U.N. Madhouse Needs a Bolton

Pity poor John Bolton.

No, really.

The mustachioed diplomat, who once suggested that no adverse effects would be seen if the top 10 stories of the United Nations’ headquarters were sheared off, has sought to curb his temper since he arrived at Turtle Bay 14 months ago.

Despite his efforts at self-control, however, confirmation by the Senate—the one thing that would remove the taint of Mr. Bolton’s status as a Presidential recess appointment—eludes him still.

Admittedly, even at his most restrained, Mr. Bolton does not seem like a natural fit with the world body.

His first major move after taking up his post—outlining over 400 objections to a draft proposal for U.N. reform, all but destroying months of painstaking negotiations—sharpened his fellow ambassadors’ apprehensions about him.

And even as Mr. Bolton has pulled back from such early excesses, his propensity for mischief does not always sit well with other diplomats.

For example: When a Security Council straw poll on the candidates aiming to replace Kofi Annan as Secretary-General was conducted recently, the French delegation handed out identical pens in order to preserve the anonymity of the written ballots.

Mr. Bolton asked whether the pens were the property of France or the U.N. If they belonged to France, he cheerily announced, he would pocket his; if they were the U.N.’s, he expected everyone to hand the pens back in the interests of greater organizational efficiency.

Mr. Bolton’s critics, needless to say, were not amused.

But on issues that actually matter—Iran and Darfur being two notable examples—the American ambassador has played a firm but measured role.

On Iran, he has built consensus by emphasizing the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency. On Darfur, he has most recently piloted a resolution providing for the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers through the Security Council.

Back in July, it seemed that Mr. Bolton’s temperance had earned its reward. George Voinovich, the Republican Senator from Ohio whose opposition killed Mr. Bolton’s confirmation hopes last year, announced via a Washington Post op-ed that he had changed his mind.

Though his judgments on Mr. Bolton were sometimes delivered in the patronizing style of a school principal assessing a troublesome pupil—“While Bolton is not perfect, he has demonstrated his ability, especially in recent months, to work with others”—the endorsement nevertheless seemed finally to clear Mr. Bolton’s path through the Senate.

Cue Lincoln Chafee.

In an intervention earlier this month that must have left Mr. Bolton gnashing his teeth, the Senate’s most liberal Republican declared that he now had “questions” that needed answering before he could support the ambassador.

Mr. Bolton is back on the hook. Unless he wins Senate approval, his term will run out when the new Congress convenes in January.

(Some creative solutions to his predicament are currently being floated, including the notion that the White House could appoint him as a deputy at the U.N. mission—a post that would not require Senate approval—whilst leaving the top spot vacant.)

The Chafee twist has delighted Mr. Bolton’s detractors. Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who has emerged as his chief nemesis, said, “I think the nomination is in deep trouble again, as it should be.” Mr. Dodd has threatened to organize a filibuster against Mr. Bolton even if his nomination does get out of committee.

But the justification for such an action is scant. Of course, Mr. Dodd and his Democratic colleagues will disagree with Mr. Bolton most of the time—the U.N. ambassador is a forceful advocate for the administration’s deeply contentious foreign policy.

But is that sufficient cause to deny Mr. Bolton an up-or-down vote? Hardly. It is implausible to believe that a Senate rejection of Mr. Bolton would precipitate a White House volte-face and the nomination of a conciliatory multilateralist in the John Kerry mold.

And Mr. Bush, as a two-term President and the head of a party with majorities in both Houses of Congress, can convincingly claim to have earned the right to nominate whomever he wants.

The President should be denied that right only if his nominees exhibit the kind of behavior that places them far beyond the pale. There were genuine fears about Mr. Bolton in this regard last year. But they have not been fulfilled. He has diligently—at times stridently—reflected official policy, but without becoming the human flamethrower some critics predicted.

Mr. Bolton’s achievements are modest but solid; his failings are significant but not fatal.

He deserves an up-or-down Senate vote to propel him out of the limbo in which he has already languished too long.