Cover Story
Stuart Ramson for WORLD

No playing at recess

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton takes his UN tenure by storm and by smile

Issue: "Who's laughing now?," April 8, 2006

To keep up with John Bolton, bring a tape recorder along-no, bring two. And a pencil for inserting periods at the end of his sentences, because when John Bolton speaks he grants no pause, barely a breath between utterances that range from Sudan to Japan to Iran to North Korea to China and back again.

Inside the battened-down U.S. mission to the UN, past the metal detectors and the one-way glass and the camera-ready UN security cordon and the personal security detail, is a whirr of activity with the controversial U.S. ambassador to the UN at its center.

The hum is particularly notable given that, when last seen, our protagonist was being hoisted off a marble floor on Capitol Hill, bruised and bloodied from a nasty Senate confirmation fight whose five months seemed like longer than forever (all figuratively speaking, of course; this is a democracy). In it the 57-year-old foreign policy expert, having held posts under four presidents, suddenly found himself accused of everything from throwing tape dispensers and shoes at subordinates to causing the shutdown of the largest military base in South Dakota (and that, from a Republican).

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Nabbed at the nape of his neck by the only one who could at that point save him-namely, President Bush-Mr. Bolton was effectively tossed with his beat-up reputation across a threshold in midtown Manhattan via an executive privilege known as the recess appointment. "This post is too important to leave vacant any longer, especially during a war and a vital debate about UN reform," Mr. Bush told reporters at an installation ceremony last August where he bypassed Senate approval. "I'm sending Ambassador Bolton to New York with my complete confidence."

And with that unusual move, the designee found himself transported from fire to frying pan, from Capitol Hill foes and K Street one-worlders to enemy UN missions and that enemy within, State Department personnel at the U.S. mission in New York who not-so-privately lobbied against his appointment.

So who's the cheerful bespectacled chap in the crisp striped oxford and the yellow club tie, security phalanx and respectful staff in tow? Judging by Mr. Bolton's top-o'-the-morning appearance for a late afternoon interview, he has dusted himself off nicely from the bruising battles of nine months ago and gotten down to business. (The majority of the other 190 country representatives at the UN are appointed by executive fiat, anyway.)

The abbreviated term-with a recess appointment Mr. Bolton likely will serve only until January 2007 instead of the unlimited terms granted to most UN ambassadors-does not appear to have shortened his resolve or dampened his wit. Asked about the hum at the U.S. Mission compared to the numbing sessions at UN headquarters three blocks away, he quips, "Well, that's because we're not part of the UN." The notoriously blunt Bolton style, he deadpans, is getting constructive criticism: "I once gave a speech calling for cultural revolution, but I was advised by the Chinese that was not the way to go."

But if the blank office walls and beige decor suggest a man too busy to decorate, it only highlights a carefully placed framed photo just outside his door, a black-and-white of the Korean peninsula at night, the south brightly electrified and the north a pall of darkness, with an Abe Lincoln quotation: "I believe [we] cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free."

Gallows humor is key to surviving the deadly serious business confronting the UN. Mr. Bolton sandwiched a one-hour sit-down interview on March 23 between marathon sessions over Iran's pursuit of a program likely to include nuclear weapons. As Mr. Bolton negotiated with his UN counterparts among the four other permanent Security Council members, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the phone to the Russian foreign minister. Over the weekend the two worked both sides of the Atlantic: Mr. Bolton hashing the details of a common statement from Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, while Ms. Rice walked the English countryside with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, looking for a way to proceed against Iran in light of ongoing differences. Mr. Bolton succeeded. The Security Council agreed March 30 to call on Iran to cease uranium enrichment, just ahead of Ms. Rice's meeting with foreign ministers in Berlin.

The good news, compared to Security Council divisions on Iraq, is that among the five permanent members "there really is a strong feeling that Iran cannot be allowed to get nuclear weapons," Mr. Bolton said. "The difficulty we are having now within the Five Perm is we don't have agreement on how to do that, what kind of message to send to the Iranians, how to cut off their efforts to master the technology that they need to get a completely indigenous command of the nuclear fuel sites."

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