War Stories

Send Bolton Wandering

Why the Senate should reject Bush’s U.N. nominee.

Dear John …

John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s stunningly unsuitable choice to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, undergoes Senate confirmation hearings Thursday * and, while there’s only an outside chance he’ll be rejected, that chance is worth promoting one last time.

It’s difficult to rally enough votes to shoot down any executive-branch nominee, because most senators believe a president has a right to appoint his own team. This is the argument that a group of hawkish ex-officials made in a letter sent Monday to Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the foreign relations committee. Referring to an earlier letter, sent by a group of retired U.S. ambassadors who urged rejecting Bolton, the hawks wrote:

While the signatories are certainly free to oppose the Administration’s positions, their differences seem to be with a man twice elected by the American people to design and execute security policies, rather than with one of his most effective and articulate officials.

Yet when it comes to John Bolton, this argument should not apply. For, in some respects, Bolton’s fundamental views are at odds with trends in President Bush’s foreign policies.

The case against Bolton, which has been made here a few times, rests not so much on his ultra-neoconservatism (an insufficient disqualification on its own) or on his past criticism of the United Nations (the organization merits criticism). Rather, it boils down to his long-standing attacks on the principles underlying the United Nations and to his wholesale rejection of the legitimacy, propriety, and even the political expediency of international law, which, after all, is the United Nations’ currency of enforcement.

In his first term, President Bush behaved in a manner consistent with this attitude. In his second term, he seems to be realizing it isn’t practical. He is demanding full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, but by what authority? U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. He takes a hard-line position on Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, but what punishment does he propose if its work continues? Sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. Or, as he put it in his Feb. 21 news conference in Brussels, “We’re working closely with Britain, France, and Germany as they oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions and as they insist that Tehran comply with international law.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has taken a firmer stance still. On April 1, speaking before the American Society of International Law, she recited her trademark line, “Now is the time for diplomacy.” Then she added, “One of the pillars of that diplomacy is our strong belief that international law is a vital and a powerful force in the search for freedom.” She also said a goal of foreign policy is “to expand the rule of law both in domestic affairs of states and in their relations with each other”—in short, “to support an international system based on the rule of law.”

Do Bush and Rice really believe this? Whether they do or not, they clearly understand that the United Nations is the only forum where some of the day’s vital disputes can be settled—and that U.N. resolutions, or other fragments of international law, can at least lend legitimacy to actions they’d like to take. Recently, for instance, Bush acceded in letting the Security Council refer the perpetrators of the Darfur atrocities to the International Criminal Court, a court that, as a matter of general policy, he refuses to recognize. (The U.S. delegate didn’t vote in favor of the Security Council’s move, but he did abstain—whereas, in the first term, Bush almost certainly would have ordered a veto.)

The United Nations and international law will become increasingly relevant—or, from a purely pragmatic view, increasingly useful—if a Middle East peace agreement is worked out, if a political settlement can be reached in Iraq, or if more airtight revisions are made to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to name a few developments that this administration (along with most of the world) favors.

In the light of these trends and these hopes, it is not in the national interest for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to be a man who has said, as Bolton has, “If the U.N. Secretariat Building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Or: “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so—because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrain the United States.” Or (when asked about the use of sticks and carrots to settle a particular crisis): “I don’t do carrots.”

Bolton got this nomination because he did not get the job he wanted—deputy secretary of state. In the first term, he was undersecretary of state for arms control, an eye-poppingly brazen appointment for a man who has never met an arms control treaty that he liked. He came to the administration from the Project for a New American Century—the neocon lobbying group that during the Clinton years housed many of the men who would be Bush’s security advisers—and his main function at State was to serve as Vice President Dick Cheney’s agent at Foggy Bottom. He worked hard to undermine Colin Powell’s moderating influence. When Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, were booted, Cheney pushed for Bolton to move up to the No. 2 slot. But Condi Rice, who wanted a deputy she could count on, staved off the promotion. Placing Bolton at the United Nations was a compromise.

Right now, it looks like the foreign relations committee will endorse Bolton on a straight party-line vote, 10-8. But one or two Republicans on the panel are thought to be wavering. They should consider that rejecting Bolton does not necessarily mean rejecting President Bush or his policies. It can simply mean refusing to play along with the administration’s internecine politics. It means rejecting the notion that the U.N. ambassadorship is a consolation prize.

* The hearings have been postponed until Monday, April 11 to allow some members of the foreign relations committee to fly to Rome for the pope’s funeral.