Time Running Out on Bolton Nomination

What looked like a virtually sure thing just one month ago – Senate confirmation of the Bush administration’s controversial ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton – is suddenly looking unexpectedly shaky.

Last week’s eleventh-hour request by moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put off its vote on President George W. Bush’s nomination of the outspoken – some say bullying – envoy pending clarification of the administration’s current Middle East policies may have doomed Bolton’s chances.

The committee, which is chaired by Sen. Richard Lugar, another moderate Republican whose support for Bolton has always been less than enthusiastic, has not scheduled a follow-up meeting, and time is rapidly running out. The Senate is expected to recess in advance of the November mid-term elections at the end of this month before returning for a likely brief "lame-duck" session before the end of the year.

"I think it is highly unlikely that the committee will take up the nomination after this, based on what I’ve been told by very senior sources there," according to Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation (NAF) think tank, who helped lead the successful effort to defeat Bolton’s nomination when it was first submitted to the Senate at the beginning of Bush’s first term.

"At the same time, we’re hearing that the State Department does not yet consider it dead, so we have to remain vigilant," he told IPS Monday, adding, however, that he thought Chafee, who voted for Bolton in 2005, was poised to oppose him if indeed the Committee took it up before the recess.

The battle over Bolton takes on significance in the context of two larger struggles. The first is between the administration and Democrats, who have long argued that Bolton’s contempt for the United Nations and sharp-tongued unilateralism serve only to isolate Washington at a time when its international image is at or near an all-time low.

The second is between administration and neoconservative hard-liners led by Bolton’s chief champion, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the State Department which, while nominally supportive of Bolton, has shown a lack of confidence in his negotiating skills. This is particularly so since his failure earlier this year to gain backing from key U.S. allies for reforms in UN management and the UN Human Rights Council that Washington had wanted.

Indeed, in an article based on interviews with UN ambassadors from more than 30 countries, most of them close allies of Washington, the New York Times reported in July that Bolton’s diplomatic and personal style have alienated his fellow diplomats and isolated the U.S. at Turtle Bay.

As a result, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top aide, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, have preferred to work directly through their counterparts in foreign capitals and at the UN on key issues that come before the Security Council, rather than entrusting delicate issues to Bolton, who has also irritated the State Department more than once by taking positions without clearing them with his superiors in advance.

Bolton, who, as the State Department’s top arms-control official in Bush’s first term also frequently ran afoul of Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, was first nominated to the UN post in March 2005, after Rice rejected Cheney’s request that he be made deputy secretary of state.

After a bruising confirmation battle during which Democrats and some of his former State Department colleagues accused him of a bullying management style, strong anti-UN bias, excessive secrecy, and distorting intelligence to suit his ideological preferences, Bush gave him a "recess appointment." This is a rare procedural maneuver that enables presidents to appoint individuals to posts without their being confirmed by the Senate, rather than be defeated by a threatened Democratic filibuster.

Unlike a Senate confirmation, which lasts a full presidential term, however, a recess appointment terminates at the end of a congressional term. With the current Congress set to expire at year’s end, Bolton will lose his post unless he is confirmed by the Senate or given another "recess appointment" for which, however, he could not be paid.

The White House decided to renew the fight for Bolton’s confirmation in late July at the height of the war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, when the one Republican senator who had opposed his nomination last year, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, publicly reversed his position.

The decision was promptly hailed by prominent pro-Israel groups, such as the American Jewish Committee, and hard-line neoconservatives, including Frank Gaffney, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and the presidents of the Hudson and the American Enterprise Institutes, who all expressed appreciation for his staunch opposition to proposed Security Council resolutions that were even mildly critical of Israel’s conduct of the war.

Indeed, the White House appeared to be calculating that some Democratic senators, notably those with large Jewish constituencies in New York and Florida, would be less likely to oppose Bolton at a moment when Hezbollah was raining scores of missiles on Israeli territory each day.

But in the first confirmation hearing July 27, Chafee, who faces a tough challenge by a right-wing Republican for his Senate seat Tuesday, grilled Bolton on his views about the Middle East, particularly his insistence that "terrorism" – rather than the failure to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians – was the root cause of U.S. challenges in the region.

When the committee next met to vote on the nomination last Thursday, Chafee reportedly warned Lugar that, if the vote went forward, he would join Democrats in opposing Bolton – thus ensuring that the nomination could not be referred to the Senate floor – pending further clarification by Rice of U.S. Middle East policy. Lugar adjourned the meeting and has not yet rescheduled a vote.

Most analysts believe it is unlikely that Chafee will vote to approve Bolton if Lugar, who reportedly prefers a less polarizing nominee, schedules a vote.

"If [Chafee] wins [the primary election], it won’t do him any good in the general election [in November] if he votes for Bolton," according to one close observer who noted that the tiny state is both liberal in its policy preferences and overwhelmingly Democratic. "If he loses, then he gets to vote his conscience, which would also be against Bolton."

If Bolton can’t be approved by the committee, according to strategists, the White House will face a choice: to try to circumvent the committee by bringing the nomination directly to the Senate floor; to give Bolton a second recess appointment; or to let his term expire and nominate someone else early next year.

The first option, according to Clemons, would make it more likely that Democrats could mount a successful filibuster against the nomination. (With 55 senators, Republicans are five votes short of being able to end a filibuster by themselves.)

Because such a move would defy Senate rules and tradition, New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, who are now under strong pressure from pro-Israel groups, including the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to support Bolton, would be less likely to break ranks, according to this view.

The second option, said Morton Halperin, Washington director of the Open Society Institute and another prominent Bolton critic, would be "very awkward." Not only could Bolton not be compensated by the government, but he may not even be able to use facilities at the U.S. Mission at the UN, according to Halperin. "I find it hard to believe they would do that," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.