The man who famously said the United Nations headquarters could lose 10 stories and "it wouldn’t make a bit of difference" appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today as U.S. President George W. Bush’s nominee to be Washington’s next ambassador to the very same world body.
But the John Bolton who testified in the Committee’s morning session engaged in little of the anti-UN rhetoric that has made him both loved and despised by U.S. and foreign diplomats.
In his opening statement, Bolton pledged to help strengthen an institution that has occasionally "gone off track."
"The Bush administration is committed to the success of the UN," he said. "We view the UN as an important component of our diplomacy."
Praise for the nominee came largely from Republican members of the Committee, while Democrats were uniformly critical and, at times, scathing.
One of the more dramatic moments came when Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, played a three-minute tape of the speech in which Bolton made his disparaging statement about the United Nations Secretariat building in New York, and also said: "There is no United Nations."
"I see the anger, the hostility," Boxer asserted. "What we saw here, I think, was the real John Bolton."
The committee’s top Democrat, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, said he had "grave concern" about Bolton’s nomination, citing doubts about his "diplomatic temperament," his statements about the UN and international laws and treaties, and his leadership on weapons threats in places like North Korea and Iran.
"In my judgment," Biden said, "your judgment about how to deal with the emerging threats has not been particularly useful."
Bolton, 56, has served in the past three Republican administrations and been one of the party’s strongest conservative voices on foreign affairs issues. He is now the administration’s arms control chief.
Asked about the impact on Washington’s standing overseas of the flawed U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq displayed with much fanfare at the UN by former Secretary of State Colin Powell Bolton was conciliatory.
"Unquestionably, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has led some people to question our goodwill and credibility," he said, adding he felt "personally sorry" for Powell.
Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and his party’s nominee for president in 2004, said he had serious questions about Bolton’s "commitment to the UN."
"It is critical we have someone with respect for diplomacy, who believes in the United Nations despite its flaws," he said, adding "I’m surprised the nominee wants the job he’s been nominated for, given the many negative things he’s had to say about the UN."
In his opening statement, Bolton seemed eager to please the panel. As noted by Senator Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Rhode Island Republican, "You said all the right things in your opening statement."
Bolton said the UN has both strengths and weaknesses and that, if confirmed, he would try to help forge a stronger relationship between the United States and the United Nations, "which depends critically on American leadership."
He said the UN General Assembly "needs to focus more on human rights violators and international terrorism. We must work to galvanize the General Assembly to focus its attention on issues of true importance."
Senator Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana and Foreign Relations Committee chairman, acknowledged the controversy over Bolton. He said opponents have criticized him as "abrasive, confrontational, and insensitive."
"In the diplomatic world, neither bluntness nor rhetorical sensitivity is a virtue in itself," Lugar said. "There are times when blunt talk serves a policy purpose; other times it does not."
Three protesters briefly interrupted the proceedings, standing up in succession with pink T-shirts and banners, one reading: "Diplomat for hire. No bully, please."
Committee Democrats asked Bolton about a two-year-old Senate Intelligence Committee report questioning whether he had pressured a State Department intelligence analyst who tried to tone down language in a Bolton speech about Cuba’s biological weapons capabilities.
Bolton acknowledged that he tried to have the analyst reassigned to another position, saying he had "lost trust in him and thought he should work on other accounts."
During the first day of the hearing which runs through Wednesday many were closely watching Chafee, a Republican who has often disagreed publicly with the Bush administration.
Republicans control the Foreign Relations Committee by a 10-8 margin. Most, if not all, Democrats on the panel are expected to oppose the nomination. In the final vote, which Chairman Lugar hopes will occur on Thursday, Chafee’s decision could be pivotal. He has said he has not yet made up his mind about how he will vote.
Bolton’s nomination has been opposed by scores of retired U.S. diplomats, who signed a letter [.pdf] to Lugar urging it be rejected. At the same time, it has been endorsed by all but one of the living Republican former secretaries of state James A. Baker III, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, Alexander M. Haig Jr., Henry A. Kissinger, and George P. Shultz. Notably absent was the most recent secretary, Colin L. Powell.
Former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, ex-CIA director R. James Woolsey, and 64 other retired arms control specialists and diplomats also lined up in Bolton’s support, saying that "the attack on Bolton is really an attack on President Bush’s policies."
When announcing his nomination as the new UN ambassador, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Bolton a "tough-minded diplomat" who has a "proven track record of multilateralism."
But many organizations within the foreign policy community have been outspoken in their criticism of the nominee.
Tom Barry, policy director for the International Relations Center (IRC), a think tank and advocacy group, told IPS, "If you believe that U.S. interests are well-served by making the United States an outlaw nation and by sparking new waves of anti-American sentiment, then Bolton will make a good U.S. ambassador to the United Nations."
"If you believe that the U.S. should break international treaties, violate international law, and make the UN an agency of the U.S. government, then Bolton is your man."
Harpinder Athwal of the advocacy group Citizens for Global Solutions told IPS after the first day’s hearing: "John Bolton has not changed his spots. Mr. Bolton does not believe in the UN, he calls it the most ‘inefficient’ and ‘ineffective’ international institution and has ‘no real world impact.’"