice] has put in influential positions at State - career diplomats with an understanding of how to work with others - then this looks more like an appointment to assuage those fearing the conversion might be going too far."
Bolton is known to have wanted the deputy secretary of State job, but Ms. Rice chose US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick instead. But the next few months will be active at the UN, with various efforts at reform under way before world leaders are expected to take up the reform agenda at UN meetings next fall. That should allow an outlet for Bolton to demonstrate what he means by an "effective" UN.
Changing the institution will take more than a US determination to either impose its will or leave the floor, experts say. "The US has to become a persuader again, and not just an enforcer," says Soderberg. "Whether [Bolton] can change his spots, we'll see."
Of course, some experts say the US is best served when it sends strong personalities to the UN. Rice herself singled out Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan as strong individuals who were also effective UN ambassadors.
But Columbia's Mr. Doyle, a former senior official at the UN, says 2005 is a "very different time" from earlier periods, when US ambassadors were often more about fending off "views and ideologies that were inimical to the US." Now the focus, he says, is on "providing the leadership to improve the UN's capacities and enable it to fulfill what was envisioned as a very important role in world politics."
For the US to help accomplish that, he adds, it will take something more than a strong ideologue. "To be effective in this, you'll have to be willing to listen and understand and find common ground. That will be at least as important as standing up strong for the views of your own country," he says.