Politics & Policy

Confirm Bolton — At Last

Remember how the world was going to end if John Bolton became America’s ambassador to the United Nations? How the U.S. was going to alienate its allies and trip over Bolton’s hubristic unilateralism? That’s what Bolton’s primarily Democratic opposition said as they filibustered his confirmation in the Senate last year. Bolton went to the U.N. anyway, on a recess appointment from President Bush — and, oddly enough, American diplomacy has survived. In fact, Bolton’s tenure at the U.N. has been a resounding success. With his appointment set to expire later this year, Senate Republicans are pushing to get him officially confirmed so that he can serve through the end of the Bush presidency. As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prepares to hold confirmation hearings this Thursday, we thought now would be a good time to remind Americans why they need John Bolton at Turtle Bay.

The rap against Bolton was that he didn’t play well with others. Democrats accused him of having a contemptuous attitude toward multilateralism and a hectoring personal style. These “criticisms” were never much more than baseless personal attacks, but they were enough to win over a few Republicans — most notably George Voinovich of Ohio, who opposed Bolton’s nomination in a weirdly emotional speech on the Senate floor.

Well, Bolton now has a record for us to examine. It shows that if he’s a loner and a bully, he’s also a very fine actor. He has played the role of diplomat so well that his tenure as ambassador has coincided with what has arguably been the most multilateral stretch of the Bush presidency. At the moment, the Security Council’s permanent members are united behind the imposition of sanctions on Iran if it continues uranium enrichment, and they all supported the recent U.N. resolution barring member states from selling components of missiles or nuclear weapons to North Korea. That’s not to say there won’t be disagreements going forward, or that Moscow, Beijing, and Paris won’t extract the teeth from future U.N. action against Kim Jong Il or the mullahs. But if so, it won’t be for lack of diplomacy on America’s part. Bolton of course does not formulate U.S. foreign policy, and the current multilateral approach reflects the choices of President Bush. But it also shows that — contrary to the Democratic caricature of him — Bolton is perfectly capable of acting multilaterally when he has instructions to do so. 

What’s especially impressive is that Bolton has carried out those instructions while speaking in a principled, honest, and direct voice. A good example of this was his stand during the creation of the new U.N. Human Rights Council. That council is as bad as its predecessor, and fails to bar from membership even countries under U.N. sanctions for human-rights abuses. A different ambassador working for a different president might have kept quiet; Bolton politely but firmly pointed out what was wrong with the new body as the U.S. voted against it. In the end, the U.N. went forward with the new council anyway, but Bolton had proved his ability to stand up for America’s principles. His performance won plaudits from no less a bastion of neoconservatism than the New York Times editorial page.  

Bolton’s critics like to argue that his occasionally blunt criticisms of the U.N. have undermined the cause of U.N. reform; the Times’s news section — doing a little editorializing of its own — published an article on Sunday in which several ambassadors were anonymously quoted making this charge. But the idea that the slow pace of U.N. reform has more to do with Bolton’s personal style than with the bloated U.N. establishment’s aversion to transparency and accountability strikes us as farfetched. There’s a good case to be made that a well-measured bluntness actually makes reform more probable by raising the public’s awareness of the U.N.’s problems.

Bolton has also been a strong voice against the one-world utopianism that infects the U.N. During Kofi Annan’s summit on poverty and reform last year, he managed to scuttle a document that would have called for the banning of weapons from space, the contribution of 0.7 percent of the GDP of developed countries to the third world, and various other measures contrary to American interests.  

What we have in Bolton, then, is an ambassador who has been capable both of using the U.N. to advance America’s priorities and of standing firm when the U.N. seeks to thwart those priorities. If such a record isn’t grounds for confirmation, we don’t know what is. That of course isn’t to say there will be no opposition to Bolton in the Senate; Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, has promised a “bruising fight” over the confirmation. But the opposition this time will be for purely partisan reasons. Voinovich announced last week that he’s changed his mind and will support Bolton, and a source close to the confirmation efforts says that all 55 Republican senators are on board. The same source says that Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed to hold hearings instead of proceeding directly to a vote purely in order to appease Democratic members of the committee. That may have been a mistake, as it will give them a chance to repeat their tired old complaints about Bolton. But since the hearings are going to happen, Republicans should use them to be especially aggressive in pointing out that the only new thing under the sun is a Bolton record that proves the speciousness of the Democrats’ criticisms. Republicans should also keep the Democrats from dragging out the process, and push for a Senate vote before the August recess.

The Democrats’ opposition to Bolton has probably always had less to do with him than with their animosity toward the Bush administration’s foreign policy. We think this animosity is wrong on the merits; but the renewed attempt to block Bolton reveals more than that the Democrats are mistaken. It also proves their willingness to sabotage the administration’s foreign policy at a time when its efforts against Iran and North Korea are in mid-course, and when tensions in the Middle East have erupted into open warfare. This is no time to silence the voice of American diplomacy — particularly when that voice is as articulate, principled, and effective as John Bolton’s.

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