John Bolton, Multilateralist?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

LAST YEAR we expressed reservations about President Bush's nomination of John R. Bolton to the post of ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Bolton's intellect and competence were not in doubt, and attempts to paint him as an office bully were underwhelming. But the nominee's tendency to press ideological principle irrespective of pragmatic considerations seemed likely to undermine his ability to build coalitions at the United Nations and thereby advance U.S. interests. Although we deferred to the president's right to the nominee of his choice -- a deference that is even more important in the case of executive-branch positions than in judicial ones -- Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) went further than us. Calling Mr. Bolton "the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be," Mr. Voinovich broke with his party and withheld his support. Largely as a result, Mr. Bolton never got confirmed and arrived at the United Nations only by virtue of a recess appointment.

One year later, Mr. Voinovich has reversed his position, emboldening the Senate leadership to schedule a hearing today on Mr. Bolton's confirmation. Writing on the opposite page on July 20, Mr. Voinovich asserted that Mr. Bolton "has demonstrated his ability, especially in recent months, to work with others and follow the president's lead by working multilaterally.'' We are surprised by this statement, since Mr. Bolton's conduct at the United Nations has in fact demonstrated the opposite.

Mr. Bolton began his tenure with an argument over the preparations for a gathering of heads of state. He demanded that the summit document omit, among other things, references to the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals, on the ground that these had been interpreted by U.N. officials to include a commitment to more foreign aid. Mr. Bolton's action alienated other U.N. ambassadors with no obvious gain; such commitments, even if accepted, are non-binding.

Mr. Bolton's handling of the new U.N. Human Rights Council was equally clumsy. He failed to show up at nearly all of the 30 or so negotiating sessions leading up to the council's creation, then waded in at the eleventh hour with a bizarre proposal that the State Department quickly repudiated. Mr. Bolton's spokesman says that the ambassador engaged in good faith throughout the process. But U.S. allies felt that Mr. Bolton did not do so.

Mr. Bolton has embarrassed himself most recently by his mishandling of U.N. management reform, a cause supported by U.N. officials and the richer member states. Mr. Bolton came up with the idea of threatening to cut U.N. funding unless the management reforms were adopted, and his spokesman insists that this brinkmanship was helpful. But South Africa's U.N. envoy called it "poison"; Germany's ambassador called it "wrong"; his British counterpart said it was a mistake to hold the budget hostage. After six months the budget threat was dropped.

We see little evidence here that Mr. Bolton is good at "working multilaterally." Rather than building support at the United Nations, Mr. Bolton has more often solidified the anti-American coalition. We continue to believe that the president is entitled to the ambassador of his choosing, provided that the nominee is competent and honest. But we can't explain Mr. Voinovich's change of mind, nor why Mr. Bush supposes that this polarizing envoy advances U.S. interests.


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