The Bomb-thrower as Diplomat

Published March 11, 2005, issue of March 11, 2005.
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Whatever its substantive merits or flaws, the nomination of John Bolton as America’s next ambassador to the United Nations encapsulates with excruciating precision the dilemma facing Jewish liberals in the Bush era. On one hand, Bolton’s acid-laced neoconservatism embodies pretty much all the things liberals dislike about President Bush’s foreign policy: high-handed unilateralism, disdain for international institutions and alliances, impatience with the very process of diplomacy. On the other hand, those very attributes have, over the years, made Bolton an effective ally of Israel in a hostile world. It should be possible to have one without the other, but that choice isn’t on the menu.

Given Bolton’s richly documented hostility to the world body and its ways — he once joked tastelessly that it wouldn’t matter if the U.N. building “lost 10 stories” — his nomination is being taken as a slap in the face by America’s European allies, and understandably so. It’s particularly disappointing in the wake of the president’s European visit last month, which raised hopes for a new spirit of cooperation. The appointment of the acerbic Bolton to the high-profile post, the only ambassadorship with Cabinet-level rank, can be taken as a symbolic message, signaling that administration intends to continue the confrontations of the past four years rather than turn the page.

But symbolism is not always the same thing as substance. Bolton is being sent to the U.N. not to make administration policy but to articulate and execute it. If he is ordered to implement the sorts of obstructionist, bomb-throwing policies with which he’s identified, then the complaints should rightly be directed to the president who sent him.

Before drawing their swords, though, critics should consider Bolton’s full record. For all his inflammatory rhetoric, he has spent much of his career in the trenches of the State Department, working not to obstruct diplomacy but to practice it. For the last four years he’s served as undersecretary of state for arms control, winning praise even from Russian and Chinese interlocutors as an effective, cooperative player. Even more telling, he worked under the senior President Bush as assistant secretary for international organizations, the government’s top point man for policy toward the U.N. It was in that capacity that he masterminded the successful campaign to overturn the world body’s notorious “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1991. Those who worked with him then remember his singular combination of passion and skillful, hard-nosed diplomacy.

Even the strongest advocates of international cooperation concede that there’s much at the U.N. that needs changing. Its record in monitoring the Iraq oil-for-food program has become a scandal. The latest furor, involving repeated acts of rape by U.N. peacekeeping troops in Congo, is nothing less than a moral outrage. And that’s without mentioning its outrageous treatment of Israel — not least the see-no-evil behavior of the human rights commission, which puts dictatorships on its executive and then spends its time savaging the Jewish state. If Bolton is being sent to the U.N. with a mandate from the White House for housecleaning and not demolition, then he can do a lot of good.

The Bush administration did considerable damage during the past four years by its high-handedness and contempt for allies. Since his re-election, Bush has shown a troubling mix of ruefulness and triumphalism. Bolton’s upcoming Senate confirmation hearings will provide a good opportunity for skeptics to question the nominee closely and see which way he and his boss are headed.

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