President Bush installed John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations yesterday, employing the presidential power to make temporary appointments to break through a wall of Democratic opposition to Bolton's confrontational brand of conservatism.
Frustrated by the refusal of Senate Democrats to permit a final vote on Bolton's nomination, Bush said he resorted to the 17-month recess appointment to circumvent "partisan delaying tactics" in Washington and to send a resounding message that the White House is serious about reforming the United Nations.
The move, ending a grinding five-month battle, drew sharp protests from Democrats and a mixed response from the foreign diplomats Bolton will be working with at U.N. headquarters in New York.
"This post is too important to leave vacant any longer, especially during a war and a vital debate about U.N. reform," Bush told reporters, with Bolton by his side. "I'm sending Ambassador Bolton to New York with my complete confidence."
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), echoing the concerns of fellow Democrats, said Bush abused a presidential power intended for narrow circumstances in order to dispatch "a seriously flawed and weakened candidate" to the United Nations.
Although ambassadors confirmed by the Senate serve as long as the president pleases, Bolton's term, by law, expires when the current Congress concludes on Jan. 3, 2007. Bolton thus has less than a year and half to implement changes at the United Nations -- unless he wins over Senate critics in the interim or gets another recess appointment, which by law would require him to work without pay for the final two years.
The Bush administration, citing the large number of recess appointments made by presidents, said there is nothing extraordinary about the appointment. But most recess appointments have involved lower-level government positions and do not represent such direct defiance of the opposition party. "It is highly unusual to use it at this level," said Paul C. Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in executive-branch staffing.
In the 19th century, the constitutional power to make recess appointments was frequently used out of necessity to keep the government staffed and running when lawmakers were away for long periods. In recent decades, they have increasingly become a convenient way for president to circumvent Senate opposition to controversial picks. President Bill Clinton, for instance, used the power to appoint Bill Lann Lee as assistant attorney general for civil rights over GOP objections.
Bolton sought to make up for lost time, flying to New York shortly after the announcement and holding a late-afternoon staff meeting at the United Nations. "I am prepared to work tirelessly to carry out the agenda and initiatives" of the president, Bolton said at Bush's news conference. Bolton succeeds former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who left the post in January.
Bolton arrives at the United Nations as major crises are unfolding in Iran -- which threatened last weekend to restart its uranium-reprocessing program -- and Sudan, where the death of former rebel leader John Garang has threatened to disrupt the peace process. And the war in Iraq seems to cast a shadow over every U.N. debate.
U.N. diplomats said that not securing Senate confirmation would have only a limited impact on Bolton's ability to do his job. More important to his influence, they say, is the recognition that Bolton enjoys the backing of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who has been a powerful patron within the administration.
"What matters in our eyes is that he's the president's choice and that he's close to the president," said Abdallah Baali of Algeria, the lone Arab ambassador on the Security Council. "That gives him certainly the authority to deal with us in New York."
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said it is important that Bolton, who earned a reputation as having a confrontational and intimidating style, work with his diplomatic counterparts in "a spirit of give-and-take."
"I think it's all right for one ambassador to come and push," Annan said. "But an ambassador always has to remember that there are 190 others who will have to be convinced, or a vast majority of them, for action to take place."
Bolton takes charge of the U.S. mission at a time of deep crisis at the United Nations, which has been beset by investigations into abuses in its oil-for-food program in Iraq and allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in several U.N. missions.
Cheney and his allies are advocating structural changes in how the United Nations responds to international crises. Bolton's first tasks deal with the world body's future: World leaders will meet in two months to plot the organization's mission in the years ahead, with an eye on the next leader of the United Nations. Annan's term will end in December 2006.
Bolton inherits a post whose influence has already been diminished by the president's decision to downgrade it from a Cabinet-rank job. Bolton could face some of the toughest challenges to his authority from within the State Department, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has appointed career foreign policy professionals in the top policymaking positions. It was this class of career professionals with whom Bolton, as undersecretary of state, often clashed most acrimoniously during Bush's first term.
"He'll be taking instructions, not making them," said Nancy Soderberg, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for political affairs during the Clinton administration.
Soderberg said the State Department under Rice's leadership has already exhibited a tendency to compromise that was often unseen in the first term.
Still, some U.N. observers say that Bolton has proven a skillful bureaucratic infighter who can advance policies he supports. "He's been very adept within the U.S. government on influencing and directing policy," said William Leurs, president of the nonprofit United Nations Association. "We'll just have to see if all the concerns about him were mislaid."
Those concerns almost derailed Bolton's nomination. Democrats and one Republican, Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), opposed Bolton's confirmation because of concerns raised by some former colleagues, who described him as an abrasive bully who sought to remove people who got in his way. Senate Democrats twice prevented a final, up-or-down vote on Bolton. Republicans said they easily had enough votes to confirm Bolton if Democrats had not used parliamentary tricks to prevent final action.
The fight over Bolton began as a skirmish over his previous derogatory remarks about the United Nations but quickly grew into a larger struggle over the nominee's temperament and eventually over the rights of senators to obtain executive-branch documents pertaining to a nominee's work. In the end, Democrats continued to demand more documentation related to allegations Bolton manipulated intelligence to support his views as the top State Department official for arms control.
As recently as last week, Senate Democrats were busily building the case for Bolton's defeat, including getting the State Department to admit publicly that Bolton misinformed the Senate when he did not reveal he had been interviewed by the agency's inspector general about faulty prewar intelligence.
Bush said Bolton performed admirably in his tenure at the State Department: "Over the past four years as undersecretary of state, he's shown valuable leadership on one of the most urgent challenges of our time: preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction." Now, Bush added, "he will speak for me on critical issues facing the international community."
Lynch reported from the United Nations.