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Richard Cohen

Disaster, Not Diplomacy

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page A27

It is my impression -- gleaned from reviews -- that Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" posits that first impressions often are right on the nose. Nonetheless, for reasons having to do with caution, prudence and a debilitating sense of fair play, I have until now withheld my first -- and only -- impression of John Bolton, probably destined to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: He's nuts.

I recognize that, as a diagnosis, the word leaves something to be desired. But it is nevertheless the impression I took away back in June 2003 when Bolton went to Cernobbio, Italy, to talk to the Council for the United States and Italy. Afterward he took questions. Some of them were about weapons of mass destruction, which, you may remember, the Bush administration had claimed would be found in abundance in Iraq but which by then had not materialized.

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The literal facts did not in the least give Bolton pause. Weapons of mass destruction would be found, he insisted. Where? When? How come they had not yet been discovered? The questions were insistent, but they were coming, please remember, from Italians, whose government was one of the few in the world to actively support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Bolton bristled. I have never seen such a performance by an American diplomat. He was dismissive. He was angry. He clearly thought the questioners had no right, no standing, no justification and no earthly reason to question the United States of America. The Bush administration had said that Iraq was lousy with WMD and Iraq therefore was lousy with WMD. Just you wait.

This kind of ferocious certainty is commendable in pit bulls and other fighting animals, but it is something of a problem in a diplomat. We now have been told, though, that Bolton's Italian aria was not unique and that the anger I sensed in the man has been felt by others. (I went over to speak to him afterward, but he was such a mass of scowling anger that I beat a retreat.) Others have testified to how he berated subordinates and how, to quote Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), he "needs anger management." From what I saw, a bucket of cold water should always be kept at hand.

The rap against Bolton's nomination as U.N. ambassador is that he has maximum contempt for that organization. He once went so far as to flatly declare that "there is no United Nations," just an international community that occasionally "can be led by the only real power left in the world -- and that's the United States." He has expressed these sorts of feelings numerous times over the years -- so much so that it is not clear whether he has been rewarded with this appointment or punished with it. Whatever President Bush's motive, the fact remains that he has not sent the United Nations an ambassador so much as a poke in the eye. Still, no U.N. ambassador makes policy; he merely implements it. Bolton, no matter what his views, can do only limited damage.

But there are things that the United States will want done at the United Nations -- and Bolton is the wrong guy to get them done. After all, once an ambassador is instructed as to a policy or personnel issue, it is up to him or her to implement it. That means constructing the argument, persuading opponents, flattering friends. It means, in short, diplomacy.

After Bolton's appearance in Italy almost two years ago, I wrote a column expressing my dismay. I did not, however, know for sure if what I had seen was typical of him -- although others said it was. Now, though, it is clear that he is often as he was that day -- abrasive, insolent and so insufferably self-righteous that he cannot allow the possibility of his being wrong.

Why the Bush administration would want such a person at the United Nations is beyond me. As always, the administration is entitled to great leeway when it comes to presidential appointments. If it wants a neocon, fine. If it wants a hard-liner, fine. If it wants a U.N.-trasher, it can have that, too. But it should not have someone who will be ineffectual in implementing its own policies -- who, if he is himself, will alienate other delegates and further isolate the United States.

This is what Bolton did one glorious spring day on the shores of bella Lake Como. What he will do on the shores of the non-bella East River on a cold, gray day in New York will be far, far worse. Bolton's is not a bad appointment. It's a downright disaster.

cohenr@washpost.com


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