The Arsonist: In His First Six Months at the UN, John Bolton Has Offended Allies, Blocked Crucial Negotiations, Undermined the Secretary of State-And Harmed U.S. Interests. We Expected Bad; We Didn't Expect This Bad

By Goldberg, Mark Leon | The American Prospect, January 2006 | Go to article overview

The Arsonist: In His First Six Months at the UN, John Bolton Has Offended Allies, Blocked Crucial Negotiations, Undermined the Secretary of State-And Harmed U.S. Interests. We Expected Bad; We Didn't Expect This Bad


Goldberg, Mark Leon, The American Prospect


THERE IS AN EXCELLENT COFFEE SHOP IN THE basement of the United Nations building in New York. The espresso is served bitter and strong, Italian style. Sandwiches can be bought on hard French baguettes, and the pastries are always fresh. Whenever a meeting lets out in one of the conference rooms adjacent to the shop, diplomats make a beeline to the cash registers. Others light cigarettes: Though the United Nations is in Manhattan, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-smoking crusade has not yet penetrated the complex, which sits on international land; so, beneath conspicuous no-smoking signs, diplomats routinely light up, creating a hazy plume that gives the Vienna Cafe a decidedly European feel.

The European way of doing things, in the weeks preceding the mid-September 2005 United Nations World Summit, could not be stretched to include the 35-hour workweek. For days, frantic negotiations on the substance of far-ranging UN reforms dragged on from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. But the one UN ambassador who generally arrived earliest and stayed latest always looked more upbeat than his bleary-eyed counterparts. "All night--all right!" quipped John Bolton to a press stakeout.

There was a reason for Bolton's cheer: He was the man most responsible for the complexity of these negotiations. A month earlier, the newly minted, recess-appointed U.S. ambassador had sent negotiations into a tailspin when he submitted some 750 alterations to a 39-page text known as the "summit outcomes" document. Bolton's most eye-popping suggestion at this summit, billed as a renewal of the UN's 5-year-old pledge to help poor countries, was that all 14 references in the document to the antipoverty Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) be deleted.

The MDGs grew out of a global agreement on poverty eradication known as the Millennium Declaration, which was signed at a UN summit in September 2000. The "goals" that Bolton tried to nix include, among other things, reducing by half the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day--right now, 1.3 billion--by 2015. While the United States had never signed the agreement, the goals were never a target of Bush administration animus before Bolton came aboard.

Bolton's stance on the MDGs caused an uproar. In addition to the G-77 bloc of developing nations that had the most to lose from the elimination of MDGs, the British, who had recently played host to a G8 summit focusing on African poverty, were particularly livid. Even the United States itself seemed to back away. In a meeting with representatives of nongovernmental organizations shortly after Bolton's edits were leaked to The Washington Post for an August 25 story, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns refused to confirm or deny that, per Bolton, the United States was dropping its support of the MDGs. To those in the room, wise to the oblique lingua franca of the diplomatic world, Burns' pullback hinted that Bolton had forged his own policy on the MDGs--ahead of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The Prospect has learned that, in the end, it took Rice's personal intervention to set things right. On September 5 she participated in a conference call with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw on the subject of UN reform. The next day, Bolton sent a letter to his UN counterparts relenting on the issue. Finally, to put all lingering questions about U.S. support of the MDGs to rest, President Bush himself stated America's firm commitment to them in his September 14 speech to the UN General Assembly.

When Bolton was nominated in March 2005, the Bush administration seemed invincible at home and abroad. Having won an election based on his handling of a war to which the UN had refused to grant its imprimatur, Bush started his second term with a self-proclaimed mandate to impose his aggressive doctrine to the far reaches of the globe. Flying high, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney sent Bolton, a combative State Department official and longtime Cheney confidant, to do to the UN what their two previous ambassadors to Turtle Bay could not: make the world body a wholly owned subsidiary of Bush foreign policy. …

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