The good news about Bolton

Even if he's ultimately confirmed, those who spoke out against him have signaled to the world that he doesn't represent all Americans -- and ensured he won't wield a big stick.

Published May 13, 2005 3:56PM (EDT)

Not since Pontius Pilate has there been such a public display of hand-washing. The nomination of John Bolton, the man the president wants to represent America to the world as our ambassador to the United Nations, was ushered unendorsed to the Senate floor by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with almost half of its Republican members holding their noses, while blaming the White House for its obduracy in forcing such an unsuitable candidate on them. Unable to muster a majority in his committee to actually endorse Bolton's nomination, chairman Richard Lugar himself said "Secretary Bolton's actions were not always exemplary."

Rarely has a nominee been damned with such faint praise by his own party. Indeed, from their public disquiet about Bolton's qualifications, we must assume that only the deepest party loyalties -- or the fear that Karl Rove would put the severed head of their favorite horses in their beds while they slept -- kept the likes of Lincoln Chafee, Chuck Hagel, George Voinovich and Lugar from outright rebellion.

It was reported late Thursday that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had put a "hold" on the nomination, raising the stakes for the White House, which will now need 60 senators to toe the line to push Bolton through. The lack of endorsement by the Foreign Relations Committee will make that even more difficult.

Appropriately enough for someone whom former Sen. Jesse Helms once looked forward to having at his side at Armageddon, Bolton's nomination could be tied into the Republicans' "nuclear option" aimed at ending the filibuster in the Senate.

In the course of these protracted hearings, the sound of silence from some quarters has been almost deafening. While previous GOP secretaries of state have been rolled out in support, Colin Powell has not said a public word in favor of the man whom Dick Cheney planted as a fifth column in the State Department.

And notably, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said absolutely nothing to dispel the stories that he and other Europeans adamantly refused to allow Bolton's participation in any of the multilateral talks with the various states that Bolton had designated as part of his eccentrically shaped "axis of evil."

The old description of a diplomat as someone "sent abroad to lie for his country" is doubly inappropriate for ambassador-in-waiting Bolton. He will be dissimulating in New York, and based on past form, he will truly, deeply and sincerely believe every whopper he comes out with.

In the welter of accusations about whether he tried to browbeat, bully or transfer intelligence analysts, the committee seems to have lost track of the most salient point: He was wrong on the intelligence issues in question. Cuba did not have a biological weapons program; Syria was not hosting the "missing" WMD from Iraq.

Nor could he be, as his supporters have claimed, a strong representative of America in the world forum. In his own clumsy way, Bolton has epitomized the administration's habit of inventing facts to back up preconceived policies and prejudices. Most Americans do not want more nuclear weapons, fewer inspections for chemical and biological weapons or more unregulated trade in small arms, as the Bush administration's policies would lead one to believe. And if Americans knew the truth about the International Criminal Court, which Bolton and the U.S. have done so much to try to sabotage, they might even think that this much improved sequel to the Nuremburg trials represented a good thing.

The classic model for strong diplomacy is Teddy Roosevelt's, which has a lot of validity: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Bolton clearly fails on the first point, and may not be as well endowed on the second as he pretends.

One relishes the prospect of a blustery Bolton, once a paid lobbyist for Taiwan, going to the Chinese ambassador on the U.N. Security Council to try to exercise his powers of persuasion and being asked, "Mr. Bolton, when do you want us to start selling the U.S. Treasury bonds that we own half of? Would this week or next week be the best time to trash the dollar? Or shall we just use our veto?"

President Bush has to be congratulated for inadvertently doing so much to improve Americans' public consideration of foreign policy. Consider: In the Foreign Relations Committee the Democrats held firm from beginning to end, which is a much rarer event than conservative accusations of liberal partisan bias would have you believe.

One could be cynical and assume that one reason for such uncommon backbone is that no major domestic commercial lobbies had a dog in this fight. But certainly the legislators were also genuinely and sincerely appalled that the United States would be misrepresented abroad in such a public global forum by a bad-tempered, isolationist bigot like Bolton.

Significantly, the "grass-roots" conservatives who campaigned for Bolton by showering senators with e-mails and postcards did not do so on the "official" White House grounds that a now even-tempered and suave Bolton would help reform the world organization. They were pretty much the same people who want the United States to pull out of the U.N., for a variety of kooky reasons. In fact, the polls showed that the Democrats had called it right: An overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the nomination. (Polls have also shown a degree of support for the United Nations that you would never suspect from listening to the GOP's representatives in Washington or to guests on conservative talk shows.)

While it would be easy to condemn Republican senators for not voting their consciences and blocking a nomination that had made many of them so visibly uneasy, we should also celebrate this first and most public revolt, no matter how low-key, by moderate Republicans against the members of the radical right that have taken over their party. We can assume that they too were watching those polls before breaking ranks.

If, as is far from certain, Bolton ever does find his way to the East River in New York, Democratic senators and their wobbly Republican colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee have at least sent a message to the world that should help American self-esteem. Their resistance and visible distaste clearly signal that John Bolton does not represent Americans, at the U.N. or anyone else.

Along with his own lack of diplomacy, that will make him a broken arrow if he ever is fired in the direction of the U.N. When he stamps his feet and threatens to scream, scream, scream unless he gets his own way, other countries' diplomats will simply shrug and say, "There, there, have your tantrum," as they ask their aides to call Condoleezza Rice. Far from allowing him to wield a "big stick" to advance White House policy, the non-aye-sayers have ensured that Bolton's diplomatic weaponry -- if employed -- will be distinctively detumescent.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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Barbara Boxer D-calif. Dick Cheney United Nations