The storm over John Bolton’s nomination for U.N. ambassador is not a partisan dispute, as some of Bolton’s supporters claim. It is a substantive disagreement about whether John Bolton is an effective problem solver with the credibility and negotiating skills needed to promote U.S. interests at the United Nations. Based on his record as undersecretary of state, John Bolton is none of these things.
At a time of unprecedented and universal recognition that nuclear terrorism is the greatest threat, Bolton’s record of accomplishment is disturbingly anemic. The pace at which fissile materials-the nuclear gunpowder that is vital to a terrorist’s nuclear bomb-were secured or destroyed did not accelerate after 9/11, despite the heightened threat perception. Key reasons for the laggardly pace are bureaucratic red tape in Russia and disputes with Moscow over legal liability. According to Republican Senator Pete Domenici, Bolton bears a “very heavy responsibility” for the impasse. He added, “I hate to say that I am not sure to this point that [Bolton’s] up to it.”
Since Bolton came to office, North Korea has acquired the means to quadruple the suspected size of its nuclear arsenal and has publicly declared itself as a nuclear power. Iran has flaunted its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and is nearing a point of no return on having the capability to build nuclear weapons.
North Korea and Iran are enormously challenging cases; nobody thinks dealing with these global miscreants is easy. But rather than serving as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests in sensitive negotiations against these threats, Bolton has been a stumbling block.
John Bolton was kicked out of the six-party talks with North Korea for calling North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, a “tyrannical dictator.” Bolton is, of course, right about Kim Jong Il, but publicly calling names and getting kicked out of negotiations does not protect the American people from a nuclear-armed North Korea.
North Korea isn’t the only case in which Bolton was forced to the sidelines for blocking progress. In November 2003, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw complained to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell that Bolton was obstructing allied agreement on how to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Bolton also nearly botched the Bush administration’s lone success at convincing a country to give up its nuclear weapons program, Libya. Senior British officials successfully convinced the White House to remove Bolton from the negotiating team because he was blocking progress.
The pattern couldn’t be clearer: in sensitive negotiations on critical national security issues, Bolton is a bull in a china shop. He does more harm than good. And the evidence mounting against him is not the product of some imaginary left-wing conspiracy: the insiders who said the Brits wanted Bolton out of sensitive negotiations with Iran and Libya are reportedly Republicans.
If confirmed as ambassador, the United States might someday need to call on Bolton to stand before the Security Council and make a case about North Korea, Iran, or some other country’s weapons programs in an effort to get the Council to act. Amidst mounting evidence that Bolton frequently sought to put ideology before reality and then punish intelligence professionals who tried to correct him, Bolton lacks the credibility that is essential to be an effective advocate for U.S. interests at the United Nations.
Here too, the evidence has not come from tree-hugging lefties. For instance, Carl Ford, the assistant secretary who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Bolton’s politicization of intelligence, is a self-described conservative, and one of the intelligence professionals that Bolton sought to fire now works for Republican Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE).
John Bolton lacks the skills needed to advance U.S. interests at the U.N., and the Senate should refuse to confirm him as U.N. ambassador. President Bush can surely find other, more talented conservatives to make America’s case at the United Nations.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Andrew J. Grotto is an associate scholar and policy analyst in national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress.
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