Monday, April 11, 2005

Democrats want a scalp, and John Bolton’s would do splendidly. Their visceral opposition to his nomination as U.N. ambassador has its origins not in his outspokenness in defense of American prerogatives but in his role in support of George W. Bush in Florida in November and December 2000, where his was the mustache behind the magnifying glass examining the hanging chads. Let’s not forget that there were 43 Democratic votes against his confirmation for his State Department job in 2001. That was a Florida effect. And Democrats in the Senate, though fewer than in 2001, have not become less partisan in the intervening period.

But let us ask: What was Mr. Bush up to with this nomination? Mr. Bolton at the United Nations? Surely he knew he was going to get a fight.

There would seem to be two broad possibilities. One is that Mr. Bolton’s nomination is a product of Mr. Bush’s contempt for and intention to do whatever he can to blow up the United Nations. Mr. Bolton, after all, has been one of the United Nations’ harshest critics and a staunch defender of unilateral U.S. action. If anyone from the first Bush administration could be presumed to have an itch to gut the United Nations, it would be Mr. Bolton.

The problem with this theory, which was of course the initial reaction to Mr. Bolton’s nomination from many quarters, whether in alarm or in glee, is that it just doesn’t fit with the other initiatives Mr. Bush has set for himself in his second term, especially his conspicuous outreach to our European allies.

Put it this way: Even if Mr. Bush has no use for the United Nations, people for whom Mr. Bush does indeed have use have a high regard for the United Nations. They would not take kindly to an American policy to undermine the institution. If Mr. Bush thought the United Nations was hopeless, out of simple prudence, he ought to have named some anodyne seat-warmer to the position.

Also, note that the Bush White House intervened this winter to quell Republican calls for the ouster of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in response to the oil-for-food scandal. That the United States might try to fire Mr. Annan was a cause of great consternation in Europe. And, as well, the United States has just acceded to the European desire for the U.N. Security Council to refer the genocide in Darfur to the International Criminal Court for prosecution, notwithstanding that the United States (in the person of Mr. Bolton) famously “unsigned” the treaty creating the court. None of this sounds like an administration that is going to waste its energy trying to chuck the United Nations into the East River.

Which takes us to the second possibility: that Mr. Bush wants Mr. Bolton to be at the forefront of the reform of the United Nations. This is, after all, a period in which reform pressure has been gathering as in no other before. Mr. Annan himself commissioned a “High-Level Panel” and has introduced recommendations of his own, including some that are rather bold, such as getting rid of the dysfunctional Human Rights Commission. The oil-for-food scandal is creating an imperative for administrative reform. Congress has commissioned a task force (with which I am associated) to recommend changes.

Nota bene: If Mr. Bush just happened to be serious about taking advantage of this alignment of the stars to try to make the United Nations more effective in a fashion consistent with American interests, one issue he would have to manage would be the part of his own constituency that would like the United States out of the United Nations and the United Nations out of the United States. Now, who among Bush administration officials has the most credibility among those who are most skeptical of the United Nations? Mr. Bolton, that’s who. If, as the proverb says, only Nixon can go to China, maybe only Mr. Bolton can save Turtle Bay.

Mr. Bolton’s outspokenness — on Cuba, on North Korea, on the International Criminal Court, on the ABM Treaty — is an inescapable part of his record as a public official. But it is quite clear on reflection that on all these matters, he was not simply venting his own views but articulating a position Mr. Bush himself wanted to have a conspicuous airing. The North Korea desk officer at the State Department was offended by his talk of “regime change”? The poor dear.

But it’s also only a part of the Bolton record, which most importantly includes crafting the administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative, an exercise in effective international cooperation that has won the admiration of the most die-hard multilateralists.

Mr. Bolton yesterday stressed at his confirmation hearing that he wants a stronger and more effective United Nations. Yes, he is a threat to the status quo. But the status quo is not one in which the United Nations is functioning swimmingly. It’s one that needs improving. Mr. Bolton may not be to Democrats’ taste, but Republicans ought to see the possibilities his nomination presents.

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