John Bolton, a man who loathes the United Nations, is up for confirmation as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold hearings this week; chances are good it will approve Bolton by a party-line vote. But the hearings are unlikely to resolve the main question raised by this strange nomination: What does the president want this man to do?
Administration sources are whispering that this is a "Nixon to China" appointment, sending a harsh critic to clean out the glass house on the Hudson. The White House has been forced to recognize the usefulness of the United Nations in areas ranging from humanitarian relief to pressuring Iran not to develop nuclear weapons.
But Bolton isn't someone who wants to use tough talk to remake a troubled institution. A smart conservative who has held top posts under Presidents Reagan and Bush pere, he scorns the very idea of a United Nations. Bolton is on record as disdaining international treaties, international law and anything that smacks of sharing power. "If the U.N. building in New York lost 10 stories," he said in 1994, "it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
"If I were redoing the Security Council today," he told National Public Radio in 2000, "I'd have one permanent member because that's the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world." There's nothing wrong, in principle, with recognizing the realities of U.S. power, but Bolton's attitude won't rally other U.N. members to America's side.
Nor is his track record as undersecretary of state for arms control encouraging. During Bush's first term, Bolton interpreted the job as meaning: Gut all arms-control treaties. He led a campaign against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; now the administration considers itself free to develop new types of nuclear weapons. He opposed banning land mines and endorsed weaponization of space. He obstructed crucial efforts to update the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
And he did nothing to further U.S. efforts to secure Russia's unsafe arsenal of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons -- the biggest potential source of WMD to terrorists.
On the other hand, Bolton promoted WMD charges against "rogue states" without sufficient evidence.
In July 2003, the CIA raised strong protest about Bolton's planned testimony to Congress that Syrian development of chemical and biological weapons was so advanced it threatened Mideast stability. Insufficient evidence.
As for the administration's biggest anti-proliferation success, the decision by Libya to end its WMD programs, State Department officials say this deal was closed only because Bolton was sidelined. Thus, he couldn't oppose the use of carrots as well as sticks.
In fact, Bolton prides himself on not being willing to extend carrots to bad guys. He sabotaged Secretary of State Colin Powell's efforts to start nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea that might have featured bigger sticks and bigger carrots. Bolton said, famously, "I don't do carrots." During the resulting delay in talks, Pyongyang acquired six to eight new nuclear weapons.
Today, President Bush is supposedly backing European Union efforts to offer Iran both carrots and sticks to abandon its nuclear programs; if the carrots fail, U.S. officials will push for U.N. sanctions.
But Bolton has little patience for such diplomacy. State Department sources say he has shown interest in the notion of America bombing Iranian nuclear sites. So is Bolton's mission merely to prove that the world body can't work? If his boss wants U.N. reform, not U.N. demise, is Bolton willing?
Unless the Foreign Relations Committee is brain-dead, someone will ask these questions. Tune in.