The focus temporarily is on Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a frequently unfathomable maverick Republican, as the days dwindle down for this Congress to permit John Bolton to continue as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But Bolton's two-year struggle to get confirmed can be directly traced to a determined Democratic senator and the vengeful UN secretariat.
Senate Republican Whip Mitch McConnell sat down Tuesday for a heart-to-heart talk with Chafee, pleading with him to permit Bolton's nomination to reach the Senate floor. The reason Chafee is in this pivotal position can be attributed to Sen. Christopher Dodd's fierce open opposition to Bolton, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's stealthy sabotage, executed by his deputy, Mark Malloch Brown.
Bolton's ordeal provides a cautionary tale for any foreign policy conservative who wants to serve his country in Washington. Nobody can deny Bolton's intelligence and vigor in a lifetime devoted to public service. Nor can anybody deny that Bolton has been faithful to the program of any president he served even when official policy conflicted with his own views. But those views have caused him no end of trouble.
Indeed, some of Bolton's colleagues in the State Department (where he was an under secretary in George W. Bush's first term) were backstabbing when the president named him UN envoy. Bolton's overriding defect was his anti-Castro views, which collided with Dodd's goal of "normalizing" relations with Communist Cuba. Dodd was able to mobilize Democratic colleagues in a deadlock -- creating demand for executive branch documents involving Bolton.
Republican Sen. George Voinovich did not like Bolton's blunt answers to his Democratic antagonists in last year's Foreign Relations Committee hearings. He unexpectedly voted against Bolton but permitted the nomination to reach the floor without recommendation. That did not help find the 60-vote supermajority to cut off a Dodd-managed filibuster.
Bolton's vigorous UN performance under a recess appointment made Aug. 1, 2005, when the Senate was not in session, convinced the fair-minded Voinovich to change his position. But Sen. Chuck Hagel, second ranking Republican on Foreign Relations and a thoughtful critic of Bush administration foreign policy, indicated he might drop his support and vote no when Bolton again came up for confirmation. In a conversation with Hagel after Labor Day, Bolton won a yes vote.
So, Bolton was set for a favorable committee roll call on Sept. 7, when it became clear that the White House had misread Chafee in believing it had his vote for Bolton. The president's political team had gone all out for Chafee, who was fighting for his political life in the Sept. 12 Rhode Island Republican primary. Nevertheless, Chafee informed Chairman Richard Lugar he could not support Bolton, and Lugar cancelled the committee meeting.
Chafee's avowed complaint, laid out in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had nothing to do with Bolton's performance at the UN. Chafee complained that U.S. Middle East policy under Bush tilted too much toward Israel, and demanded an answer before he would discuss Bolton's nomination.
Although the Bush administration generally answers letters from Capitol Hill with glacial speed, Rice immediately responded to Chafee. The senator, however, was in no hurry to get back to Washington from Rhode Island after his renomination. Thus, McConnell waited a week before pressing Chafee Tuesday to support Bolton (as he did last year) or at least permit the nomination to go to the Senate floor. The outcome of the meeting was not divulged.
Dodd still lies in wait, hoping to filibuster Bolton again, but he does not appear to have the votes this time. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, now backs Bolton, and the usually partisan Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer has indicated he will change his vote from last year and vote for cloture to end debate.
Bolton's confirmation for another two years at the UN would be bad news for the secretariat. According to UN sources, Malloch Brown has been stirring up anti-Bolton sentiment with his fellow ambassadors, who in turn have contacted senators. Bolton has demanded reform at the UN, and that has not made him popular with the world organization's bureaucrats. They would like nothing better than to give this conservative diplomat his comeuppance.