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Lightning Bolton

By Tom Bevan
light·ning ('lIt-ni[ng]) n.: An abrupt, discontinuous natural electric discharge in the atmosphere.

What a fitting description of Ambassador John Bolton's presence at the United Nations. Monday afternoon I was on a conference call with Ambassador Bolton along with Scott Johnson of Powerline, Jay Nordlinger of National Review and Pamela of Atlas Shrugs. The Ambassador gave us a brief update on the state of reform at the U.N. and then spent the better part of a half hour answering our questions. Scott and Pamela have both posted blow-by-blow reviews of the call, so instead of providing yet another rehash of what took place, let me offer a few general impressions instead.

The first thing that struck me as Bolton rattled off the different aspects of reform (or "buckets" as he called them) being pushed by his team is what a miserable, thankless job it must be trying to navigate and tolerate the massive, dysfunctional bureaucracy of the United Nations every day. I suspect its doubly tough for an aggressive, results-oriented type like Bolton to work in an environment where debate and delay is standard operating procedure, where fools and tyrants must be suffered, and where reform is considered anathema. In an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph in January, Bolton described the U.N. this way:

"This atmosphere is like a bubble. It is like a twilight zone. Things that happen here don't reflect the reality in the rest of the world. There are practices, attitudes and approaches here that were abandoned 30 years ago in much of the rest of the world. It's like a time warp."

Reforming the U.N. is vitally important work, but honestly, it seems like the kind of job even Sisyphus would turn down.

Beyond the issue of reform, it's hard to appreciate just how full Bolton's plate is. The world is his wheelhouse, and, quite frankly, the world is a mess. We spent a great deal of time on the conference call focusing on Iran - justifiably so. The drive to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear warhead is probably one of the most difficult - and potentially one of the most consequential - diplomatic efforts ever undertaken by the United States.

And while Iran occupies a great deal of Ambassador Bolton's attention, there is a multitude of very important, very difficult, and very complex issues on his plate: North Korea's belligerence, Iraq, the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine and genocide in Darfur, the Islamist takeover of Somalia, and on and on. The charge of the U.S. State Department has never been more critical than it is today, and along with Secretary Rice (and the departing Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and others), Ambassador Bolton has been doing yeoman's work in the service of the United States' interests.

My final impression after listening to Bolton is less of an observation than it is a confirmation: he's pretty much what you'd expect. In addition to being straightforward, one of the clearest signals you get from Bolton (and one of the reasons I think many Democrats in the United States Senate opposed his nomination) is that he isn't remotely shy or apologetic about promoting America's agenda and defending her interests. Responding to a question about a recent speech by UN Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown at the liberal Center for American Progress that was highly critical of the U.S. and dabbled in domestic partisan politics, Bolton dubbed Brown's remarks as "illegitimate" and blasted "this idea that some people in the U.N. Secretariat have that you can criticize the United States and get away wtih it. I believe the United States should not be a well-bred doormat," Bolton continued, "and I'm going to respond every time they do that."

It's hard to believe Bolton has only been on the job for less than a year. It seems like it's been longer than that to me, and I'd be willing to hazard a guess that given the daily slog at Turtle Bay it seems longer to the Ambassador as well. Because President Bush used a recess appointment with Bolton, the Ambassador's term will last through the arrival of a new Congress in January 2007 - unless the President decides to renominate him before then. Either way, Bolton says he's looking forward to continuing to push hard at the UN over the rest of this year, and you can rest assured that he's going to do exactly that.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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