The battle over Bolton

April 15, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the nomination of John R. Bolton, an outspoken critic of the United Nations, to be U.S. ambassador to the world organization have brought into focus two opposing notions of what role the post requires.

The Bush administration's view is that the U.S. ambassador should be a head-knocker who strongly believes the United Nations needs extensive reform and won't spare sensitivities in achieving it.

The other view is that the American ambassador, in light of the deep divisions between the United States and major Security Council members over Iraq, should be a fence-mender whose strong suit is diplomacy.

Mr. Bolton's record and public comments on the United Nations, repeatedly cited by Democratic foes on the committee, clearly recommend him in terms of the first view. A videotape of a speech he made in 1994 to a world federalist group was ordered up by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. It showed him declaring that "there is no United Nations," and saying that if 10 floors of the U.N. headquarters in New York were lost, it wouldn't matter.

One Republican committee member, Sen. George F. Allen of Virginia, said Mr. Bolton's reputation as a harsh U.N. critic with a take-no-prisoners attitude was exactly what the situation required.

Democrat Barack Obama offered the second view of the ambassador's post. He cited as the model for the job his fellow Illinoisan, Adlai E. Stevenson, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Mr. Obama said Mr. Stevenson's presentation of the photographic evidence of the Soviet Union's missiles on the island, combined with his "integrity and credibility," had convincingly made the case against the Soviet Union's bold gamble.

Mr. Stevenson went to that presentation as a firm believer in the United Nations as a necessary instrument of diplomacy and a skilled practitioner of the negotiating craft, in contrast to Mr. Bolton's father-knows-best attitude. Any U.S. ambassador today faces the task of convincing U.N. members that President Bush's questioning of the world body's "relevance" in the run-up to the Iraq war no longer applies.

Mr. Bolton, in his testimony, low-balled his earlier anti-U.N. remarks, saying he made them to the world group just to get its attention. Throughout, he offered himself as a proponent of tough love toward the United Nations, with an emphasis on the "tough." A former State Department official, Carl W. Ford Jr., called him a bully and a "serial abuser" of subordinates.

There is more to the argument against Mr. Bolton, however, than his temperament and quick tongue. The committee's Democrats are exploring whether, as Mr. Ford charged, Mr. Bolton tried as an undersecretary of state to have an intelligence analyst removed for disputing his claim of a Cuban biological weapons program, which never was proved.

At the core of the Iraq weapons of mass destruction fiasco was the failure of administration officials to challenge flawed intelligence findings. Any attempt by Mr. Bolton to punish an intelligence analyst for disagreeing with him, his critics say, should disqualify him as a credible U.S. voice at the United Nations.

Personal credibility is certainly important in the job. Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had it when he made his persuasive but misleading case to the United Nations in 2002 for the existence of WMD in Iraq.

Mr. Bolton, if ever put in a similar position to sell the Security Council on a U.S. pitch to use force to rid Iran or North Korea of alleged WMD, clearly would not be the ideal man for the job. Even if reforming the United Nations is paramount in administration interests now, it probably will take more than tough love to achieve it.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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