In June, the Web site that served as the public clearinghouse of news and analysis on John Bolton's fledgling United Nations nomination, Steve Clemons' blog www.theWashingtonNote.com, reprinted a satiric cartoon depicting Bolton's first day at the UN. In the drawing, the political cartoonist Jonah Lobe portrayed a mustachioed Bolton clinging to the underside of a large statue of a .45-caliber revolver with its barrel tied in a knot. As visitors to the UN building in New York know, the statue stands at UN Plaza at Turtle Bay as a peace symbol. The cartoonish Bolton, though, has anything but peaceful intentions as he desperately tries to untie the knot so as to render the revolver operable once again.
Hyperbole aside, the cartoon seemed like an apt representation of what Bolton's influence at the UN might be. After all, Bolton is the proprietor of a bushel of statements that question the value and utility of the United Nations as an instrument of peace and security in the world. Given that history of antagonism to the world body, one wouldn't be too alarmist to think that if left to his own devices, the fox-in-the-henhouse analogies would prove true as soon as Bolton steps foot on First Avenue.
But thanks to the efforts of those who have opposed Bolton from day one, that's not going to happen. To be sure, the recess-appointed ambassador to the United Nations may be setting up his new Microsoft Outlook account as I write. But in his new job, which is guaranteed only until January 2007, Ambassador Bolton can no longer function as Dick Cheney's hard-line proxy, as he did at the State Department for the past four years. Rather, for the first time in his career at the State Department, Bolton will be a limp and neutered steward of his bosses in Foggy Bottom.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already admitted as much. In the passionate and stinging criticism of Bolton that Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich delivered during the confirmation hearing, the senator revealed that Rice promised him that Bolton will be “closely supervised,” tacitly signaling that Bolton would be canned should he stray from her authority. For their part, deputies and staff assistants at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations are apprehensive of his arrival. As they (and the entire public) know, he's the boss from hell. Worse, many are precisely the kind of career professionals that have historically been on the receiving end of the “kick-down” half of Bolton's management philosophy.
But now that Bolton's been damaged so sorely in the eyes of the public, these staffers should be empowered to stand up to him. If he offends their diplomatic sensibilities by, say, spying on the secretary-general or other members of the Security Council (as the administration was wont to do before the Iraq War), the public will heed their complaints. And the moment that Bolton berates a staffer for, say, kindly suggesting that he not publicly lie about the weapons capabilities of another member state (as he did relating to Cuba's arsenal in 2003), Clemons will collect leaks about the browbeating.
As was the case during the five-month nomination process, information about Bolton's improprieties will flow quickly from that blog to traditional media outlets; it will not take long for The New York Times' Douglas Jehl to learn that Bolton's pinky toe slipped across the line of appropriate diplomatic behavior.
Besides any new controversies that Bolton may or may not stir up in his new post, there's still the problem of his old, unresolved ones. Questions about Bolton's handling of Iraq-related intelligence still dangle like Damocles' sword above his head. Bolton has already lied once to the Senate by failing to disclose that he was interviewed by the State Department's inspector general in an inquiry that was critical of Bolton's role in assessing Iraq intelligence. (In Bolton's defense, a State Department spokesman said that Bolton says he simply “forgot” to mention this when specifically asked by the Senate if he supplied information to any federal investigators in the past five years.) If it emerges in the coming weeks that he's talked to any other federal investigators (not least of all Patrick Fitzgerald, with whom it's rumored Bolton has liaised), he'd have established a demonstrated pattern of lying to the Senate. He'd be toast.
But let's not fool ourselves. Despite the contentious nomination and subsequent recess appointment, there's still a great deal of damage that Bolton could inflict during his stint at the UN. And there's nothing about his personality that suggests he won't. In the coming months, for example, Iran's nuclear ambitions may have to be confronted in the UN, as will managing the perpetually volatile North Korea. But because Democrats and not a few Republicans stood up to the president on this nominee, the damage that Bolton can do to American interests during his term as ambassador have been effectively mitigated.
For if nothing else, he only has a year and a half -- not four -- to work out that knot at the end of the revolver.
Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.