John Bolton's resignation this week as ambassador to the United Nations was hardly the result of his being - as some have charged - ineffective, or a bully, or abrasive. The real problem is the shrunken character of the U.N.
Bolton was a Gulliver dispatched to Lilliput, a truth-teller in a den of diplomats. As a principled man in a dishonest institution, he was a threat to a whole raft of special interests that feed off the U.N. system.
If anything, Bolton was polite in a setting where bullying and abrading hardly count as sins. This is the U.N. where Secretary-General Kofi Annan, when queried last year about the Mercedes on which his son saved a bundle by making false use of U.N. perquisites, chose to bully the reporter - and avoid answering a good question. This is the U.N. whose deputy secretary-general, Mark Malloch Brown, set out this past spring, in violation of the U.N. charter, to meddle in U.S. politics - insulting a number of right-wing media outlets and sneering at their audience in the "heartland." This is the U.N. whose "excellencies" this past September applauded the histrionics of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - behavior that in civilized quarters might well be deemed abrasive.
This is the U.N. that in recent years has incubated such scandals as oil-for-food, procurement bribery, and peacekeeper rape. This is the U.N. whose "reforms," in answer to these scandals, have consisted largely of demands for more money, and a revamped so-called Human Rights Council that has devoted itself entirely to condemning Israel. This is the U.N. system that still does not provide coherent accounts of how it spends about $20 billion per year, about one-quarter of that supplied by U.S. taxpayers.
And while the debate over Bolton's worthiness to serve as ambassador to this sinkhole has focused in great part on Washington partisan politics, far too little attention has been paid to the extent to which the U.N. secretariat itself has become a favorite sandbox of a number of highly partisan Americans, including Ted Turner, whose U.N. Foundation dispenses about $100 million every year via the secretariat - bypassing the General Assembly budget process while amplifying causes favored by Turner.
Accompanying this, the U.N. plays host to the turf wars of contending national cliques that are chronically angling for patronage slots inside the ever-expanding U.N. system. Overlaid are a variety of dictators who can lay no legitimate claim to represent the people they suppress back home, but who gather yearly to enjoy the dignity of seats in the grand General Assembly Hall and the rounds of parties and meetings devoted to dispensing billions via U.N. programs.
Into this twilight zone walked John Bolton, who set about treating the U.N. itself with a respect few of its long-term denizens have shown. The emblematic moment would be the first day he took the seat as chairman of the Security Council and banged the gavel, on time, to open the meeting. He was the only one there. All the rest were late.
Within the U.N., Bolton was astoundingly effective. On his watch, the Security Council finally got around to asking Iran to stop its nuclear-bomb program, agreed on limited sanctions on North Korea, began at least trying to address the genocide in Sudan, and passed a resolution giving Annan his much-desired cease-fire this summer in Lebanon. Bolton dared to table such issues as the in-house corruption and peacekeeper rape. He even did the U.N. the large favor of helping to keep Venezuela's sulfur-sniffing Chavez off the Security Council.
Unfortunately, reform within the U.N. is blocked by a system in which too many have grown comfortable with the customary immunities, secrecy and corruption. And in dealing with real dangers in the world outside Turtle Bay, U.N. actions rarely live up to even the most decisive U.N. words. Despite assorted U.N. resolutions, the nuclear projects of North Korea and Iran have not stopped, the genocide continues in Sudan, and Lebanon now teeters on the edge of a takeover by Hezbollah terrorists re-arming with the help of Syria and Iran.
Bolton's vital contribution, if only we have the wisdom to heed it, has been to highlight the grave failings of the U.N. itself - an outfit that shows every sign of being beyond anyone's power to mend.