Diplomats at the United Nations have found U.S. Ambassador John Bolton’s behavior so inexplicable that a virtual quasi-science has sprung up, aimed at divining his true intentions.
The primary school of thought, according to one diplomat, is that Mr. Bolton, who has made plain his disdain for the world body since arriving there 11 months ago, is playing to a domestic audience of U.N. skeptics, possibly with an eye on future political ambitions.
A second theory, said another official who works in the U.N., holds that Mr. Bolton is busily storing up anecdotes that will form the basis of a book about his experiences: He did his best to change the organization, but, tragically, the bureaucracy and corruption were too much even for him to overcome.
“A lot of us wonder what his real agenda is,” a European diplomat told The Observer. “First, we think maybe he wants things to fail because then he can say, ‘We cannot reform this place.’ The other question is, does he really reflect the position in Washington? That is always the question: Is it Bolton or is it Washington?”
The fact that international officials have come to engage in abstract theorizing about Mr. Bolton’s motives is a testament both to the genuine shock inspired within the diplomatic ranks by his behavior and to the center-stage role he has assumed since arriving in Turtle Bay.
Just last week, Mr. Bolton attacked the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, after she expressed “grave concern” about the reported existence of secret detention centers.
And that mini-row came hot on the heels of Mr. Bolton’s clash with the Deputy Secretary General of the U.N., Mark Malloch Brown. Mr. Bolton reacted with fury to a speech in which Mr. Malloch Brown contended that U.S. politicians did not defend the U.N. from domestic criticism with sufficient vigor. Mr. Bolton told reporters that the speech was “the worst mistake by a senior U.N. official that I have seen” since at least 1989.
But despite the indignant reactions to the ambassador’s angry outbursts—Secretary General Kofi Annan pointedly refused his requests to criticize Mr. Malloch Brown’s speech—Mr. Bolton is anything but a pariah, and he is often the center of attention at official and social events.
“People talk to him because he is at the center of the game,” explained the European diplomat with a mixture of wonder and exasperation. “He has succeeded in becoming the center of the story. He has become the most important person here, more important even than the Secretary General.”
The diplomat added with a laugh, “He has become the U.N.”
It’s a fairly shocking notion.
After all, Mr. Bolton, a florid 57-year-old with a cartoonish mustache, has hardly sought to fit in with his new colleagues. Whether because of the corruption that plagued the U.N.’s oil-for-food program or the organization’s history of allowing egregious abusers like Zimbabwe and Sudan to make pronouncements on human rights, Mr. Bolton, like his patrons in the White House, views the international body as little more than an inefficient body of self-important bureaucrats.
(The British Sunday Telegraph reported last fall that Mr. Bolton privately called the U.N. a “target-rich environment.” He also once said the organization could lose 10 floors from its 38-story Manhattan headquarters without it making a bit of difference.)
Perhaps because he was appointed by President Bush during a recess over the objections of many in the U.S. Senate—and because he faces uncertain prospects for reappointment to his post when the new Congress begins its term in January—Mr. Bolton has set about forcing his idea of reform on the normally genteel body with a whiplash-inducing urgency.
Mr. Bolton’s unconventional manner is best exemplified by one of his first official actions at the U.N., which, interviews with insiders suggest, continues to reverberate and rankle more deeply than any other.
Mr. Bolton arrived at the U.N. last Aug. 2 as the organization was finalizing its blueprint for what many hoped would be the most sweeping reforms since its foundation. A draft document, the product of months of painstaking negotiation, had almost been agreed upon.
Then, the insiders claim, Mr. Bolton tried to torch it.
“We almost had an agreement with the G-77,” one diplomat involved with the negotiations recalled, referring to the group representing 132 developing nations. “He came in and said, ‘I want more, I want much more, and I will get it in direct negotiations with individual nations.’”
The process nearly came to a halt. “We got new objections from all the tough guys in the G-77—Pakistan, India, Iran, of course—because after he did what he did, they obviously thought they had nothing to lose by going through everything line by line too,” the diplomat said.
At one point, Mr. Bolton noted more than 400 objections to what was then a 38-page document outlining the proposed agreement—and offered a novel fix to the problem.
“He was actually saying that there should be something between two and four pages long, which he happily announced he would be willing to draw up himself,” recalled another official close to the negotiations.
An agreement was eventually reached in time for the landmark summit. But the final document was much less ambitious and wide-ranging than many had believed it would be.
Not that Mr. Bolton is picking fights on his own. The near-constant rows in which he has been enmeshed in the normally collegial setting on the East River have had as much to do with policy as personal style.
“As a U.S. diplomat, he states U.S. foreign policy quite clearly,” said Michael Doyle, who was special advisor to Mr. Annan before taking up his current position as a professor at Columbia University. “Sometimes he does so in a manner that is grating. But it is the policy that is most of the problem, even though the personality doesn’t help.”
Tellingly, Mr. Doyle is one of the few people with recent high-level U.N. experience willing to speak for attribution about Mr. Bolton. Most people whose lives revolve around Turtle Bay would only talk candidly about the U.S. ambassador from behind an uncommonly dense thicket of anonymity.
Their reluctance to speak on the record, and the alacrity with which they attacked Mr. Bolton once assured their identities would not be revealed, will doubtless buttress the controversial ambassador’s dim view of the world body.
But their attitude may also bespeak a genuine fear of retribution. The European diplomat recalled a previous instance in which things got “quite ugly” in the Security Council when Mr. Bolton believed that another nation’s delegation had leaked details of sensitive negotiations to the press.
Neither Mr. Bolton nor his office would talk to The Observer for this article. “The U.S. mission does not cooperate with profile pieces,” a spokesman stated.
As unpopular as he may be in the environs of Turtle Bay, Mr. Bolton has become something of a hero among U.N.-skeptic conservatives.
“Look, I believe John Bolton’s job is not to win popularity contests; it is to advance American interests,” said Frank Gaffney, the president of the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Security Policy.
“The preponderance of members of that organization are not merely not friendly to the United States and to the broader cause of systemic reform—they are actively hostile to it,” Mr. Gaffney said. “The only way to get along with such people is to go along with their program. Obviously, that is not something that I think any United States ambassador should be doing.”
Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the editor of a Web site called Eye on the UN (eyeontheun.org), also insisted that culpability for the slow pace of reform at the U.N. rests with the institution and with other nations, not with the U.S. or its ambassador.
“The reality is that the Group of 77 controls actions at the U.N. General Assembly,” Ms. Bayefsky said. “They are not interested in reform. John Bolton has been at the forefront of seeking reform.”
In the eyes of Mr. Bolton’s supporters, his effectiveness in exposing the U.N.’s flaws compensates for what even they acknowledge has been a lack of progress in effecting change.
“He attended a dinner that we organized a few weeks back,” Mr. Gaffney recalled, “and he admitted that he had not been able to make as much progress as he would have liked.”
Mr. Bolton also conceded as much during his recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he said that “progress has not been good” in bringing change to the U.N.
That lack of tangible achievement so far has allowed Mr. Bolton’s domestic critics to impugn his methods as ineffective—and then some.
Nancy Soderberg, who served as the U.S. Alternate Representative to the U.N. from 1997-2001, said that there is a boiling resentment in the international community about the policies of the Bush administration in general. “But,” she added, “the salt in the wound is Bolton and his aggressive, confrontational and ultimately unproductive style.”
Stephen Schlesinger, the director of the World Policy Institute at the New School, puts the blame squarely on Mr. Bolton himself.
“He doesn’t believe in the U.N.,” Mr. Schlesinger said. “His view of the U.N. is that it should be totally subservient to U.S. foreign policy. He’s a man who is basically doing a very poor job of representing the United States.”
—additional reporting by Anna Schneider-Mayerson