ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2004, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former secretary general of the United Nations and now chairman of an outfit called the Egyptian National Human Rights Council, sat for an interview with Mihwar television in Egypt. He spoke in Arabic and, according to a translation provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute, had this to say about the United States: "It's a totalitarian regime."
The world's former top diplomat also declared that "outside America, the American policy isn't democratic" and worried about "the American tyranny."
Is such thinking prevalent at the top levels of the U.N.? Perhaps not. But it is not exceptional either.
In February 1998, as the United States threatened to enforce various U.N. resolutions on Iraq, Secretary General Kofi Annan negotiated yet another "last chance" deal for Saddam Hussein. Annan said of the Iraqi dictator: "I think I can do business with him." As the investigations into U.N. Oil-for-Food corruption continue we may yet learn that Annan was speaking literally. The most generous interpretation of that scandal is that numerous high-level U.N. officials were not corrupt, merely incompetent. In 2004, after the United States removed Saddam Hussein, Annan declared the war "illegal." That his opinion came in the middle of a presidential election focused on that war may or may not have been accidental.
Today, Annan runs a body mired in scandal. U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo have been accused of serial rape. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, has just stepped down. An internal investigation accused him of a "pattern of sexual harassment" and of "intense, pervasive and intimidating attempts to influence the outcome of this investigation." Still, Annan allowed Lubbers to remain in his position, citing a lack of evidence against his friend. Only when the internal report was leaked did Annan insist that Lubbers submit his resignation.
And then, of course, there is the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which exists to encourage "the United Nations vision . . . of a world in which the human rights of all are fully respected and enjoyed in conditions of global peace." Among the nations currently on the commission making good on that pledge are such stalwart guardians of human rights as Cuba and Zimbabwe.
Things at the United Nations have gotten so bad recently that Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Bill Clinton, invited several former U.N. officials and the current secretary general to his Manhattan apartment for a three-and-a-half-hour discussion. Their goal was not modest. One participant told the New York Times the meeting was intended "to save Kofi and rescue the U.N."
Holbrooke did not mince words. "The U.N. cannot succeed if it is in open dispute and constant friction with its founding nation, its host nation, and its largest contributor nation. The U.N., without the U.S. behind it, is a failed institution."
Those are tough words. That they come from a former top adviser to U.N.-phile John Kerry underscores the gravity of the U.N.'s predicament.
Into this picture steps John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and now George W. Bush's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Bolton has been expressing Holbrooke-like sentiments--and more--for over a decade. ("I don't do carrots" he famously said, when asked about taking a carrot-and-stick approach to North Korea.) One might call him prescient. But many Democrats and newspaper editorials are lamenting his nomination. Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid called the nomination a "disappointing choice." A Los Angeles Times editorial called it a "severe setback" to Bush administration diplomacy. Kerry said the nomination was "inexplicable." Senate Democrats last week gave every indication that they intend to fight the nomination.
Democrats have been recycling Bolton quotes from his speeches and writings over the years in an attempt to portray him as a unilateralist hostile even to the existence of the world body. They have focused much of their attention on two comments he made during an appearance in 1994 at a conference on global security: "There is no such thing as the United Nations." And: "The [U.N.] Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
They will be less likely to highlight this passage, from Bolton's contribution to a 1997 Cato Institute book:
Some Americans simply want to withdraw from the United Nations, believing that it can never really be fixed. I understand the frustrations and disappointments that lead to that view, even though I disagree with it. We should tell the world community instead, "Let's make one last effort to put things right in the U.N. And make no mistake, our patience is not unlimited."
For its part, the Bush administration anticipated a battle. "He's going to be ready to answer pointed questions," says a senior State Depart-ment official. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Joe Biden, his Democratic counterpart, to give them a heads-up on the nomination. Bob Zoellick, Rice's deputy, called other members of the Senate panel.
Bolton was confirmed in his current post in May 2001 by a vote of 57 to 43. Democrats who voted for Bolton included Evan Bayh, John Breaux, Russ Feingold, Mary Landrieu, Joe Lieberman, Zell Miller, and Ben Nelson. The entire Senate Republican caucus supported Bolton.
This time, though, there are signs that a few Republicans--including three on the Foreign Relations Committee--have doubts about the nomination. Lincoln Chafee, the liberal Rhode Island Republican regarded by many as the most vulnerable senator running for reelection in 2006, has said he will not commit to supporting Bolton. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has also expressed some hesitation. And Lugar has privately expressed displeasure with the nomination but says he will "probably" support Bolton. Despite this, few observers on either side expect Democrats to derail the nomination.
Fighting for Bolton has a strong political upside for the Bush administration, particularly if Democrats position themselves as defenders of the U.N. against U.S. efforts to reform it. According to a Rasmussen poll released on February 17, only 37 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the U.N.
Thus, the White House has not run away from Bolton's criticisms of the U.N. Rice pointed out that "through our history some of our best ambassadors have been those with strong voices." A State Department source says to expect Bolton to emphasize his reform agenda during the hearings--noting that alongside promoting American interests in New York, U.N. reform will be one of his top priorities should he be confirmed.
When Joe Biden pushed U.N. reform in 2001, he did so with the help of another prominent U.N. critic--Senator Jesse Helms. After Helms held up U.S. payment of U.N. dues to ensure serious steps toward reform, Biden praised the tough-love diplomacy. "Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Helms could fix the U.N."
Except, despite his best efforts, Helms couldn't finish the job before he retired. Maybe John Bolton will.
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.