Sunday, May 1, 2005

The odd campaign being waged by Senate Democrats against President Bush’s nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador (which now looks to be focused on finding anyone willing to testify that Mr. Bolton hurt their feelings during his nearly 30 years in Washington) has brought to the fore some common misconceptions about diplomats. Being a competent diplomat is not always the same as being an affable, pleasant person to be around. Sometimes, a willingness to play political hardball, which can include displays of temper toward others, becomes essential to getting things done in order to advance the interests of one’s country; the failure to do so on occasion can be a sign of incompetence.

It is a bipartisan reality in Washington that powerful people in politics and the diplomatic world are difficult to be around. Henry Kissinger had such a reputation, as does Richard Holbrooke, a man who would likely be secretary of state if John Kerry had been elected. President Clinton’s eruptions at subordinates like George Stephanopolous are well known. Sen. Joseph Biden, one of Mr. Bolton’s harshest critics these days, routinely bullies, browbeats and interrupts committee witnesses and has long been known to be rough on his staff. A favorite Biden anecdote is from the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, where the senator, apparently thinking a microphone was off, could be heard by millions on national television snarling at an aide: “Go on, make yourself useful.”

In this context, what is one to make of witnesses that Mr. Biden and fellow Senate Democrats believe to be so important — people like Christian Westermann, the State Department biological-weapons expert who clashed with Mr. Bolton over Cuba policy? Mr. Bolton was angry because Mr. Westermann had misled him by going behind his back in an attempt to undermine him; indeed, Thomas Fingar, Mr. Westermann’s boss, sent a Feb. 12, 2002 e-mail to Mr. Bolton admitting that Mr. Westermann’s conduct was “entirely inappropriate.”

Then there’s Melody Townsel, the USAID worker who claims Mr. Bolton chased her down a hotel corridor in Kyrgyzstan. Ms. Townsel’s chief credibility problem is that several employees with the Virginia company who worked with her and with Mr. Bolton have sent letters to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee praising Mr. Bolton’s work and describing a pattern of erratic behavior and poor job performance by Ms. Townsel that forced them to remove her from the project.

Less than two years ago, the liberal online publication Salon wrote that “Bolton gains power from his pleasant demeanor, much as Jesse Helms does. During the [2000] Florida recount, Bolton was a confident and calm professional. Ron Asmus, a Clinton deputy assistant secretary of state, calls Bolton ‘friendly charming and interesting,’ ” even though the two men sharply disagree on policy. Now that the political imperative has become Borking Mr. Bolton, however, the propagandists seek to depict him as a monster and destroy his reputation.

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