What kind of Ambassador to the UN will John Bolton be? To the Bush Administration and a chorus of right-wing supporters, he is just what the doctor ordered: a blunt, no-nonsense defender of U.S. interests in a global den of iniquity. To his detractors, he is Darth Vader personified. Credible reports claim various foreign governments asked that he be excluded from U.S. delegations at key times -- hardly a normal practice. Condi Rice rejected him as her deputy. And, in the words of Carl Ford, a former fellow Bush political appointee at State, Bolton is a "kiss-up, kick down" leader, prone to vindictive reprisals against subordinates at odds with his worldview.
But character traits aside, the key criterion for senior appointments is whether the nominee's views coincide with those of his or her boss, the President. In this case, there's little reason to doubt that the Bolton and Bush views on the United Nations are entirely simpatico.
Bush's relationship with the UN during the first term was dominated by Iraq. Having failed -- after a major effort -- to secure UN Security Council backing for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Bush Administration made no effort to conceal its disdain for Security Council rejectionists, in particular France, and for Secretary-General Annan, who was deemed "not helpful." It's no coincidence that reaction to the Iraqi Oil-for-Food scandal in certain pro-Bush circles has been somewhat over the top. To their dismay, however, the most recent UN report on the scandal, by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, concluded that Annan was an indifferent manager while clearing him of malfeasance.
Of course, Annan's real crime -- in the eyes of the Bush Administration and its supporters -- was his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It's a reasonable assumption, therefore, that sniping at Annan from American right-wing sources (carefully distanced from the Administration itself) will continue throughout his tenure as Secretary-General.
Officially, Bolton and Bush endorse efforts to reform the UN. No one disputes that reform is badly needed. The bureaucracy throughout the vast UN system is hobbled by outmoded management techniques and dead wood in the political and career ranks. The reasons are many and complex. The UN is not Hewlett-Packard. The members of the board of directors are the 191 member nations, many of which regard the UN as a vast web of patronage for the employment of mediocre (or out-of-favor) local politicians. Worthy projects abound but must compete against each other for funding -- often simply a matter of what looks best in the press.
Crippling management and funding considerations notwithstanding, the effectiveness of the UN and its agencies is of life-or-death importance to millions in the world living in the shadow of disease, extreme poverty and inter-communal warfare. In much of sub-Saharan Africa and other blighted corners of the globe, the UN is largely the only game in town. Direct U.S. assistance is, contrary to what most American taxpayers think, of less and less significance in dealing with the poorest of the poor around the world. In places like the northeastern Congo, for instance, where up to four million have died in the last decade from war-induced disease and starvation, only the UN and a few intrepid non-governmental organizations (like Doctors Without Borders) offer any hope.
The Bush Administration thus far has shown little interest in the nuts and bolts of making the UN more efficient and more capable. Rather, they have focused on promoting a political and social agenda that is beyond the pale for most other UN members. While many governments (and peoples) respect the newfound U.S. emphasis on human rights and democracy, this message is considerably undercut by the Bush Administration's doctrine of preemptive war and its insistence on applying the "Culture of Life" dogma (anti-abortion and anti-birth control) to UN social programs.
The Bolton nomination suggests that President Bush sees little value in engagement with other countries to improve the UN. Rather than reform, Bolton's more likely objective is to keep the UN at bay -- a job for which he is uniquely qualified. If the UN member states -- in particular those on the Security Council -- will not give the U.S. carte blanche on issues of Washington's choosing like Iraq, Iran and North Korea, then the Bush Administration will ignore UN concerns and conventions.
Four more years of estrangement from its most prominent member is hardly good news for the beleaguered UN leadership or other member states. But the Bush Administration's determination to avoid compromise in the UN system -- its hard line manifested by the Bolton appointment -- is matched by the deeply held view outside the U.S. that the Bush Administration cannot self-legitimize its actions, that only the UN collectively can justify action against a rogue state like Iraq or Iran.
This fundamental impasse underlies the President's choice of Bolton. He may be an unlikely diplomat, but, as the enforcer of Bush's lamentable cold peace with the international community, Bolton will be firmly in his element.
Bill Loskot, a Spokane native and resident, was a Foreign Service Officer for 27 years, serving at six overseas posts and at the State Department in Washington, D.C.