It’s that time of year again: time for the world’s most notorious human-rights violators to visit the United States and denounce it on its own soil. The annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly begins in New York City on Tuesday. At National Review Online, we asked former U.N. ambassador John Bolton to make sense of it all for us.
“First thing to keep in mind,” Bolton explains, “is that although dozens, maybe over 100 heads of state and government will be [at the U.N. this week], along with practically every foreign minister there is, what happens in the General Assembly is nothing but theater. Other than watching [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad perform, or [Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez, or take your pick… there’s no serious business involved there.”
Even though the U.N. General Assembly is little more than a stage for world leaders to perform upon, sometimes those performances can yield substantial results. “[Last year], when Hugo Chavez spoke,” Bolton says, “he spoke the day after Bush, and he said, ‘The devil was here before me. I can still smell the sulfur.’
“That was critically important to helping us stop Venezuela from getting a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, because, just what a clownish performance that was, it showed what a problem Venezuela would have been for two years,” Bolton says. “So that’s why the theater of the General Assembly will possibly tell us some things, but it’s not where anything actually happens.”
That doesn’t mean that world leaders won’t be pursuing serious business this week, only that most of it will take place “behind the scenes in bilateral or multilateral meetings on subjects that typically are hardly related to the U.N. at all,” Bolton says. “They’re taking place because everybody’s in New York, and you can have a lot of meetings with everybody concentrated in one spot.”
To the extent that the United States engages the U.N. this week, Bolton says, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be focused on two issues: the Arab-Israeli peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.
Rice is “determined to make this Middle East peace process come alive, which I find hard to understand,” Bolton says. “What Condi wants to do is gin up support for this October regional peace conference and for what she has clearly made a priority, which is the resolution of the two-state issue by the end of Bush’s administration. I think this is foolish and counterproductive.
“There’s nobody effectively to talk to on the Palestinian side,” Bolton argues. “You’re not going to talk to Hamas, which is a terrorist organization, in Gaza, or for that matter Fatah or what’s left of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which can’t fulfill any commitments it makes anyway. So I just think this is chasing our tail at a time when we should be focused on issues that may be hard to do, but which are very important, such as preserving the democratic process in Lebanon.”
Bolton points to the latest assassination of an anti-Syrian member of the Lebanese parliament as an example of just how precarious that government’s position is. “There’s little doubt in my mind where the order to do that came from,” Bolton says, “and it shows just how bold the Syrians and, inferentially at least, the Iranians are. We’ve got murder investigations going on under the authority of the Security Council, they want to set up an international tribunal, and yet the anti-Syrian politicians are still getting killed.
“Instead of focusing on Israeli-Palestinian issues,” Bolton says, “what we should be focused on is trying to preserve the… possibility of a democratic government [in Lebanon] that might actually at some point root out Hezbollah and achieve real peace with Israel.
Of Rice’s second priority at the U.N. — Iran’s nuclear program — Bolton says, “Condi has finally said a couple of tough things about Mohammed Elbaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency — long overdue, in my view. And she said the sanctions have to have teeth.
“Now that was a good idea about four years ago,” Bolton says, “but today we’re long past the point where anything the Security Council is able to do will have any measurable impact on Iran’s decision-making, its commitment to get nuclear weapons or its technical operational progress in achieving that objective.”
Bolton says that Israel’s raid into Syria has put the focus this week on both the Arab-Israeli issue and Iran’s nuclear activities, particularly the role, if any, played by North Korea. In addition to reports that a shipment of nuclear materials from North Korea was the target of the raid, Bolton says it is logical to think North Korea might be outsourcing part of its nuclear program to Syria.
“Given that we don’t know exactly what is happening with the North Koreans and Syria on the nuclear front, we know, and it’s been public for some time, that on the ballistic-missile front, there’s extensive cooperation between North Korea, Iran and Syria,” Bolton says. “If you’re North Korea looking to avoid detection and verification of this commitment to give up nuclear weapons, which I don’t think the North Koreans will ever do, it’s perfectly logical to say, well, we outsourced a lot of our ballistic-missile work, why don’t we outsource some of our nuclear program as well.”
“Syria would not do that with North Korea without, at a minimum, Iranian acquiescence,” Bolton adds. “In some respects, Iran has a problem similar to North Korea’s, namely to continue its program without detection. It may well be they’ve got facilities [in Syria] too.”
Bolton says that increasing evidence of connections between Syria, Iran and North Korea — and the threat such cooperation poses to Israel, the region and a whole range of U.S. interests — should be “heightening our concern, not to try to deal with the Syrians or the Iranians as the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommended, but to take steps to remove the problem by changing the regimes.”
He adds that the Israeli raid was “a signal not just to Syria but to the Iranians as well, and that more than anything else was an encouraging development.”
This will be the first meeting of the General Assembly presided over by its new secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Bolton says Ban “started out with some very positive things — making his personal financial disclosure papers public, which Kofi Annan refused to do,” but that in recent months, Ban has shown signs of “being absorbed by the U.N. culture.”
Bolton says Ban failed a key test two months ago when he personally intervened on behalf of China on the question of whether Taiwan should be allowed to apply for U.N. membership.
“Membership in the U.N. is a decision for the member governments,” Bolton says. “The secretary-general has no role whatever. So he should have said, well, they’ve applied, it’s up to the membership. But this is a case where China really wanted this, they wanted him to say it, and he did.”
Bolton says that’s a troubling sign, because “basically China and the United States put him in office. The Europeans — Britain, France, Russia — had very little to do with this call. And when the U.S. and China are aligned, Ban Ki-moon will follow that lead. The test for Ban Ki-moon is, what happens when China and the U.S. disagree.”
Bolton says, “Here was a case — not that the administration is very helpful to Taiwan, but it has never been the U.S. position that [the U.N. resolution replacing Taiwan’s representatives with the China’s] declared Taiwan a part of China — where we had a disagreement with China, and he went China’s way.”
Finally, Bolton addressed the intense controversy surrounding the proposed activities of Iranian president Ahmadinejad on American soil. “[The controversy] heightens the interest we’ll see in Ahmadinejad’s speech,” Bolton says. “Last year, he said he thought he saw the light of heaven descending on him in the podium.”
That’s one upside to the forum — a dictator who’s free to lecture us in our own country is just as free to make himself look foolish in front of the world.
— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.