Stygius: Will Negligence Reform the United Nations?


President Bush seems poised to appoint John Bolton UN Ambassador on Monday. Read Jeremy’s excellent post from last night. While Jeremy’s right that Senate opposition to Bolton has lost its momentum (excepting Biden’s superb last minute squeeze of the State Department), Dodd makes exactly the right point in calling Bolton “damaged goods. This is a person who lacks credibility.” Indeed.
Although there is much talk about “thwarting” Democrats in the media, the real issue is what ought to be the first question on the president’s mind before he makes this appointment: Will John Bolton be effective, and able to accomplish my priorities at the United Nations?
We’ve learned over the past few months that faith in Bolton’s “effectiveness” requires an almost surreal suspension of disbelief. Why does Bolton lack the credibility to continue in public service? His appalling record as the undersecretary in charge of proliferation controls is what has energized my opposition to Bolton. In a world where the nuclear threat to an American city has actually grown since the end of the Cold War, Bolton’s assault-through-negligence on agreements like Nunn-Lugar has been breathtakingly myopic. But let’s review an inexhaustive list of reasons why Bolton’s nomination deserves to die with indignity:

Look, this isn’t even an exhaustive list, just what I slapped together in a few minutes. The bullying of intelligence officials exist within this context, not in a vacuum. Any one of these reasons ought to be sufficient to kill this nomination. Put them all together and we see we’ve got a real problem on our hands.
Can John Bolton possibly be an effective ambassador? I foresee he won’t last six months, personally. But when the United Nations is on the brink of serious reform, and there are so many co-existing security demands facing the US, having a loose screw at the UN is the wrong move. While we applaud Secretary Rice for anticipating Bolton’s blundering about and ostracizing him from the reform process, why go to such lengths when at a crucial time we need the grownups firmly in charge?

Based on my research of his non-proliferation record, Bolton’s actual “effectiveness” is restricted to a narrow range of a few bureaucratic tricks; deliberate negligence, is what I call it. His typical style is not to create and push innovative policy solutions that solve problems, come hell or high water; instead, his gifts are limited to obstruction, obfuscation, policy sabotage, and deliberate paralysis. These skills won’t do much good when proactive reform is required.
Undermining from within can be a useful and effective tactic at certain times, but it is not by itself a strategy for change — something Bolton appears unable to grasp. What Bolton does — and it appears it is all he can do — is create the conditions where policies he dislikes erode of their own accord. This creates plausible deniability when strangling, say, a Nunn-Lugar program, Chemical Weapons Convention, Non-Proliferation Treaty, or Biological Weapons Conventions, etc. Deliberate mismanagement probably has a certain cynical appeal to it, but a little bit of cleverness is quite difference from the wisdom required to lead.
Such tactics, in fact, are woefully insufficient in a dynamic, highly public environment like the United Nations. Reform requires imagination and innovation, and Bolton just doesn’t appear equipped with them. His particular talents require darkness, and inattention from superiors. Unfortunately, Bolton’s learning skills appear somewhat limited, so it’s not clear whether he’s learned anything from the experience of the past few months, or if he will learn anything up at Turtle Bay (or lurking around Foggy Bottom, if you will). This is a disaster at just the moment a president needs an actual effective hand representing him. Not just a lack of credibility — in fact, his incredible claims to the SFRC have destroyed any of that — but his blatant lack of ability will altogether serve to thwart UN reform, especially when fellow diplomats and even his own staff begin to wait out Bolton’s tenure.