Hard Job for a Hardnose

Word has it that John Bolton will finally get his recess appointment today. Earlier this summer, Suzanne Nossel wrote about why a recessed John Bolton is as bad as no John Bolton at all, from the administration's policy perspective. Matthew Yglesias explained why it fits their political strategy just fine. Mark Leon Goldberg detailed the war over documents that kept Bolton from confirmation in the first place. Michael Tomasky speculated as to what dangerous outcomes could follow such an appointment. And we've got more from Nancy Soderberg and others on the bitter Bolton battle.


The Bush administration's options for advancing the nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations are now dwindling, and one that officials are now considering is the recess appointment. They should rule it out. Plenty of people have pointed out how hypocritical it would be for President Bush to sidestep the Senate after Republicans castigated Bill Clinton for doing the same. The main reason to avoid a recess appointment, however, is not that it would shortchange the Senate but that it would shortchange the United States -- at a time when we need a leader who can deal effectively with not just Turtle Bay but also Capitol Hill.

While ambassadors to the UN are called “permanent representatives,” they are anything but: Most serve between three and six years. The vast majority of UN ambassadors from around the world are among their nations' top one or two diplomats, and their rivals for that slot are often stationed in Washington. The UN position can be a capstone to a great career, or -- as was true for Egypt and Russia's current foreign ministers -- a stepping-stone to higher office.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN holds a seat even more prestigious than that of his counterparts in that the position is subject to legislative confirmation. Very few democracies have their parliaments weigh in on this kind of appointment (Belize and Bolivia are exceptions). At times the UN ambassador post has also had cabinet rank. These marks of additional status, including particularly the political stamp of approval, have become integral to the job of representing the United States at the United Nations.

Ever since the Senate rejected membership in the League of Nations in 1920, Congress has exercised strong oversight of the United States' involvement in world bodies. It manages our role in the UN in numerous ways. Congress appropriates the money for the United States to pay its dues. Senators and other political players outside the State Department frequently weigh in with political considerations when the United States is deciding whether to exercise its Security Council veto. At this point, a piece of legislation (Representative Henry Hyde's UN Reform Act of 2005, a meticulously detailed mandate covering everything from political to managerial reforms) is wending its way through Congress. And it's not the first of its kind: Congress has long passed laws affecting UN reform and U.S. dues to the world body. We are also unusual in that our Congress must ratify every treaty before the United States can become party to it. Congress frequently dispatches the Government Accountability Office (formerly known as the General Accounting Office) to inspect specific aspects of how U.S. contributions to the UN are being used.

Amid this swirl of political oversight (and second-guessing), the job of U.S. ambassador to the UN is, not surprisingly, also inherently political. While most ambassadors to overseas posts get confirmed and sent on their way, Bolton, as UN ambassador, would have to deal with Congress continuously throughout his tenure. He would deal with a series of issues uppermost in the minds of members, including the UN's role in Iraq and Sudan and U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court.

But a good UN ambassador not only represents the United States at the United Nations but also represents the UN in Washington. The ambassador translates UN proposals and debates into terms that Capital Hill can understand. He or she hears out members of Congress and ensures that their concerns get heard at the UN. For the UN community, the U.S. ambassador is a conduit to its most important shareholder, conveying information, eliciting reactions, and shaping how issues are received.

When reform tops the UN agenda, as is the case this year, Washington's interest becomes more focused than ever. The last time the UN undertook major reforms, in 2000, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke received visits from more than a dozen members of Congress and their staffs to New York. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its first-ever out-of-town hearing, in Manhattan, on the subject of the UN. Reciprocally, the ambassadors on the Security Council were invited to Washington to brief the committee. Those meetings paved the way for a historic agreement that lightened the U.S. obligation to the world body in return for repayment of U.S. back dues. Reconciling the UN reform legislation now pending on the Hill and the reform proposals under consideration at the UN would require at least as much two-way diplomacy, if not more.

A recess appointment would position Bolton poorly for these critical political dimensions of the UN job. He would have a hard time working effectively with a Foreign Relations Committee and a Congress that don't support him for the job. Bolton's opponents in Congress would find ways of working around him, turning to UN personnel and other U.S. officials to get information and put their views across.

Knowing that his appointment would short term and lacking strong support, Bolton's colleagues at the UN and in overseas missions wouldn't rely on him in the way they normally would an ambassador. They would question his ability to deliver on promises and try to circumvent him by working directly with the U.S. State Department.

Another problem Bolton would face is that the politics would tend to revolve around him, rather than his agenda. Bolton's every move would be viewed through the lens of how it might position him for another try at confirmation once his recess slot expired in 2007. His supporters would judge whether he'd maintained the stalwart defiance that made him famous, and his detractors would apply the opposite criteria. In such a no-win situation, both Bolton and the U.S. agenda would lose.

Bolton's own supposed reluctance to accept a recess appointment may reflect a recognition that interim status would compromise effectiveness. The latest word is that the Senate Republican leadership is realizing this truth as well, and may now try to fold the Bolton nomination into some sort of broader reform pitch. Meanwhile, reform negotiations at the UN are proceeding apace. While its leadership has often been lacking, the U.S. delegation is taking a mostly reasonable line and making progress toward key reforms of the UN's Commission on Human Rights, its peace-building capabilities, and its approach to terrorism. An ill-conceived recess appointment should not be allowed to jeopardize this.

Suzanne Nossel is a former senior adviser at the United States Mission to the United Nations and is currently a senior fellow at the Security and Peace Initiative, a joint project of the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation. She is the founder of the www.democracyarsenal.org weblog. This article originally appeared on July 1, 2005.

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