There he was again, John Bolton, President Bush's pick for U.N. ambassador, sitting in his witness chair, grimacing through his walrus mustache as members of the Senate foreign relations committee grilled him on his qualifications and character.
Bolton, of course, has been U.N. ambassador since August, but the Senate had never confirmed him. Last summer, the committee sent his nomination to the floor without recommendation. (Republicans on the panel outrank Democrats 10-8, but, in a big surprise, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, came out against him, spawning a 9-9 tie.) On the Senate floor, Democrats pulled a filibuster. Republicans could not rally the 60 votes needed for cloture. So, Bolton seemed doomed—until, during the July 4 holidays, Bush shoved him into office with a "recess appointment."
The catch about this constitutional loophole is that the candidate has to come up for another vote within 18 months. Last week, Voinovich wrote, in a Washington Post op-ed piece, that he's been satisfied with Bolton's performance on the job and that he'll vote to confirm him this time around. Taking advantage of the turn, the chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar, called for another hearing, which took place this morning, followed by another vote sometime soon.
Not only does Bolton look the same as he did before, he thinks the same way, too. At one point, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a strong Bolton (and Bush) supporter, asked if he'd changed any of his views about the United Nations after having worked there for 10 months. "Not really," Bolton icily replied. Even Coleman seemed stunned.
Over the years, Bolton has said many things that blatantly disqualify him for the position, but my favorite is this line from 1999:
It's a big mistake for us to grant any validation to international law, even when it may seem in our short-term interests to do so—because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrain the United States.
The most basic mission of the United Nations is to enforce international law. It's therefore absurd on the face of it to appoint, as U.N. ambassador, someone so hostile to the concept of international law.
Almost none of the Republicans actively defended Bolton at today's hearing. Instead, they defended the president's right to appoint his ambassadors; they asserted the importance of "continuity," of not changing ambassadors at this crucial time. Everyone seemed aware that the hearing was a charade. Even some of Bolton's Democratic critics, such as Barbara Boxer and Barack Obama, used much of their time urging Bolton to place more emphasis on specific issues—as if there were no doubt that he would stay at his job for some time to come.
Another Voinovich—that is, a surprise Republican dissenter—could materialize. Some pin their hopes on Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who faces a tough re-election this fall. Chafee clearly had mixed feelings last time around, though he caved and voted aye in the end. Still, it's doubtful Lugar would have scheduled the hearing now—six months sooner than he had to—unless he'd made sure of the outcome.
It was Chafee who asked today's most pressing questions, and they concerned the most pressing issue—the expanding war between Israel and Hezbollah. Noting the Bush administration's position that a cease-fire shouldn't be imposed without a "sustained" peace that addresses the conflict's "root causes," Chafee asked Bolton just what were those root causes.