Hocking a Lugar

So the White House got its man through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: John Bolton was approved for a floor vote for confirmation as UN ambassador, albeit without a committee recommendation. Even before today's vote, it was clear who was the biggest loser in this sorry episode: committee chairman Richard Lugar. Throughout the Bolton debacle, Lugar has been portrayed as the hapless straight arrow forced to act against his better judgment by a ruthless administration hell-bent on getting its way. Nonsense. There was nothing preventing Lugar from derailing the Bolton nomination. And, in failing to do so, he has not only sacrificed his carefully nurtured reputation for probity and responsibility; he has allowed serious harm to be done to the Senate.

We have, of course, become sadly accustomed to the spectacle of moderate Republicans serving as shills for the Bush White House and thoroughly humiliating themselves in the process. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani immediately come to mind. In the Bolton fight, several Republican internationalists have blithely put partisanship above principle. Richard Armitage, Colin Powell's deputy at the State Department, broke with his old boss to endorse Bolton; yesterday, former Secretary of State James Baker co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times declaring Bolton to be the best man for the job. Sure, and Clarence Thomas was the best man for the Supreme Court.

(The parallels between the Bolton and Thomas nominations are actually quite eerie. Once again, Joe Biden is leading the Democrats in opposing the nomination; and, once again, questions of personal conduct have obscured the real issue -- namely, that the nominee is woefully unqualified for the job and should never have been picked in the first place.)

In Baker's defense, he is Bolton's former boss and a longtime Bush family retainer. Armitage's sellout can be put down to personal ambition: he reportedly wishes to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld if and when he steps down. McCain and Giuliani can likewise cite presidential aspirations. Lugar has no such excuses. He's 73 years old, and, though he once harbored presidential hopes, that is clearly no longer the case. Moreover, the five-term senator is an iconic figure in Indiana politics: an untouchable. In what possible way could the administration and the GOP have punished him had he blocked Bolton?

Lugar was free to act his conscience, and his conscience clearly told him that Bolton was an awful choice for the United Nations. Indeed, with his well-documented contempt for the United Nations and multilateralism; his disdain for international law; and his blatant disregard for the institutions and processes of U.S. foreign policy, Bolton is precisely the kind of Republican that Lugar has spent much of his Senate career fighting. You might even say that Bolton is the anti-Lugar. Indeed, while serving for the last four years as under secretary of state for arms control and international security, Bolton pushed to have funding cut for the Nunn-Lugar Act, which promotes nuclear nonproliferation. Not only that, as Newsweek pointed out this week, Bolton bears most of the blame for the continued delay in the disposal of tons of Russia's weapons-grade plutonium -- a delay that has incensed Lugar.

It has been widely reported that Bush tapped Bolton for the UN position only after Lugar had made it clear to the White House that Bolton would have difficulty gaining confirmation were he nominated to be deputy secretary of state, the position he really coveted. But that makes no sense; if Lugar thought Bolton was unfit for the number-two job at Foggy Bottom, why would he have deemed Bolton acceptable for the UN job, which carries a much higher profile? In fact, committee staffers believe that Lugar was signaling to the administration that Bolton was unacceptable for either post and that no Bolton nomination should be sent to the Hill.

The administration chose to ignore Lugar, and it continued to make a fool of him in the run-up to today's vote. To help smooth the road to a vote after the aborted attempt at one last month, Lugar cut a deal with Biden to allow members of the Foreign Relations Committee to examine the National Security Agency intercepts that Bolton had mysteriously requested while at the State Department. In making nice with the Democrats, Lugar was doing Bolton and the White House a considerable favor. The administration returned the favor by refusing to hand over the intercepts, dealing Lugar a black eye in the process.

Compounding the humiliation, the administration let it be known that it had no problem bypassing the Foreign Relations Committee if it appeared Bolton might not survive a vote. For this reason, Bolton spent part of last week on Capitol Hill visiting with senators not on the committee. And how did Lugar respond to these slights? By flacking for the White House, cheerily telling reporters he was confident Bolton would be approved by the committee. Lugar emerges from this battle a badly diminished figure, and he ultimately has no one to blame but himself.

The bigger issue, of course, is the damage the Bolton fiasco has done to the Senate. It is a rare occasion when both the chairman and the ranking minority member of a committee indicate to the president that a nominee is unacceptable. It is hardly surprising that the Bush White House, which is nothing if not shameless, spurned the advice -- hardly surprising, too, that it felt entitled to withhold crucial information from the Foreign Relations Committee. Quite apart from being a travesty, the Bolton appointment has represented a challenge to senatorial prerogative and the integrity of the nominating process; on those grounds alone, Lugar should have killed the nomination.

It is enough to make a liberal feel a twinge of nostalgia for Jesse Helms (who, as it happens, was Bolton's mentor). Helms, of course, chaired the Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001. The North Carolina Republican was an odious figure in almost every regard, and there was something comically perverse about having a xenophobe presiding over the Foreign Relations Committee. On the other hand, there was no one who took the Senate's constitutionally mandated oversight of U.S. foreign policy more seriously than did Helms, and no one crossed him and his committee with impunity. Too bad that lesson was lost on Lugar.

Michael Steinberger is a Prospect senior correspondent. This column has been edited to reflect the committee's vote.