Ever since Bernard Kerik, George W. Bush's choice to head the Department of Homeland Security, withdrew his name from consideration last December, the President had been playing it safe with his second-term nominations. And so it came as a surprise to almost everyone, in Washington and in foreign capitals, when the President last week announced John Bolton as his pick for the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. A senior State Department official whose 24-year career in and out of government has been defined by a self-professed distaste for treaties, contempt for diplomatic niceties and hostility toward the U.N., Bolton was described by a liberal think tank as "possibly the least appropriate person in U.S. public life" for the job. Said a Republican Senator: "Is the President spoiling for a fight?"
The answer, say top Bush aides, is yes. But the fight the President seeks is not the one he will face, and almost certainly win, over Bolton's nomination. Bush chose Bolton, they say, because he's sure that the smart and abrasive onetime protégé of U.N. basher and former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms is just the person to convince U.N. bashers in Congress that it will serve U.S. interests to give the scandal-plagued international body the American support and money it needs. "This guy has the credibility to go to the skeptics and say, 'It's in our vital interests to have the U.N. because we can't do all these things alone,'" insists a senior Bush aide.
But if Bush believes the U.N. is important, picking Bolton is a novel way to show it. In 1994, Bolton declared that if the 39-floor U.N. headquarters in New York City "lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." In 2000 he told National Public Radio that if he were remaking the U.N. Security Council, he would give it not five permanent members but just one--the U.S.--"because that's the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world." Bolton has insisted that international law has no validity because "those who think [it] really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States." He called the U.S. withdrawal from the International Criminal Court "the happiest moment of my government service."
Bush aides argue that no matter what Bolton has said and done in the past, as U.N. ambassador he will carry out policy, not make it. But in his government jobs, Bolton has never been one to quietly follow orders. Critics say he consistently used his perch as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security to undermine former Secretary of State Colin Powell in his policy battles with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. And most famously, just as delicate six-party talks, including North Korea, were about to begin discussing Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program in 2003, Bolton delivered a speech excoriating Kim Jong Il as the "tyrannical dictator" of a country in which "life is a hellish nightmare." Pyongyang responded by calling Bolton "human scum."