fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues, author of Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power.
John Bolton resigned as ambassador to the United Nations on Monday, ending a controversial 16-month term. In August 2005, Bolton was a given temporary recess appointment after he failed to be confirmed by the Senate. Last month, President Bush renominated Bolton, but a number of Democratic and Republican senators announced they would not back his confirmation. We speak with U.N. expert Phyllis Bennis. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: United Nations Ambassador John Bolton announced Monday he would step down from his post when his temporary appointment expires in January. Bolton is an outspoken critic of the United Nations. He was appointed by President Bush last August when Congress was in recess. This was done after Senate Democrats had blocked a floor vote on his nomination. The recess appointment allowed Bolton to bypass Senate confirmation and hold the U.N. job until a new congressional term began. In November, Bush nominated Bolton again and planned to push for confirmation before his term expired. But as both Democrat and Republican senators announced they would not support him, it became clear Bolton’s chances for confirmation were slim. Bush accepted Bolton’s resignation yesterday in the Oval Office.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I received the resignation of Ambassador John Bolton. I accept it. I’m not happy about it. I think he deserved to be confirmed. And the reason why I think he deserved to be confirmed is because I know he did a fabulous job for the country. And I want to thank you and Gretchen for serving in a very important position and doing so in a way that a lot of Americans really appreciate, John. We’re going to miss you in this administration. You’ve been a stalwart defender of freedom and peace. You’ve been strong in your advocacy for human rights and human dignity. You’ve done everything that can be expected for an ambassador. And I accept your letter, and I wish you and Gretchen all the very best.
AMY GOODMAN: John Bolton was a controversial choice for U.N. ambassador. Sixty-four former American ambassadors recently signed a letter opposing him. Many felt his hard-line conservative ideology and his confrontational approach was at odds with the U.N.’s multilateral goals. This is John Bolton speaking at a conference in New York in 1994, widely cited as evidence of his incompatibility with the U.N. job.
JOHN BOLTON: If you think that there is any possibility in this country that a 51,000-person bureaucracy is going to be supported by most Americans, you better think again. The Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. The United Nations is one of the most inefficient intergovernmental organizations going. UNESCO is even worse. And others go downhill from there. The fact of the matter is that the international system that has grown up, and again, I leave out the World Bank and the IMF because I do think that they’re in a separate category, has been put into a position of hiring ineffective people who do ineffective things that have no real world impact, and we pay 25 percent of the budget.
AMY GOODMAN: John Bolton, speaking in 1994. Phyllis Bennis was there at that event and joins us now from Washington, D.C., a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues, author of Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good morning, Amy. Good to be with you.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by the resignation?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I was pleased by the resignation. I think it was probably inevitable after the elections, where the overall Bush policy was repudiated so powerfully in those elections. John Bolton—President Bush said something just now that was quite right: John Bolton was a good representative of the Bush administration policy. He made a decision—Bush made a decision to send a bully to carry out a policy of bullying the United Nations, and Bolton did a very good job of that. The real question now is, the bully is gone, is there a chance that the policy that gave rise to such bullying, is that going to change, as well? That’s what we don’t know yet.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the people who are possibly going to succeed him?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, the most—the top of the list that we’re seeing right now is someone like the Zalmay Khalilzad, who’s currently the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, also known as a conservative hard-liner, a very aggressive style of diplomacy, not seen as abrupt and dismissive and aggressive in the form of John Bolton. Perhaps a, quote, "better" diplomat in that sense, but certainly reflecting the same bullying politics.
The only one on the list that I have seen that is slightly different that reflects the more realistic positions within the administration is Nick Burns, who has a long history both in the Clinton administration and throughout the Bush administration. He is one of Condoleezza Rice’s top deputies. And his style is much more traditional diplomacy, very glad-handing, very friendly. He would presumably make it more difficult at the United Nations for other countries to mobilize strong opposition.
This morning’s New York Times quotes the current ambassador to Tanzania at the United Nations, who is on the Security Council this year with John Bolton, who said that Bolton had deepened the divisions between the developing world and the great powers and said that he would be remembered as the person who could have done it differently in order to minimize the negative perceptions of the positions of the United States.
Of course, the issue becomes now, if the Bush administration decides to send a, quote, "good" diplomat, somebody who will be friendly at the U.N., who will be more collaborative in the Security Council, respectful in the General Assembly, it will make it more difficult for government representatives there to mobilize as powerfully as they did against John Bolton.
But the real question is, what policy will that new ambassador reflect? And so far we’ve seen absolutely no indication from President Bush or anyone else in his administration that there is any intention of taking the United Nations more seriously, respecting the independence of the institution rather than treating it with the same disdain that we just heard from John Bolton. In that same year, in the debate in Washington, where he was debating with me and the late Erskine Childers, he actually said, "There is no United Nations. There is a group of countries that do something once in a while when the United States tells them to." That was always John Bolton’s view of the United Nations. I think that is George Bush’s view of the United Nations. And the real question is, is that still their view?
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, I’m looking at a piece by Justin Rood, who says, "The Man with the Iron Mustache is leaving the international arena—but not before attempting a thoroughly embarrassing and wholly unsympathetic maneuver. Less than two weeks before the White House announced his resignation, Ambassador John Bolton’s U.N. mission blocked an effort to celebrate the end of slavery in our hemisphere."
PHYLLIS BENNIS: This is only one of a number of incidents like this, where it was not even a matter of U.S. policy—whether this was even dictated by the White House or the State Department, we don’t even know, or whether this was just John Bolton on his own, the rogue ambassador representing the large rogue state, saying, "This isn’t relevant to me. I’m not going to let anyone else do it," and without any concept of what that means for how Americans, as well as U.S. policy, is viewed around the world.
The opposition to John Bolton at the United Nations is really hard to overstate. It was enough that the staff of the U.N. was given orders yesterday, when the announcement came about his resignation, that no one was to comment, that the only answer, if anyone on the staff was asked their opinion, their only answer was to be "no comment."
AMY GOODMAN: Then, Ian Williams writes in The Nation, "From the White House point of view, Bolton’s appointment appeased the know-nothing foreign policy crowd while rewarding his longstanding loyalty to the Bush dynasty. That loyalty had been shown most memorably in 2000, when the man who has spent the past year preaching democracy to the members of the United Nations strode into a library polling place in Florida yelling, ’I’m with the Bush-Cheney team, and I’m here to stop the count.’"
PHYLLIS BENNIS: That’s, again, a very good example of what John Bolton represented. He had no sense of any other feature than power as the basis of what he did as a diplomat, what he did in representing the Bush administration. This was a man, when he was the under secretary of state for disarmament affairs under Colin Powell, he was there at the moment that the Israeli military used a set of U.S. weapons to assassinate a Hamas leader in Gaza. This was in 2002, when 15 people, civilians, in the same apartment building inevitably, because it was a strike, a rocket strike, at 3:00 in the morning—nine of them were children—were killed in that rocket strike.
And State Department officials prepared a memo for Colin Powell saying that this might be a violation of U.S. law, not international law, but the Arms Export Control Act that prohibits the use of U.S.-provided weapons in that way. Bolton saw that memo, said, "Ah, this is rubbish," and ordered his staff to write a memo saying, "No harm, no foul. There was no problem." The two memos were supposed to be sent together to Colin Powell, but it was reported in U.S. News & World Report at the time that John Bolton got a hold of the earlier memo, pulled it, so to make sure that his own boss was denied access to the material that had been prepared by his own staff, because Bolton didn’t happen to like it.
So it’s that kind of arrogance and that kind of certitude about his own view of unilateralism, militarism, the sacred support of the United States for Israel. All of these things were very much at the center of why he was appointed to work at the United Nations and why George Bush lets him go now with such reluctance.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, I want to thank you for being with us, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her book, Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power.