Prove us wrong

August 02, 2005

TALK ABOUT a diplomatic challenge! After months of getting banged around by the Senate like a political pinata, John R. Bolton has finally secured the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but only because President Bush chose to give the Senate the raspberry.

Thus, Mr. Bolton assumes his duties in a diminished condition. Not only did he fail to win the confidence of Congress, he's a short-timer with only 17 months to serve before his temporary appointment runs out.

Why should anyone in the cantankerous global assembly take Mr. Bolton seriously as he tries to promote American interests while working to reform an institution of which he has been openly contemptuous?

Adding another degree of difficulty to his task is Mr. Bolton's reputation for not being very diplomatic. More like a know-it-all, and a bully. The kind of guy that Mr. Bush would send to the United Nations to bash some heads while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Robert B. Zoellick, present a more genial face to the world.

For the sake of sorely strained international relations, we hope Mr. Bush's risky gamble pays off. Maybe a good cop/bad cop tactic can succeed in streamlining the bureaucracy in a way that doesn't rob the United Nations of its invaluable role as an outlet for unhappy nations to vent.

Certainly, the hard-charging Mr. Bolton isn't likely to change his personality, but the status of his post may have been sufficiently downgraded so he can act like one of those corporate consultants who helicopter in briefly to take the heat for tough decisions. There have been rumors aplenty that Ms. Rice backed Mr. Bolton's nomination to get him out of the State Department, and she says she plans to keep a close eye on him.

The president's in-your-face use of a recess appointment to circumvent the Bolton critics in the Senate - most, but not all, Democrats - might not have been carefully calculated. Just a matter of pique and the consequences be damned.

Even with Ms. Rice and Mr. Zoellick hovering nearby, those consequences could be dangerous. The world body may soon be called upon to deal with Iran's development of nuclear power or North Korea's failure to dismantle its nuclear weapons. These are issues of extraordinary delicacy that require a trusted broker. Mr. Bolton, who has been accused of shaping intelligence to support a preferred result, may well come up short on credibility as well as tact.

Reforms intended to make the United Nations more efficient and accountable can hardly be mandated by the U.S., but must be developed by consensus. And in Mr. Bolton, the United States is represented by a man for whom consensus-building has never been a strong point.

So America's ambassador to the United Nations begins his new job with the functional equivalent of at least one arm tied behind his back, and (if the world is lucky) his mouth taped shut.

But, hey, maybe it could work. Go ahead, prove us wrong.

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