Politics & Policy

Sideshow Boltin’

The president sends his ambassador to the U.N.

President Bush’s decision to bypass the Senate and give John Bolton a recess appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has, according to the chatter from the media and Democrats, shattered the delicate sense of comity in the Senate since the deal on judicial filibusters a few months ago. Never mind that Senate Democrats were filibustering Bolton, which is not very collegial.

In fact, their opposition to Bolton has been an exercise in paranoid, trash-talking vacuity. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, whose chief parliamentary talent is calling people names, has called Bolton “abominable, mean, unreasonable and bizarre.” What was that about comity again? There are substantive grounds for liberal Democrats to oppose the hawkish Bolton, but Democrats are so wary of getting into a philosophical fight that will air their reflexive devotion to a corrupt and ineffectual U.N. that they made the Bolton debate a series of silly sideshows.

At first it was about Bolton’s temperament. Democrats portrayed Bolton as a screamer who couldn’t resist demeaning underlings. Bolton is a hard-nosed negotiator and bureaucratic fighter, but he’s professional to a fault. This attack began to wither away when the hyped Bolton blowups involved him doing things like putting his hands on his hips.

Then the cry went up that Bolton distorted intelligence in public statements. That charge was based on internal disputes–a healthy thing, since intelligence is almost always uncertain and debatable–about how to interpret intelligence about Syrian and Cuban weapons programs. Bolton eventually went with the consensus view of the intelligence agencies. This might be the first time a nominee has been opposed for things he didn’t say, but at one point might possibly have thought about saying before he decided not to.

To spice things up, there was the allegation that Bolton chased a woman through a Moscow hotel in the 1990s, throwing office supplies at her. Even under minimal scrutiny this allegation began to vanish. When I asked Bolton critic Sen. Joe Biden whether he believed the charge, he said that he believed Bolton might have pushed papers under the woman’s hotel-room door. “Should that be disqualifying for a nominee to be U.N. ambassador?” I asked. He wouldn’t answer.

When there seemed nothing left, Democrats focused on a handful of cases in which Bolton asked to see the blacked-out names of Americans caught on overseas intelligence intercepts. Democrats spun a paranoid theory that Bolton asked for the names in pursuit of a vendetta against intelligence analysts he didn’t bully when he didn’t distort intelligence. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte certified that no names involved in the intelligence disputes were in the intercepts. But Democrats still cherished their little conspiracy theory.

The last gasp was the accusation that Bolton must have had something to do with the leak of Valerie Plame’s name. The operating theory here is that Bolton has a secret role in whatever Democrats don’t like, making him the world’s second most powerful mastermind manipulator behind Karl Rove. Influential liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall swore he saw Bolton’s “invisible hands” behind the leak. But Bolton hasn’t been interviewed by the grand jury investigating the leak–because he had no role in it.

Bolton did mistakenly say on a Senate questionnaire that he hadn’t been interviewed in an investigation during the past five years. He had forgotten that he was questioned in an internal inquiry into how the infamous 16 words about Saddam Hussein’s alleged attempt to acquire uranium in Niger made it into Bush’s 2003 State of the Union. For Bolton, the interview wasn’t memorable precisely because he had–sorry, folks–nothing to do with the 16 words, another liberal obsession.

The Bolton fight would have been cleaner if Democrats had said something like, “We’re liberals, and we’re afraid he’ll be too tough at the U.N.” Instead, they created a long-running travesty that has thankfully come to an end, with Bolton headed to Turtle Bay.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate

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