By Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
President Bush surrendered to congressional foes yesterday in his fight to install John R. Bolton as permanent ambassador to the United Nations, a harbinger of how the political world has changed since Democrats captured both houses of Congress.
Bush circumvented Senate opposition last year, sending Bolton to the United Nations on a recess appointment, and administration lawyers in recent weeks had developed options to keep him there after that appointment expires this month. But officials said Bolton and the White House decided against provoking an early confrontation with Democrats as they take over Congress next month.
As Bolton's resignation was announced, the White House deliberated on a new nominee, with attention focusing on Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The White House also has a crop of Republican lawmakers who lost reelection to consider. A number of senior ambassadors from around the world have expressed interest, but administration officials said Bolton's successor will be a political nominee.
Bolton became the second high-profile member of Bush's national security team, after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, to announce his departure since the Nov. 7 elections. Bush appeared aggravated at having to abandon Bolton, whose bare-knuckle diplomacy and skepticism of multilateralism made him a favorite of conservatives and a lightning rod for many in the Washington and international establishments.
"I'm not happy about it," Bush said in a one-minute appearance with Bolton before cameras in the Oval Office. "I think he deserved to be confirmed. And the reason why I think he deserved to be confirmed is because I know he did a fabulous job for the country."
In a separate interview with Fox News Channel, Bush said: "On issue after issue, Bolton delivered. And so you're looking at a man who is deeply disappointed, and I would call it shallow politics of the Senate in this case."
Bolton's departure leaves another hole in Bush's foreign policy team at a time when the U.N. ambassador is heavily involved in diplomacy involving the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea and the ongoing crisis in Lebanon. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been without a deputy since July, when Robert B. Zoellick resigned, and her counselor, Philip D. Zelikow, announced last week that he will depart at the end of the year.
Bolton recast the role of ambassador to the United Nations, a post traditionally filled by prominent Americans who helped explain the organization to Washington. Instead, Bolton relished the role of the body's chief critic, playing down its achievements and regaling congressional committees with its failings.
Still, his encyclopedic knowledge of the United Nations and his tough negotiating style earned him grudging admiration from peers on the Security Council, who credited him with helping pass resolutions demanding that North Korea and Iran restrain their nuclear programs and ending the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Bolton also persuaded the Security Council for the first time to add Burma to its permanent agenda, a long-sought goal of human rights activists.
Edward Luck, director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said Bolton was effective at the 15-member council but faltered trying to build consensus in the much larger General Assembly, particularly in favor of reforms he long advocated. "He's been a strong American ambassador to the Security Council, but unfortunately the Security Council is just one piece of the puzzle up here," Luck said.
Some U.N. officials privately blamed Bolton for sabotaging the organization's reform initiative by stirring differences between poor and rich countries. "He sometimes makes it very difficult to build bridges because he is a very honest and blunt person," said South Africa's ambassador, Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo, chairman of a coalition of developing nations. He said it sometimes appears that "Ambassador Bolton wants to prove nothing works at the United Nations."
Secretary General Kofi Annan reacted coolly to Bolton's announcement: "As a representative of the U.S. government he pressed ahead with the instructions that he had been given, and tried to work as effectively as he could with the other ambassadors."
Bolton's fate was sealed when Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) decided to block his nomination in the Foreign Relations Committee, joining with all Democrats on the panel. Administration lawyers explored ways of keeping him in the job by appointing him to a position that does not require Senate confirmation and then making him "acting ambassador."
Friends said Bolton decided not to put Bush in that position. "More importantly, he felt he had done a very good job, he defended policies he didn't always agree with and he did so ably, and so now he can go out on top," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who spoke with Bolton several times in recent weeks.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the White House was eager to avoid a fight as well: "The thought was, 'Okay, at a time we're going to need help from a Democratic Congress on too many things, this is not worth it.' "
Khalilzad, an Afghan American who has served as Bush's envoy in both Kabul and Baghdad, is generally well liked by Democrats. Deputy Chief of Mission Alejandro D. Wolff will fill in until a replacement is confirmed.
Staff writer Colum Lynch contributed to this report.