The nomination of John Bolton to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is in keeping with the governing philosophy of the Bush administration, which has displayed a penchant for officials who despise the agencies they are appointed to run. Consumer protection is turned over to people who believe consumers needn’t be protected; environmental protection is entrusted to people who think the environment shouldn’t be protected; and now our U.N. mission is to be overseen by a man who has loudly and repeatedly denounced the international organization.
Conservatives in Washington regard his long history of shrill disparagement of the U.N. as his strongest qualification for dealing with the world body’s officials, ambassadorial colleagues and other members of the diplomatic community in New York.
“There’s no such thing as the U.N.,” he once quipped. “If the U.N. Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” He has also suggested in the recent past that “nothing more should be paid to the U.N. system” by Congress.
Certain Republican commentators have compared the “outspoken” nominee with the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose career included a tumultuous stint as U.N. ambassador. This ploy insults the memory of Moynihan, a lifelong progressive Democrat and internationalist who firmly supported the U.N.-and conveniently avoids frank discussion of Mr. Bolton’s true political pedigree.
Essentially, Mr. Bolton is a creation of Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina Senator whose racial politics helped lead white Southern voters into the Republican Party. During the 1970’s, as a young lawyer at Covington and Burling, the powerhouse law and lobbying firm that served the tobacco industry, Mr. Bolton provided important legal services to the Helms political machine. He worked closely with Thomas F. Ellis, a right-wing eminence who ran both the Helms machine and the Pioneer Fund, which funded segregationism and eugenics research. (Mr. Bolton must have come a long way since then; after all, he was promoted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.)
During the Reagan years, Mr. Helms sponsored his protégé Bolton for plum government positions, initially in the Justice Department and later in the State Department, where he remained during the first Bush administration.
Off the government payroll during the Clinton administration, Mr. Bolton found sustenance at the Republican teat. In 1994, he was appointed president of the National Policy Forum, a tax-exempt and supposedly nonpartisan group that was in fact controlled by Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour-and perhaps misused for partisan purposes. A Senate committee investigated the forum’s covert funding from Taiwanese and Chinese sources. Although its financing and activities skirted the boundaries of federal law, no prosecution ever ensued.
Despite his marred résumé, Mr. Bolton’s ideology is sufficient to ensure his rise in the Bush administration. Like so many conservatives and neoconservatives, he doesn’t distinguish the U.N.’s obvious shortcomings from its important successes and its crucial functions on a small planet. No matter how desperately we need the World Health Organization to mount a defense against an avian flu pandemic, for instance, these right-wingers can imagine no enduring purpose for U.N.
Such jingoistic pandering might be tolerable if Mr. Bolton had displayed any great competence or aptitude. But his record as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security over the past four years is unimpressive. Many Democratic Senators voted against confirming him for that job in May 2001, and he has since performed poorly enough to irritate sane and knowledgeable Republican Senators.
His most memorable foray on international arms control came during the summer of 2002, when he announced that the Cuban government was pursuing “an offensive biological-warfare research and development effort.” His startling revelation came as a surprise to American military and intelligence officers, as well as his colleagues at the State Department-none of whom knew of any evidence to support it. Cuban diplomats are sure to mention that embarrassing episode to other U.N. members, who no doubt still remember Colin Powell’s famous speech about those terrifying Iraqi chemical and biological weapons stockpiles.
Meanwhile, on a matter of much greater urgency, Mr. Bolton failed to complete crucial negotiations with Russia concerning the disposal of tons of weapons-grade plutonium, which are at risk of falling into the possession of terrorists and rogue states.
Senator Pete Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who has long worked against proliferation, blames the Russian blunder on the bumbling Bolton. In hearings last June, the Senator said he was “amazed” that the obstacles hadn’t been removed. “Mr. John Bolton, who has been assigned to negotiate this, has a very heavy responsibility,” he noted. “I hate to say that I am not sure to this point that he’s up to it.” Last week, Senator Domenici told the Albuquerque Journal that he is “lukewarm” about the Bolton nomination.
In an administration that prizes extremism and praises incompetence, Senator Domenici may have to lower his expectations.