Kofi Annan greeted the recess appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations in a measured way that was perhaps intended as a nuanced put-down: “We look forward to working with him, as I do with the other 190 ambassadors. And we will welcome him at a time when we are in the midst of major reform.”
While Bolton supporters on the far right greeted his appointment as if he were Wyatt Earp coming to clean up Tombstone, which is in fact pretty much how Bush presented him, Annan subtly put him on a par with the Permanent Representative of Nauru, which has the size and population of an average Manhattan block, and hinted that the process of UN reform was already proceeding apace without his coming to the rescue.
Of course, subtlety and nuance are lost on both Bush and Bolton. The conservatives who applauded the President’s courage and leadership in making a recess appointment are normally strict constructionists, and although Bush is by no means the first President to abuse the prerogative, it is clear that recess appointments were meant to be be used in cases of unexpected emergencies, not to bypass the confirmation process.
Bush did indeed stress the urgent need for the appointment because of the reform agenda before the sixtieth-anniversary summit of the UN. But the President has not really explained how he is assisting reform by sending to New York someone who has vocally dismissed the relevance of the organization, and whose record includes finding weapons of mass destruction where no one else could find them but losing his memory about recent interviews by the State Department’s Inspector General.
The holdup in the Senate was precisely because the unreformed Bush Administration refuses to answer critical and substantive questions about Bolton’s memories, not least about his role in inventing the fictitious weapons of mass destruction that the Administration invoked to justify the invasion of Iraq while trying to suppress more skeptical, and incidentally more accurate, reports.
As befits a quasi-feudal dynasty in the making, the Bush family is immensely loyal to its subordinates and supporters, as Karl Rove is now finding. But this is incredibly shortsighted. The White House is relying on Senate Democrats and dissident Republicans’ forgiving and forgetting this calculated slight to their authority and, even more questionably, on John Bolton’s discretion over the next few months.
Neither aspect of this plan is likely to pan out. Bolton’s record over several decades of public life shows a vociferous and intemperate contempt for the UN, foreign countries and international law that befits a protege of the xenophobic Senator Jesse Helms. Bolton’s record at the State Department shows that he regarded members of the Administration who disagreed with him, or were merely insufficiently enthusiastic about his own idiosyncratic take on government policy, as potential traitors. It will be interesting to see what he will do at the UN when he discovers that it is an organization full of foreigners, who often disagree with the United States, and even more so with his version of its policies.
Many Americans will hang their heads in shame at being represented by such a conservative caricature in the most prominent diplomatic forum in the world. They can in some measure comfort themselves that, on his past record, he will actually provoke opposition from other countries. The United States has had bullies for diplomats before, but at least they mostly did their elbow-twisting in private so that the victims could save face. Bolton will almost certainly dispense with such courtesies with both allies and enemies alike.
Perhaps the real damage is the signal Bush has sent to the other members of the UN: that the United States is not really serious about the organization it helped to found. Almost as worrying is the implicit message of encouragement to the know-nothings on the extreme right of the Republican Party, who get their news and geography from Rush Limbaugh and Fox, and see the UN as a cabal of gun-reforming, gay-liberating, abortion-peddling, US Constitution-undermining foreigners.
The UN may have its problems with mismanagement and corruption, but they are minute in comparison with those of the Bush Administration. In fact, the UN’s most serious problem is the Bush Administration, whose scofflaw ways, epitomized by Bolton’s behavior, have been hammering at the foundations of the UN Charter.
Of course, it could get worse. The Democrats have traditionally made the UN ambassador a Cabinet-level appointment. Bush may decide to follow suit for the man who strode into a Florida schoolhouse to stop the vote-counting in 2000.