Ambassador Bolton

Editorial

New York Times

August 2, 2005

If there's a positive side to President Bush's appointment of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations yesterday, it's that as long as Mr. Bolton is in New York, he will not be wreaking diplomatic havoc anywhere else. Talks with North Korea, for instance, have been looking more productive since Mr. Bolton left the State Department, and it's hard not to think that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's generally positive performance in office is due, in part, to her canniness in dispatching Mr. Bolton out of Washington.

But the appointment is, of course, terrible news for the United Nations, whose diplomats have heard weeks of Senate testimony about Mr. Bolton's lack of respect for their institution and his deeply undiplomatic, bullying style of doing business. Senator George Voinovich, the Ohio Republican who became one of Mr. Bolton's strongest critics, said yesterday that he planned to send the new ambassador a book on how to be an effective manager. It couldn't hurt, but this may be the first time a world superpower has used its top United Nations post as a spot for the remedial training of a troublesome government employee.

Mr. Bush had been unable to get Mr. Bolton's nomination confirmed by the Senate, so he waited until Congress left town and used his constitutional power to make recess appointments. This is a perfectly legal tactic, though one that has seldom been used to fill this kind of position. A recess appointment is particularly dicey for a major diplomatic post, where a good nominee should carry an aura of personal gravitas and legitimacy.

The problem here from the beginning has been that Mr. Bush clearly has little respect for either the United Nations or international diplomacy in general.

There is plenty to complain about at the United Nations, but real work happens there, and it requires the services of men and women who know how to wring agreement out of a group of wildly different and extremely self-interested representatives. The president has not just sent the United Nations what Senator Christopher Dodd accurately termed "damaged goods." In Mr. Bolton, he has selected goods that weren't appropriate for the task even before the Senate began to hold hearings - when Mr. Bolton's reputation was still in one piece.

The United Nations could certainly be improved, but Mr. Bolton is a poor candidate for a reformer. To make the institution better, the Bush administration would first have to show that it has a vision of what the U.N. could be. That vision has to begin by accepting the fact that nations other than the United States have a right to have a say, and sometimes take the lead.