The Bolton Fights (Plural)

Within minutes of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's March 7 announcement that John Bolton was the administration's pick as ambassador to the United Nations, liberal Washington sprang into action. Bolton, suddenly, was Topic A, even more so than Social Security. His dismissive quotes about the United Nations were given wide circulation in the stream of e-mails that landed in hundreds of liberal in-boxes around town; bloggers, led by Steve Clemons, who writes the excellent Washington Note, organized a campaign to pressure the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to delay hearings that the administration had wanted to fast track.

The reason for the urgency was obvious: The idea of making Bolton the point man for the United States' dealings with the UN surpasses all available fox-and-henhouse analogies; it's more closely akin to putting Michael Jackson in charge of a chain of foster homes. Bolton has left a long paper trail, with two ceaseless themes: first, the “fact” that there is really no such thing as international law, that there is only politics; and second, that the UN is utterly worthless.

The pressure campaign opposing Bolton worked, at least in its first phase. MoveOn joined the fray, and Citizens for Global Solutions, a nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to global interdependence, started a Web site called Committee Chairman Richard Lugar delayed Bolton's nomination hearings until April.

The attention of opposition groups was turning at press time to the potentially “gettable” Republican committee members. This (short) list may include Lugar himself, who is known in Washington not to be a Bolton fan, but it focuses chiefly on Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. He's up for re-election in his navy-blue state in 2006, and one recent poll showed him already down 15 points to his putative Democratic challenger.

Among committee Democrats, the most likely defection on paper looked to be Florida's Bill Nelson, also facing his (red) state's voters in 2006. But sources suggest that suspicious eyes are casting their glance far more toward Russ Feingold. The Wisconsin Democrat wants to seek the presidency. If anti-Bolton forces manage to wring a “no” vote out of Chafee, a “yea” from Feingold would be decisive and would send the nomination to the floor. That's not a good way to start a presidential candidacy.

Meanwhile, if Lugar really wants to express his reservations in a measurable way, he might call a certain Ambrous Tung Young to testify at Bolton's hearings. Young is a Hong Kong businessman and major GOP benefactor who donated handsomely to something called the National Policy Forum (NPF), which was set up as a nonprofit educational institute by former GOP Chair Haley Barbour in advance of the 1994 congressional elections. By 1996, the NPF had quit paying a bank loan that Young had guaranteed. According to The Washington Post, this didn't stop the NPF's president -- one John Bolton -- from authorizing the bank that held the note to start taking its payments directly from Young. Eventually, the GOP reimbursed Young for half of what he had lost, but it would be interesting to try to learn his candid views on the matter today.

Bolton may well win confirmation, precisely because most Democrats don't view a nomination fight as worth the political capital. Which brings us to the second Bolton fight.

His writings make clear what his top priorities will be:

First, a rejiggering of the UN to suit the conservative worldview. Bolton's writings give France and maybe even England reason to be nervous about what a Bolton-inspired Security Council would look like. (Japan, meanwhile, may have reason to smile.) More broadly, the world body should prepare for major fights over American financial support.

Second, a push toward formal recognition of Taiwan. Bolton couldn't make this happen; but it is something he has long advocated, and he would almost certainly use his new pulpit to push policy in this direction. In 1999, Bolton opined that the idea of China responding to such a move with force was “a fantasy.” The notion seemed far less fantastical, though, just a week after Bolton's nomination, when China enacted a law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if it moves toward formal independence, a status that U.S. recognition would obviously encourage.

If Bolton is confirmed, Democrats and moderate Republicans will need to start formulating their positions on these two questions immediately and marshaling American and global public opinion in support of a coherent alternative view. But that “if” is bigger than it was the day the nomination was announced.

Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.