WASHINGTON -- When the American Conservative Union (ACU) celebrated its 40th anniversary last May with a black-tie dinner at Washington's J.W. Marriott Hotel, the dais was filled with assorted right-wing activists -- plus one diplomat. It was John Bolton, under secretary of state for arms control and international security whose nomination last week as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations shocked the liberal foreign policy establishment.
The ACU is respectable enough to have been addressed that evening by President George W. Bush. But Bolton was the first diplomat ever seated at the organization's head table. He is the first U.S. senior diplomat called a "movement conservative" (who, furthermore, was close to Sen. Jesse Helms). That is why his UN nomination created consternation on one side of the ideological divide and delight on the other side.
Bolton's critics in the Foreign Service had hopes he would be swept out of Foggy Bottom in Bush's second-term changing of the guard. That he instead was nominated for the world's most visible diplomatic post suggests the president means business in confronting the UN's corruption. It also confirms that Bush is properly attuned to his conservative base.
It is no secret that Bolton had his eye on becoming deputy secretary of state and was strongly supported for that post by conservatives. But newly installed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick as her deputy, and got him. At that point, conservative leaders who were instrumental in re-electing Bush informed White House political chief Karl Rove that a place must be found for Bolton (who was a valuable Bush lawyer in the 2000 Florida vote count).
The story spread by Bolton's foes in the State Department is that Rove then forced Rice into giving Bolton the UN portfolio. The truth is the reverse of that. It was the secretary of state who first suggested the new assignment for Bolton. That would put somebody at UN in the tradition of Pat Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had zero tolerance for the hypocrisy rampant at the world organization.
That contrasts with Bush's preceding UN ambassador, former Sen. John Danforth -- a favorite of the media and the liberal establishment. Danforth's vote of confidence in UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal was not authorized by then Secretary of State Colin Powell and in fact ran counter to administration policy. Before resigning after only seven months on the job, Danforth told old Senate colleagues that this administration does not take the UN seriously.
While Bolton more accurately reflects the administration's mindset than Danforth, he has not approved of every administration policy. What is inconceivable, however, is that he would go off on his own as Danforth did.
After Bolton's nomination, commentators incorrectly identified him as a "neo-conservative." If a neo-conservative (in Irving Kristol's phrase) is "a liberal mugged by reality," Bolton does not qualify. He came to Washington 31 years ago, as an intern for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew out of Yale Law School (where he was a protege of Alexander Bickel). He was hired by conservative Agnew aide David Keene, who became Bolton's friend and longtime ACU chairman.
Bolton set himself apart from other interns in a legendary episode when White House aide John Ehrlichman gave a farewell speech urging interns to work on the 1972 re-election campaign. Bolton raised his hand and asked: "How can I work for Nixon's election when I'm not even sure I'll vote for him?"
If being a neo-conservative means embracing a Wilsonian vision of bringing democracy to the world, Bolton is surely not one. He may be the last important foe of nation-building inside the administration and would like to get out of Iraq quickly.
What makes Bolton so unpopular with the Foreign Service is that he agrees with his diplomatic mentor, James A. Baker III, that the secretary of state ought to represent the president in the State Department rather than represent the State Department in the White House. His long government experience and excellent performance the past four years in dealing with nuclear proliferation from North Korea to Iran means nothing to the liberal establishment, which frets about his presence on the ACU dais.