Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Bolton bolts

As anyone could have predicted the day after the election on Nov. 7, John R. Bolton is on his way out as U.N. ambassador. Reading the handwriting on the wall (written in 400-point type after the Democrats swept Congress a month ago), the combative, abrasive ambassador announced that he would step down when his recess appointment ends, at the end of the current session of Congress.

The long knives on Capitol Hill and on the East River can now rest, knowing that Bolton, a lightning rod for admninistration policies related to Iraq specifically and our relations with other nations generally, will shortly exit the scene.

Newsweek columnist Michael Hirsh understood the relationship Bolton had, and didn't have, with the U.N.: "A brilliant Yale-educated lawyer, Bolton could be sharp and effective negotiating resolutions inside the Security Council. But by temperament and philosophy he had little use for the organization he worked in. Bolton simply never believed that the U.N., or at least large parts of it, had a right to exist.

"Indeed Bolton was so objectionable a presence, even to stalwart allies like Britain, that on a number of votes on which U.S.-friendly countries used to abstain—like anti-Israel resolutions, small arms treaties or family planning programs—they often voted against Washington. During his almost 18 months in office, a once-mild caucus of developing countries inside the U.N. called the G-77 came to be a strong unified voice against Bolton—and against America."

This is the great -- but not insurmountable -- challenge facing the next American envoy to the U.N.: correcting the damage done over the past 18 months by an ambassador of a nation at odds with the world his ambassadorship says he's a part of.

Quiet as kept, one of the main reasons that Bolton gained no real traction at the U.N. was illustrated in the very fact of what it took to get him into the job in the first place. Bolton was a recess appointment, one of those named to cabinet posts under a loophole in the process of congressional oversight on matters of weighty appointments. Basically that loophole gives the president the leverage to appoint someone to a position while Congress is in recess, bypassing the usual vetting and confirmation process.

It's all legal and above board; there are no constitutional crises that arise when the president decides to make a recess appointment. But at the end of the day, it just looks bad when a president has to do an end-run around another branch of government to nail down a hire he wants. That's all. It seems petty and dictatorial. It just ... looks bad.

And one suspects that other diplomats around the world won't be swayed into thinking that what they'd observed on Capitol Hill and the White House over the previous year was just a bureaucratic foulup, a technical fact of life, like the Brits debating whether or not to wear wigs in the House of Lords. They'll rightly see the Bolton appointment for what it is: something bigger, something deeper than cosmetics, nothing less than a fight for some aspect of the soul of the country.

The next ambassador will be vetted and confirmed, or not, by a majority Democratic Congress, one presumably enlightened by the idea of finding a conciliator to work the halls and podia of the one globally-accepted forum for conciliation.

The challenge for the Congress is to approve someone ready to rise above political agenda, to embrace the United Nations rather than bridle at the deliberations that make the U.N. what it is. The challenge for President Bush is to nominate soneone who'll do that.

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