Trump May Come To Miss Bolton — As the UN Did
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The chorus of hosannas sure-to-come from Washington in reaction to John Bolton’s departure from the White House reminds me of the sighs of relief at Turtle Bay in December 2006. That’s when the mustachioed American decided to leave the United Nations and forgo an uphill Senate confirmation battle to extend his recess appointment as ambassador to the world body.
As now, the cheering then was misplaced. Just like Mr. Bolton’s approach to national security now, his handling of the United Nations in his 18 months here was based not on slogans and traditions but on recognition of stark realities. The UN, where diplomats and officials were aghast at the mere appearance of the disrupter in their midst, was better for Mr. Bolton’s presence.
In one of his first press conferences, shortly after arriving at Turtle Bay in August 2005, Mr. Bolton laid down the law: America will veto any one-sided Security Council resolution on Israel. Proposals for such resolutions frequently arose before his arrival and gave ulcers to American diplomats that were much less blunt and more, er, diplomatic than Mr. Bolton. After that, anti-Israel initiatives at the Council started to wane, at least during his tenure.
Mr. Bolton went out of his way to defend Israel. In the aftermath of its 2006 war against Hezbollah, diplomats debated a Security Council resolution that would end the hostilities and install a reinforced United Nations peacekeeping contingency in southern Lebanon. According to several Israeli sources, at one point Jerusalem was so eager to end the fighting that it agreed to a French-initiated resolution text.
However, Mr. Bolton, a lawyer by trade, recognized several paragraphs in that text that could well harm the Jewish state’s security. He alerted Jerusalem to the peril and halted all negotiations in New York. The resolution was then amended on his insistence, and only then was approved with America’s — and Israel’s — blessing.
Mr. Bolton was far from the first American ambassador defending Israel at the UN. Daniel Patrick Moynihan fought against the tag of Zionism as racism and Nikki Haley masterfully presented a compelling case on Israel’s behalf. Mr. Bolton, though, was not only a hawk fighting for the interests of America and its allies. He was also an adept fighter inside Turtle Bay’s bureaucracy .
Which brings me to Mr. Bolton’s most important, but rarely acknowledged, contribution to the UN — confronting the Oil for Food shenanigans. That mushroomed into a full-blown scandal (at times due to strategic press leaking from an American team here that under Mr. Bolton was the most press-friendly in memory.)
Most significant, Mr. Bolton’s team forced the UN to submit to an external probe into the Oil for Food program for Iraq. Led by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, it yielded several volumes documenting vast corruption. Afterwards, the late Secretary General, Kofi Annan, said the UN should never again agree to such programs.
The UN was then pushed to assemble a team looking into the heavily corrupt procurement department, followed by several indictments in United States federal court. Under pressure, Turtle Bay’s senior officials were also forced to fill out financial statements annually, to assure no conflicts of interest — a measure undertaken in any modern democracy, but one that was resisted at the UN.
Through all this, Mr. Bolton rarely used the word “reform,” which is cavalierly thrown around Turtle Bay every time something untoward happens. Pie-in-the-sky reform schemes perennially dominate UN talk — like enlarging the Security Council, and specifically its permanent seats, to make it more reflective of the world today than the way it was when the UN was established in the aftermath of World War II.
It will never fly. The permanent members need to approve it and, since it’s bound to usurp the five countries’ power, they never will. It also is not advisable. The 15-member council can barely arrive at significant decisions as is, so how will it do anything if it became, say, a 25-member council?
I once suggested to Mr. Bolton the idea of shrinking the council’s membership to make it seven seats for five rotating members, and two permanent ones: China and America. Good idea, Mr. Bolton said with a wily smile, adding that instead we should have only one permanent member with veto power.
I didn’t need to ask which one.
A true American patriot, Bolton never shied from a good UN food fight, as suggested by the title of his book on that era, “Surrender Is Not An Option.” Historians will forever debate whether his battles truly benefited America and its allies, although I have no doubt they did.
Few observes noticed how, by seeing the UN as it is rather than as it aspired to be, Mr. Bolton benefited the world body itself. It was forced to significantly change some of its bad old ways in the mid-2000s, and became a tad better. No doubt we will find out that President Trump’s White House similarly benefitted from his presence as well.
Image: “The Pirate of Turtle Bay,” Elliott Banfield’s famous cartoon for the Sun.