It was a warm weekend day in mid-July when, Republican senator George Voinovich of Ohio says, "it came to me." He was back in Cleveland, his hometown, taking a walk with his wife Janet in the neighborhood where they'd lived for 40 years. "You know," he said, "I've been thinking about John Bolton." He said this out of the blue since they hadn't been discussing Bolton, the American ambassador to the United Nations. "I've watched his performance. I think he's doing a good job in a tough place." War had just broken out between Israel and Hezbollah, he noted--all the more reason to have a U.N. ambassador stay in his post for the "long haul." And it was important to have someone with an institutional memory. "John knows where the bodies are buried. He knows the commitments people have made."
This was an important moment, maybe not historic but surely unusual. Voinovich had been the catalyst for the defeat of Bolton's nomination to the U.N. post in 2005. Without his unflinching opposition, Bolton most likely would have been confirmed. As it was, President Bush had been forced to give Bolton a recess appointment (it runs out next January). Voinovich had had no political reason for opposing Bolton, no need for a political boost. He'd been a popular mayor of Cleveland for 10 years and Ohio governor for 8 more. Now, at 70, he's as safe in his Senate seat as any Republican in Congress. True, he had been lionized by the press as a man of impressive independence and courage for his role in blocking Bolton. But that just made it harder for him to do what he was doing as he walked with his wife: change his mind. For certain, he would win little media approval by now backing Bolton's confirmation.
Voinovich asked his wife what she thought, as he often does. She, too, believed Bolton had not been the bull in a china shop at the U.N. that his foes had predicted. Nor had he been a freelancer, promoting his own foreign policy ideas rather than the Bush administration's. Voinovich then called Jeannie Siskovic, his foreign policy staffer back in Washington. "You know, I feel exactly the same way," she told Voinovich. A few days later, an article by Voinovich appeared on the op-ed page of the Washington Post under the headline "Why I'll Vote for Bolton." His fears about Bolton had not been realized. "My observations are that while Bolton is not perfect, he has demonstrated his ability, especially in recent months, to work with others and follow the president's lead by working multilaterally," the senator wrote. Voinovich had told few in Washington of his change of heart. So the piece was a major surprise--to Karl Rove, the White House political chief, for example. Rove had talked to Voinovich repeatedly about Bolton and believed he'd made no progress toward changing the senator's mind. He learned of Voinovich's new take on Bolton when he read his morning paper.
Voinovich's switch had the same impact as his original opposition, only in reverse. It made the renomination of Bolton viable. By itself, it meant that confirmation was now likely, though not certain given the level of Democratic opposition and the vagaries of Senate politics. Bolton has near-unanimous support among Republicans. One undecided senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, called Bolton last week, chatted for 20 minutes, and promised his vote.
Over the past year, Bolton has won the strong backing of Jewish and pro-Israel groups, or, to be precise, stronger backing. They give Bolton credit--well-deserved credit--for engineering the 1991 repeal of the U.N. resolution declaring Zionism to be racism. He was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs at the time. Last month, I went with Bolton when he spoke to a gathering at the New York office of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It was a lovefest. One participant told me he wished Bolton could be prime minister of Israel. He didn't appear to be joking. The pro-Israel groups have pressed Democratic senators in particular not to block Bolton's confirmation. They expect Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, one of Bolton's harshest critics, to vote no on Bolton but to decline to join the filibuster that Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut is eager to organize.
Neither the pro-Israel groups nor anyone else appears to have any clout with Republican senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who's a bit of an oddball. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was ready to approve Bolton's nomination last week along party lines. At the last minute, Chafee decided to vote no, which would have created a tie and kept the nomination from going to the Senate floor. As a result, the committee's vote was postponed. Chafee's problem is not with Bolton. He voted to confirm him last year. Rather, his complaint, expressed in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is that the administration's Middle East policy is too pro-Israel. He wants the United States to force Israel to stop the expansion of settlements on the West Bank. With Chafee's bizarre (but perhaps temporary) defection, Bolton's nomination is again in trouble.
It shouldn't be. And you only have to listen to Voinovich to know why. He's the honest broker in the Bolton fight. Democratic opposition is partisan and knee jerk--except in Dodd's case. With Dodd, it's personal and ideological. For nearly two decades, he's loathed Bolton's conservative influence on policy toward Latin America and Cuba. On the other hand, Republican senators are naturally inclined to support a Bush nominee.
Voinovich is different. He has a deep interest in U.N. reform and public diplomacy. Before announcing his opposition to Bolton in May 2005, he interviewed Bolton twice and "dozens" of people who had worked with him. Voinovich was worried about Bolton's reputation as a political brawler and diplomatic klutz. His confirmation, Voinovich said, "will tell the world that we're not dedicated to repairing our relationships or working as a team, but that we believe only someone with sharp elbows can deal properly with the international community." And instead of promoting reform, which Bolton has long advocated, Voinovich said he was concerned Bolton "would make it more difficult for us to achieve the badly needed reforms to this outdated institution." Belying any political motive, Voinovich turned down requests for TV or print interviews on Bolton.
The White House made no attempt to punish Voinovich, who has admired Bush since their years as governors. When Bush hosted senators for a lunch at the White House a few days after the Bolton nomination was defeated, the president went out of his way to grab Voinovich around the shoulders and hug him. "I was genuinely touched," the senator told me. "I think he knew I don't take cheap shots. This is not a thing about George Voinovich trying to promote George Voinovich."
Nor is his recantation. He had no fences to mend with Bush. And never has a politician worked so hard to prove himself wrong. "So often in life, when you do what I did, you hope the guy turns out to be what I said he was," Voinovich says. But after a trip to the U.N. in February, dozens of talks and meetings with Bolton since his recess appointment as ambassador in August 2005, interviews of all Bolton's top aides, conversations with 27 ambassadors from other countries and U.N. officials, and chats with senators and Bush advisers--after all that, Voinovich concluded Bolton belongs at the U.N. Bolton, it turned out, didn't deserve his unflattering caricature.
Watching Bolton perform ably when his term came up as president of the U.N. Security Council in February was critical. "Seeing is believing," says Republican senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Coleman and Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined Voinovich on the trip to the U.N. Bolton insisted council members show up on time for sessions. "That offended some people at the U.N.," Coleman says. "But it sounds like George Bush to me." It didn't bother Voinovich. Nor did the criticisms of Bolton he heard. The ambassadors he consulted overwhelmingly spoke favorably of Bolton.
Voinovich sought to evaluate Bolton on three points. Is he careful not to alienate other ambassadors? Does he faithfully reflect administration policy? Is he effective? On all three, the answer was yes. What Voinovich calls his "interpersonal skills" were especially significant. Warren Hoge of the New York Times had reported in July that "more than 30" ambassadors friendly to the United States "expressed misgivings over Mr. Bolton's leadership." Hoge had written that Bolton once "burst" into a meeting on U.N. reform and lectured Third World ambassadors. Bolton tells a different story. He says he waited in the back of the room until his time came to speak. He called for a serious discussion of limiting the mandates (or assigned tasks) of the U.N. "It wasn't part of the staid, diplomatic way things are supposed to go," Bolton says. And it didn't work. Mandate reform was voted down by a lopsided margin in the General Assembly. Voinovich says he was "concerned" by the Times article. But his own investigation led him to believe that, at worst, this episode was an exception to Bolton's otherwise respectful behavior.
"Let's face it," Voinovich says, "I think John has really exercised some self-discipline. He's reserved himself. He's pulled back. He's been extremely diplomatic when we haven't been successful on something." And despite disagreements with Rice on Lebanon and with Undersecretary of State Nick Burns on Iran, he sought to shape U.N. resolutions to their specifications, not his. "He has really tried to be a team player," Voinovich says. "There are some people who don't like what he says. But he's reflecting administration policy."
Bolton's effectiveness is harder to judge. His campaign for reform has made little headway. But his explanation that the U.N. simply lacks a majority in favor of reform is entirely accurate. Even the mild reforms proposed by U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan are rejected. Bolton's effort to kill a new U.N. Human Rights Council stacked with rights-violating countries (Cuba, China, Algeria, Pakistan) came to naught. He managed, however, to discredit the council, which has cited only one country by name for violating human rights--Israel. And Bolton tried but failed to get detailed language about what the Iranians are required to do in the Iran resolution, nor could he talk other Security Council members into labeling Iran "a threat to international peace and security."
That is the nature of multilateral negotiations, Voinovich suggested. He was impressed that Bolton collaborated amicably on resolutions on North Korea, Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan. "Nobody ever thought we'd get anything on North Korea," he says. "The way he handled it, with Japan coming up with the tough resolution," was masterful. Bolton also "finagled" the Lebanon cease-fire resolution "to the point the Israelis could live with it," according to Voinovich.
Democrats have stuck to their initial assessment of Bolton as a right-wing cowboy. They were aghast when he was nominated. He was handpicked by Rice. When they met after she was named secretary of state, Bolton said he wanted a new position--he'd been assistant secretary for arms control and nonproliferation in Bush's first term--preferably deputy secretary. Otherwise, he was ready to leave government. Rice understood. After four years as Bush's national security adviser, she had wanted to move up. Rice contacted Bolton a few days later with the offer of U.N. ambassador. He accepted immediately. "He's doing a terrific job," Rice told me last week. "We need him. He's tough but I want someone who's tough when we're negotiating."
When Bolton was summoned to a foreign relations committee hearing on July 27, Dodd seemed to think he had caught Bolton red-handed in a lie. At an earlier hearing, Bolton had denied seeking the ouster of an intelligence officer whose viewpoint he didn't like. "The committee subsequently found documentary evidence to the contrary," Dodd said. Bolton's staff had drafted letters to the CIA seeking the officer's "removal." In reply, Bolton said the letters "were never sent" because he didn't want the officer removed. "I did not want them sent and they were not sent," he told Dodd. "All right, thanks," Dodd said, then changed the subject.
Another Democratic tack is to press Bolton on whether he's changed his unenthusiastic view of the U.N. now that he's ambassador. His answer is he's found "very little" that he didn't expect. Bolton is an admirer of former ambassadors Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick. "You've got to be willing to represent American interests and not be apologetic about it," he says. "Every other ambassador does that. The best U.S. ambassadors--Moynihan and Kirkpatrick--did exactly that." Bolton believes the U.N. can be "useful" at times, and "you have to use [it] when it's appropriate." But he's skeptical about "running your entire foreign policy through it. . . . It's a place where American interests can be advanced, but it's certainly a place where you have to defend against encroachments on American interests."
Even the polite new Bolton doesn't mind skirmishing with Democrats. At the July 27 hearing, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin asked if he thinks "the United States should pay its obligations to the U.N.?" Bolton responded that it's "unequivocally the position of the administration to pay our assessed contributions." Feingold repeated the question. "As I said about 30 seconds ago, yes, I do," Bolton snapped.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts showed up late for the hearing and, perhaps to his regret, got into an argument with Bolton. Kerry asked why the administration didn't get into one-on-one talks with the North Koreans rather than limit itself to six-party negotiations. "Why not engage in a bilateral one and get the job [of curbing North Korea's nuclear program] done?" Kerry said. "That's what the Clinton administration did." Bolton's answer: "Very poorly, since the North Koreans violated the agreed framework almost from the time it was signed. And I would say, Senator, that we do have the opportunity for bilateral negotiations with North Korea in the context of the six-party talks, if North Korea would come back to them."
Since the U.N. was created in 1945, the United States has had 29 ambassadors. How does Bolton compare? Joshua Muravchik, the author of The Future of the United Nations, says Bolton should ruffle feathers at the U.N. and say "things that need to be said," as Moynihan and Kirkpatrick did. Then he'll rise to the top as a U.N. ambassador. The Heritage Foundation's expert on the U.N., Nile Gardiner, says Bolton is similar to Kirkpatrick. He's "dedicated to advancing the U.S. national interest" and "is respected as a force to be reckoned with inside the U.N. world." Besides, Bolton "is a household name now. How many U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. could say that?" Few. There's another measure of Bolton's success, the rigorous but fair Voinovich test. That one Bolton has passed. And if he's good enough for Voinovich, he should be good enough for the Senate and the U.N.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.