The FP Memo: Damage Control

To regain control of American diplomacy, Condoleezza Rice must keep John Bolton in New York, place a mole in his office, and keep the vice president out of the loop.



To: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
From: Barbara Crossette
Re: How to Defuse the Bolton Bomb

There is no larger diplomatic stage than the United Nations, and right now an international audience is morbidly fascinated by the tactics of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. As was apparent during his bruising confirmation battle, Ambassador Bolton has a long history of deep skepticism toward international organizations, particularly this one, and a demonstrated aversion to commitments that could entangle the United States.

Many Americans share his sentiments, at least in part. Polls show that positive feelings toward the organization have cooled in the wake of recent U.N. scandals, most notably the oil-for-food imbroglio. Still, Americans also say they want the United Nations to have a major role in the world (nearly 70 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup poll), and they have an inherent sense that a host of problems — not least terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and pandemic diseases — must be dealt with collectively.

Bolton is not the rabid, out-of-control figure that his opponents frequently conjure up. Nor does he push the social agenda of the religious right. He is appreciated by his counterparts in New York as brilliant, knowledgeable, hardworking and, on occasion, wonderfully wry in his humor. When he was president of the Security Council in February, he insisted that council meetings start on time and that the council have a steady flow of reports from the field. But keen intelligence and sheer tenacity allow him to have an oversized impact, and perhaps make him a formidable challenge for you. At the United Nations, Bolton has often overwhelmed and angered delegates from other countries by raising dozens of last-minute amendments to long-negotiated agreements. It’s great lawyering, but poor diplomacy.

In a characteristically confrontational — some say prosecutorial — style, Bolton has effectively slowed the reforms that the State Department has demanded of the United Nations. He has thrown the organization into financial insecurity by trying to block passage of its budget. He has frustrated friends and allies, among them Canada, Europe, and Japan, leaving experienced diplomats asking whether he is running his own foreign policy. The United Nations, battered by more than a year of assault from isolationist voices in the U.S. Congress, has been weakened, not strengthened, during Bolton’s time on the job. The State Department needs to regain control.

Here are some steps you can take to make sure Bolton doesn’t short-circuit American diplomacy:

Keep Bolton Away from Washington: Bolton has always had close relations with the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, and he apparently uses his frequent trips to Washington to keep those ties strong. His contacts there and on the National Security Council allow him to play a policy role independent of your office. You need to crack down on these extracurricular activities. When he was appointed, you made clear that Bolton would be reporting to the State Department. It didn’t go unnoticed that you — and not President Bush — announced his nomination. It’s time to turn that symbolism into reality. Whenever possible, keep Bolton consumed with tasks in New York. Limit his testimony to congress and keep him out of National Security Council meetings when you can. His politicking should be in the Delegates’ Lounge — not in D.C.

Get a Mole in New York: As is his right, Bolton has replaced staffers at the mission in New York with loyalists and true believers. Recently, for example, he added to his team Richard "Terry" Miller as ambassador to the Economic and Social Council. Less than a year ago, Miller told an audience in Texas that the United Nations was unfit to deal with poverty and development, wedded as it was to "government-focused, socialist ideologies." Without forcing out Bolton’s people, you need to emphasize that the U.N. mission is State Department territory. Send a senior personal emissary to work with the mission and keep your staff informed about the myriad resolutions, amendments, and conversations at the United Nations. In a sense, you’d be using Bolton’s own tactics against him. When he was an under secretary of state, he apparently served as a conduit of information to Vice President Cheney and the National Security Council, often without your predecessor’s knowledge. It’s time for you to get some eyes and ears of your own in New York.

Deploy the President: In September, President Bush will address the annual opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. It’s a largely symbolic affair, with dozens of heads of state making long-winded speeches from the rostrum. Still, Bush’s words will be scrutinized, and they can have an immediate impact. Last year, Bolton upset months of international negotiations over sweeping U.N. reform pledges by raising hundreds of objections to a summit document. Remarkably, he even demanded that all references to the Millennium Development Goals be removed. The omission would have amounted to renouncing a plan that emerged from an earlier summit to reduce poverty, disease, social inequalities, and environmental degradation. You could hear the collective sigh of relief from U.N. diplomats when President Bush rose to address the world body and pledged support for the Millennium Development Goals by name.

Bush’s speech this year could serve a similar clarifying function on issues like the new Human Rights Council and U.N. reform. The president can cut through months of bureaucratic wrangling with a few choice words. Make sure he has the right message on the teleprompter.

Stop Bolton from Picking Fights: One of Bolton’s most serious drawbacks is his difficulty prioritizing goals. Although he chooses his issues carefully, he becomes enmeshed in protracted battles over details with foreign diplomats that are unnecessary or, at the very least, poorly timed. At the State Department, he fought ferociously to exempt all Americans from the International Criminal Court. In so doing, however, he angered countries — including NATO allies — whose support was desperately needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He did not seem to realize that compromise was necessary to serve American interests. At the United Nations, with 191 nations and foreign policies, compromise is inevitable. The trick is to know when to quit debating and cut a deal.

Take the case of UNESCO, the United Nations’ social and cultural arm. Fed up with its anti-American bias, the United States withdrew from the organization in 1984. After winning some important reforms, the United States returned to unesco in 2003. First lady Laura Bush was even dispatched to Paris to mark the American return to the fold. Yet by the fall of 2005, Bolton’s team was embroiled in a nasty fight over a draft Cultural Diversity Convention. Let’s be clear: The convention was clumsily written and contained provisions that were a transparent attempt to protect the French entertainment industry from competition. The way the United States (often represented by Terry Miller) went about opposing it, however, was disastrous. Almost all U.S. amendments were voted down unanimously; in retaliation, Bolton’s team voted against the agency’s budget. "Japan was particularly troubled and outspoken in opposition," reports former U.S. diplomat Ray Wanner. "It is difficult to understand how this vote served the national interest."

Bolton almost always has a solid rationale for the arguments he makes. But having U.S. representatives bravely charging up well-defended diplomatic hills only to be mowed down is not good strategy, particularly when it irritates critical allies. Your office needs to do a better job of making him choose his battles.

Create a Human Rights Envoy: The United States and its allies won a major victory this year by getting rid of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Almost everyone except rogue states and their backers agreed that the old commission was a disgrace. The new Human Rights Council was created with great difficulty, because democracy (unfortunately) prevails in the General Assembly, and a majority of third-world nations opposed change.

Now, Bolton is trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of diplomatic victory. The U.S. mission first launched a campaign to turn American editorial opinion against the council and then chose not to run for a seat. The United States, which largely inspired and created the world’s international human rights machinery, is now walking away from it. Meanwhile, U.S. allies such as Britain, Canada, France, Japan, and Poland have been elected to the new council, leaving the United States isolated. It’s time to pat Bolton on the back, thank him for his hard work, and support the council. It’s too late to run for a seat, but you can still appoint a high-level envoy who will monitor and support the council’s work.

Back up Kofi Annan: The secretary-general needs help and he needs it now. With his tenure nearing an end, he has been thwarted from achieving his — and your — most important goal this year, a serious shakeup of U.N. management. Developing nations, fearful of losing their majority control over administrative issues and accusing Annan of doing the work of rich nations, say they have lost confidence in him and have blocked his reforms. The United States needs to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse. Probably more important, you and President Bush must support Annan publicly. Invite him to Washington for a high-profile event, hold a joint news conference — whatever it takes to demonstrate that he has not been abandoned. Once you do, Bolton will have little choice but to tag along.

Make Bolton Fight for His Job: The ultimate weapon in your battle to box in Bolton is the power of reappointment. Bolton, of course, was never confirmed by the U.S. Senate. His appointment therefore ends in January, when the next congress arrives. The president will look to you for advice on whether to reappoint him. You should establish a set of metrics to gauge what Bolton has actually achieved diplomatically, not how many times he fights a losing battle brilliantly or how many agreements he sinks with his points of procedure. Tally up the results and be ready to tell the president if it’s time for a change.

Barbara Crossette was United Nations bureau chief for the New York Times from 1994 to 2001. She is now a consulting editor at the United Nations Association of the United States.

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