Is Bolton’s Style Enough to Sink His Nomination?

Posted May 4, 2005 at 2:30pm

Everyone seems to agree that John Bolton, currently the undersecretary of State for arms control and the nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, is too hard-charging, too insensitive to his employees, too brusque and too confrontational. Many would add that he is obnoxious and undiplomatic.

[IMGCAP(1)] Let’s concede that and more. You want to note that he has said things about the United Nations that aren’t complimentary and, in fact, sound as if he thinks the United Nations is about as important as a bucket of spit? Fine, let’s stipulate to all of that as well.

The problem for Bolton’s opponents is that, even with all of those unappealing qualities and unsettling facts, he still ought to be confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The Bolton nomination is not at all about policy, and there isn’t much reason to make it about temperament. Overwhelmingly, it should boil down to President Bush.

Bolton won’t make policy. The president of the United States — along with the secretary of State and other high-level advisers Bush chooses to consult (who may or may not include Bolton, regardless of whether he is confirmed for the U.N. post) — will decide what the ambassador will say and how he will vote in the General Assembly and the Security Council.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Sarah Binder recently wrote in the Outlook section of The Washington Post that “only two factors … can stop a presidential nominee for the executive branch.” Although she doesn’t spell the first one out, it is apparently a nominee’s views, or, in this case, “what [Bolton] actually thinks.”

Binder cites Lani Guinier as precedent, even though Guinier’s views were arguably further out of the mainstream than Bolton’s are, and even though the job of assistant attorney general for civil rights has significantly more policy implications than does that of U.N. ambassador.

Binder’s second factor for denying confirmation is “a matter of ethical or legal lapses.” Here, she cites Zoe Baird, Bernard Kerik and Linda Chavez, adding, “In Bolton’s case, allegations about his flair for interpersonal relations may become his undoing.”

Pardon me, but how did we jump from employing undocumented aliens and potential serious conflicts of interest to being impolite and obnoxious?

Critics of Bolton argue that having the right temperament is absolutely crucial to the U.N. post in particular, and that his undiplomatic style is disqualifying given the nature of that position.

But given the nature of the U.N. position, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Bush wants exactly what Bolton brings with him: a reputation for directness, even bluntness, and a history of criticizing the institution in which he would be working.

That’s precisely the point. The appointment of Bolton sends a message about the president’s approach to foreign affairs to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the U.N. bureaucracy, the membership of the organization and the international community as a whole. You don’t have to agree with Bush’s approach, of course. But he earned the right to take it by winning re-election.

Bolton won’t be responsible for America’s relations with China, Russia, Iran or France. He won’t be imposing his own policy views or assessing intelligence reports, two areas where he has drawn criticism. His sole responsibility is the United Nations, which has less authority and influence than the Federal Communication Commission.

Bolton, then, is both the messenger and the message of U.S. foreign policy, each of which emanates from the White House.

I certainly can understand why Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recently said that Bolton has been “a real tyrant when it came to people he worked with, who disagreed with him. This man doesn’t have the temperament for this job.” And I can also understand why the Illinois Democrat surely would prefer someone with a different temperament if he were picking the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

But the choice isn’t Durbin’s to make, just as the policy isn’t Durbin’s to make. The nomination is Bush’s, as the nation’s chief diplomat and the maker of U.S. foreign policy.

Democrats are on far more solid ground when they complain about the president’s appointment of judges. They serve indefinitely and can write opinions that make policy. By contrast, Bolton would have far, far less opportunity to affect anyone’s life.

Democrats ought to let the president have the man he wants at the U.N. — not because they like him or want him or would have chosen him, but simply because he’ll be the mouthpiece at the United Nations that the president, in conducting U.S. foreign policy, wants.

And if Bolton does screw up and embarrass the United States and the Bush administration, the Democrats will be able to pile on the president and his party as much as they wish.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.