President Bush got good reviews in Europe last month, but his second-term diplomatic charm offensive suffered a severe setback Monday with his nomination of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton, an arms control expert with very little patience for multilateral niceties, is a leader of the administration's neoconservative hawks, who have been openly scornful of the United Nations.
We applauded Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for bypassing Bolton when choosing her top deputy at State, but we had no idea he'd land in New York. Conservatives within the administration had wanted Bolton to get the deputy secretary job, but it went instead to Robert B. Zoellick, a more moderate diplomat who was the U.S. trade representative in the first term.
There is a storied tradition of treating the U.N. ambassadorship as a plum consolation prize, but this may be a case of soothing bruised egos within the Beltway at the expense of being able to do so internationally.
Bolton is a leading proponent of the administration's go-it-alone attitude on security matters, and his blunt style is unlikely to go over well at U.N. headquarters. A decade ago, he famously said that if the United Nations Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, "it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
The United Nations is an institution in crisis, discredited by its corrupted Iraqi oil-for-food program and scandals involving its peacekeeping operations. The Bush administration should be a tough critic of the body and demand reforms, but sending Bolton could backfire. Because he has been such a polarizing and strident foe of the U.N. (which helped make him such a darling in right-wing circles), U.N. apologists will try to impeach his credibility whenever he questions the institution's integrity or effectiveness, and they will find a receptive audience.