U.N. nomination battle

Democrats try to block the controversial John Bolton, but hopes that a moderate Republican will join them are dim.

Published April 12, 2005 2:50PM (EDT)

John Bolton, President Bush's nominee as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was accused Monday of seeking to dismiss government intelligence analysts he thought were not hawkish enough on Cuba. The allegations were presented by Senate Democrats who are hoping to block Bolton's nomination in a telling test of strength this week over the White House's most controversial nomination.

Democrats at Monday's confirmation hearing also demanded explanations from Bolton for past derogatory remarks about the U.N., including one in 1994 suggesting that the removal of the top 10 stories of the organization's New York headquarters "wouldn't make a bit of difference."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on the nomination on Thursday. To tie the vote and therefore stall the nomination, the Democrats must win the support of a Republican moderate on the committee, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. However, Senator Chafee indicated Monday that he was leaning toward confirmation, noting that he had been impressed by Bolton's opening statement.

In that statement, Bolton said: "The United States is committed to the success of the United Nations, and we view the U.N. as an important component of our diplomacy." Bolton added that he hoped to help strengthen the U.N. General Assembly, which he said had occasionally "gone off track."

Democrats on the committee focused their attack on claims that Bolton had bullied subordinates, and had sought the dismissal of two intelligence analysts, one at the CIA, thought by several hard-liners to be too soft on Cuba, and one at the State Department, who questioned Bolton's assertion in a 2002 speech that Havana was pursuing a biological weapons program. Neither analyst was fired or reassigned, and the CIA analyst, who could not be named, is reported to have been promoted.

Both sides in the argument agreed that the State Department analyst, Christian Westermann, clashed with Bolton when he attempted to tone down his 2002 speech. "I never sought to have Mr. Westerman fired at all," Bolton told the Senate committee, adding that he only asked for him to be given other duties. He also claimed he did not object to Westermann's opinions, only to the analyst's going "behind my back" to have the speech changed.

The Democrats' other main line of attack was to contrast Bolton's avowed enthusiasm for the U.N. now with his long record of skepticism over the organization's usefulness. They recalled remarks more than a decade ago in which Bolton said: "There is no such thing as the United Nations ... There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world and that is the United States when it suits our interests and we can get others to go along."

He also suggested that if the Security Council were to be redesigned it ought to have a single member, the United States.

Bolton insisted those comments were taken out of context, and that he had used such vivid language to "get the attention" of his audience.

The Democrats on the committee all signaled their skepticism. Their most senior member, Joseph Biden, told Bolton: "John, I have great respect for your abilities and your intellectual capacity. It's your judgment and temperament, as well as your approach to many of these issues, that give me great pause."

The committee's Republican chairman, Richard Lugar, also had the faintest of praise for Bolton and wondered aloud about the usefulness of his famously blunt style at the U.N. "In the diplomatic world, neither bluntness nor rhetorical sensitivity is a virtue in itself. There are times when blunt talk serves a policy purpose; other times [when] it does not," Sen. Lugar said. "Diplomatic speech by any high-ranking administration official has policy consequences. It should never be undertaken simply to score international debating points to appeal to segments of the U.S. public opinion or to validate a personal point of view."

Nevertheless, Sen. Lugar is widely expected to back the nomination, leaving Sen. Chafee as the Democrats' sole hope on the Foreign Relations Committee. But Democratic hopes of winning his vote and forcing a deadlock looked faint Monday.

By Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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