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Sledgehammer diplomacy

July 27, 2006

LOCK UP YOUR TREATIES AND secure your summits. Just when you thought it was safe for international diplomacy again, John Bolton is back.

Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who seemed destined for a desk job at some neoconservative think tank for the duration of the Bush administration, is now poised to retain his U.N. post. The turnabout comes courtesy of Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who played a critical role last year in torpedoing Bolton's confirmation, prompting President Bush to install the ambassador with a recess appointment that expires this fall. Voinovich, who a year ago called Bolton the "poster child for what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be," now feels the ambassador has been "tempered" by the job.

It's mystifying what changed Voinovich's mind. Was it the way Bolton, soon after taking his seat, sabotaged a year and a half of careful negotiations on U.N. organizational reforms by introducing hundreds of last-minute amendments to a draft agreement, rendering the final version nearly meaningless? Was it his refusal to budge on talks over the creation of a new Human Rights Council, which didn't improve the eventual agreement one iota but nearly made it worse? Given the monster Bolton was portrayed to be at last year's confirmation hearings, perhaps Voinovich is simply impressed that he hasn't reached across the table to throttle the French ambassador.

It's true that Bolton has not been a total disaster. Under his tenure, the U.S. signed on to an important agreement asserting the principle that states have the responsibility to protect their citizens from mass slaughter and could face U.N. action if they don't. His stands on human rights and organizational reform have for the most part been highly principled. The problem is that he doesn't know when to compromise, without which progress in an international body is impossible.

Bolton's sledgehammer diplomacy has poisoned an already tense relationship between the U.S. and other countries, including our most important allies. U.N. members see American reform proposals not as ways to improve the organization but as hidden attempts to enhance U.S. power. This helps explain why Bolton has largely failed to achieve his stated goals -- or much of anything else.

The Foreign Relations Committee is slated to hold a hearing on Bolton today. It should turn him down, but given Voinovich's about-face, it probably won't. That will tempt Democrats to filibuster when it comes time for a Senate vote, as they did twice last year to block his confirmation. They should resist the temptation.

For all his faults, Bolton is the president's nominee and, if supported by the majority of the Senate, deserves to keep his seat. He should be rejected because he's the wrong person for the job, not as a result of the fundamentally unfair and undemocratic instrument of the filibuster.

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