washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Inside the A Section > Opinion Columns

Wrong Man for This U.N.

By Peter Beinart
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page A17

John Bolton owes his recent nomination as ambassador to the United Nations to an analogy. It goes something like this: In 1975, when anti-Americanism was on the march, Gerald Ford chose a distinctly undiplomatic diplomat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to represent the United States at the United Nations. Unlike his predecessors, who had listened politely while America was defamed, Moynihan denounced the tin-pot dictatorships running wild at the United Nations. And a new movement called neoconservatism -- of which Moynihan was a leading voice -- made its entrance onto the international stage. Six years later, Ronald Reagan gave the U.N. job to another prominent neocon, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and she proved equally blunt.

Bolton -- a fierce U.N. critic -- is the supposed heir to that tradition. When Condoleezza Rice announced his nomination, she specifically invoked Moynihan and Kirkpatrick. Numerous right-leaning commentators have done the same. To some members of Congress, sending a man who has repeatedly trashed the United Nations to be America's representative there seems perverse. But for neocons with a sense of history, that's precisely the point.


(John Bolton At The United Nations In 2001/Laurent Gillieron --)

_____Today's Op-Eds_____

_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards

Problem is, the history's misleading. Moynihan and Kirkpatrick were effective because their oppositional styles suited the time -- a time when there was little the United States could do at the United Nations other than oppose. Today the United States has an opportunity to lead. And by choosing Bolton, the Bush administration may be squandering it.

Moynihan became America's U.N. ambassador at one of the lowest moments in the history of U.S. foreign policy. In April 1975, the month he was nominated, North Vietnam overran Saigon, handing the United States its greatest military defeat of the 20th century. The United Nations was dominated by leftist Third World dictatorships with a fondness for the Soviet Union and a hostility to the United States. The previous year they had proposed a resolution essentially endorsing government expropriation of foreign property. The United States had opposed the resolution, and been outvoted 120 to 6.

In fact, Moynihan was given the U.N. job largely on the strength of an essay he published in Commentary called "The United States in Opposition," in which he noted that, "We are a minority. We are outvoted. . . . The question is what do we make of it."

Moynihan said America should go down fighting. And so, less than five months into his tenure, when the United Nations passed its infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism, Moynihan declared, "This is a lie." When Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin went before the General Assembly to demand the "extinction of Israel as a state," Moynihan called him a "racist murderer." By defending America, Moynihan kindled national pride. Time put him on its cover. National Review named him "man of the year."

When Kirkpatrick took the job in 1981, America's international standing was not much higher. The Soviets had recently invaded Afghanistan, and the Iranian hostage crisis had been an extended national humiliation. Often citing Moynihan, Kirkpatrick denounced America's critics, responding to their lectures on imperialism with lectures on democracy. The United States was still a beleaguered minority. But as one of Kirkpatrick's aides put it, it was no longer "a willing victim."

Like Moynihan and Kirkpatrick, Bolton loves a good fight. He has denounced international treaties on small arms, biological weapons and the International Criminal Court. He has said that if the United Nations lost 10 of its 38 floors, no one would notice. And as if to underscore his incendiary reputation, he reportedly keeps a fake hand grenade in his office.

But in today's United Nations, bomb-throwing is no longer what America needs. The Third World-Soviet alliance that dominated the organization in the 1970s and 1980s has collapsed. Eastern Europe is now filled with pro-U.S. democracies, and across the Third World governments have moved toward the capitalist economic systems they once decried. According to Freedom House, the number of countries deemed "free" has more than doubled since 1974, from 41 to 89. And while the United States is still resented at the U.N., its influence there is enormous. In 1996 the United States almost single-handedly deposed U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Today his successor, Kofi Annan, is scrambling to avoid a similar fate.

America's challenge at the United Nations is to forge a new ideological majority and harness it for cooperative efforts against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, poverty and AIDS. Bolton -- who specializes in alienating America's democratic allies -- is uniquely ill-suited to that task. By choosing him, the Bushies are signaling one of two things: Either they think America is still isolated in the world or, worse, they want it to be.

The writer is editor of the New Republic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He writes a monthly column for The Post.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company