As a liberal Democrat, I listened carefully to the opposition voiced by many Democratic senators to the nomination of John Bolton as our chief representative to the United Nations. Mr. Bolton has been representing us at the United Nations since August. During the current Middle East crisis, I have been able to listen for myself to what Mr. Bolton has been saying at the United Nations.
On the basis of his performance, I have become a Bolton supporter. He speaks with moral clarity. He is extremely well prepared. He is extraordinarily articulate. He places the best face on American policy, particularly in the Middle East during this crucial time.
During the late 1960s, I worked closely with our then-representative to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg. Goldberg gave up his lifetime seat on the Supreme Court in order to serve at the United Nations in an effort to end the war in Vietnam. He was hopeful that he could make a greater contribution to his country at the United Nations than on the high court.
He too was our representative during a critical period in the Middle East. It was Ambassador Goldberg who helped draft the famous Resolution 242, which has served as the basis for Mideast peace efforts since 1967.
During the 1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan served with distinction in that position. He too stood up to the enemies of the United States and other democracies, such as Israel. When, during his term, the General Assembly introduced its most overtly bigoted resolution equating Zionism with racism, it was Mr. Moynihan who fought tirelessly, if ultimately futilely, against its passage. He continued to identify rampant anti-Semitism as the scourge of the United Nations until his death three years ago.
Now, there’s John Bolton, who follows in that tradition with distinction. Were he not to be confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at this crucial juncture it would send a powerful message to the international community that Senate Democrats do not stand behind our policy in the Middle East. It would be seen as undercutting American policy toward Israel. Even if that were a misunderstanding, it would have a devastating impact on the world’s perception of America’s solidarity with Israel.
Following his nomination, Senate Democrats asked the White House to release documents prepared under Mr. Bolton’s supervision during his tenure working for the administration. The president ultimately released some of the documents for senior Democrats to review, albeit with redactions. I agree with the demand by the Democrats and wish the Bush administration would be more forthcoming, but I believe that it would be a mistake at this time for the Democrats to hold the Bolton nomination hostage to this dispute. The senators have had a year to observe and evaluate Mr. Bolton directly on his performance as our ambassador. They can intelligently vote based on what he has done at the United Nations and not based on documents related to his role as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
What remains of last year’s nomination battle, though, is what I suspect to be the real reason that some Democrats oppose the Bolton nomination. That is, they felt uncomfortable with Mr. Bolton’s oft-expressed and blunt skepticism over the United Nations’ legal and moral authority. Mr. Bolton can even, at times, come off as “contemptuous of the U.N.,” in Sen. Barbara Boxer’s words.
But Mr. Bolton is right to be skeptical, and all the great U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations — from Adlai Stevenson to Arthur Goldberg to Pat Moynihan to Jeane Kirkpatrick — have shared that skepticism. Mr. Bolton is absolutely justified in pushing for reform of the notoriously corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic structure in Turtle Bay. As he once said, “If member countries want the United Nations to be respected … they should begin by making sure it is worthy of respect.”
Most importantly, Mr. Bolton understands that his job is to represent the United States and our interests to the world, and not the other way around. When The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank chided Mr. Bolton for “disparaging the very organization he would serve,” the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto promptly corrected him by saying, “the American ambassador to the U.N. is supposed to serve America, not the U.N.”
I have observed Mr. Bolton’s performance with regard to Israel and its conflicts with Hezbollah and Hamas. On many other fronts he has proved himself a staunch advocate of freedom and human rights — specifically in Sudan, North Korea and Cuba. Some critics have argued that Mr. Bolton is better in his public role as advocate than in his behind-the-scenes role as conciliator. But at this point in history, the United States needs a public advocate who can further its case in the court of public opinion. No one does that better than John Bolton.
Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard.