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U.N. Hit by a Bolt From the Right

Times Staff Writer

U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton’s mission to overhaul the U.N. is a lot like Hercules’ mythical labor to clean a mountain of manure from the Augean stables, joked a friend while introducing him before a recent speech. The difference for Bolton, she said, is that the animals making the mess are still there.

Recounting the story, Bolton leans his head back and laughs. And laughs, until his face turns red.

“She said it. I didn’t,” he says.

After four months as ambassador, Bolton is still shoveling hard. Most of his fellow diplomats agree that the blunt-spoken envoy is indeed unconventional. Some call him “a bully,” and others say he is “brilliant.” But opinion is divided about whether he is effective -- if he is cleaning up the mess, or adding to it.

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“He is having a definite impact,” said Ambassador Mihnea Motoc of Romania, a temporary member of the Security Council. “Others wish they could do things the same way.”

But Bolton’s methods have often put him at odds with the United States’ traditional allies here, particularly Britain, which has worked to broker face-saving compromises.

“Strategically, there isn’t that much of a difference between the U.S. and the U.K.,” British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said. “The question is one of tactics. The perturbation it will cause to the U.N. system will only increase the divisions within the U.N. and take our eye off reform.”

Just as member states were brushing themselves off from the last collision Bolton precipitated, over an agreement on how to reform the U.N. before the World Summit in September, the U.S. ambassador is setting up a new showdown.

He has threatened to block the world body’s budget for 2006-07 unless diplomats commit to “real reform” by the end of 2005, a year that has seen the organization severely damaged by revelations of corruption and mismanagement in the Iraq oil-for-food program, the disclosure of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers and the U.N.'s difficulty in remaking itself.

The budget battle prompted Secretary-General Kofi Annan to cancel a trip this month to Asia and warn that Bolton’s gambit could exacerbate the very problems it is meant to solve.

“He has an agenda, and he’s pursuing it with a conviction that is uncommon here,” said Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali, who sometimes clashes with Bolton in the Security Council but considers him a friend. “He’s doing it his way, which is not the way we do it at the U.N. We are used to a little more compromise.”

It was always expected he would be controversial. Bolton came to the post by the political back door: President Bush appointed him during a congressional recess after it became clear that the battle over his confirmation was going to be a long one.

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The ambassador clearly relishes a fight. He recalled that when he was applying at law firms for a summer job back when he was a young man, one lawyer told him to rethink his desire to be a litigator, saying that most of his interactions every day would be with people who wanted to “rip your clients’ lungs out.”

“He asked me, ‘Is that really what you want to do?’ And I thought about it and I said, ‘Yeah, that is exactly what I want to do.’ ”

Bolton is still comfortably contrarian, standing out among sleekly groomed diplomats with his trademark walrus mustache and mop of once-auburn hair, now graying. (It is not a toupee, as some have wondered.)

The new ambassador wakes up every morning at 4 to prepare for the day’s battles. He wants to make sure the U.S. message gets across, and he doesn’t do it softly. “I think it’s important to say clearly what the U.S. position is.... And I think when you say we hold this position and we hold it strongly, for some people, that is a new experience.”

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What makes him uncomfortable are the diplomatic niceties. He spends most weekends at his home in Bethesda, Md., not in the U.S. ambassador’s residence in the Waldorf Towers, a rambling glorified hotel suite that is anything but homey. Bolton said that one Sunday afternoon, he sat down in the lofty living room to read a book.

For a moment.

“I got so intimidated I actually got up and went to the other room,” he said.

At receptions, Bolton hates to schmooze. Instead he is trying to meet all the U.N. ambassadors one at a time and has seen 121 so far. “Sixty-four to go,” he said.

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He eschews most diplomatic dinner parties because they start at 8 p.m. -- too late for his 9 o’clock bedtime. When he does go, he asks the host to change the start time to 7. Some hosts even do. “It’s my own social revolution,” he said.

But what he is really interested in is what he calls “a revolution of reform.”

Since Bolton arrived in August, he has shaken up the 60-year-old institution. His first move was to unravel the carefully negotiated document on U.N. reform in an attempt to force delegates to try to reweave it into what he considered a tighter, more effective treatise. Talks stalled as a result, and a last-minute compromise document secured few of the gains the U.S. was pushing for.

He has floated the idea of a sort of a la carte diplomacy, in which the United States would fund only the U.N. agencies it thought were effective.

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This month, he sharply criticized the U.N.'s human rights chief, Louise Arbour, for her statement that the U.S.-declared “war on terrorism” was undermining the global treaty against torture and losing the U.S. its moral high ground. He called her comments “illegitimate and irresponsible.”

And now, the budget bomb.

“That’s just the way practical politics works,” Bolton said in an interview in his spartan office. “There is no one decisive encounter in that conflict, but it could be quite important in the next two weeks to see what happens.”

When Bush came to the U.N. for the global summit three months ago, TV boom mikes eavesdropped on him joking with Annan: “How’s my boy John doing? Has he blown up the building yet?”

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Not yet. But Bolton’s budget stratagem may shut the U.N. down temporarily if diplomats can’t agree on key changes, including management alterations and new commissions on human rights, by Dec. 31 -- or how to keep the money flowing until they do agree.

Some diplomats fear a reprise of the September standoff over reform.

“It is the same thing all over again,” a Security Council ambassador said. “If he opens up what has already been negotiated again, he will end up with less than what he started with. And he is causing a lot of damage in the process.”

The September debate was Bolton’s first test as ambassador. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice instructed him to make sure that key U.S. goals were included in the pact on U.N. reform to be signed by world leaders, known as the Outcome Document.

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Bolton, who was a diplomat at the United Nations in the 1980s, knows well how the world body works, and how to make it not work.

He presented about 700 U.S. amendments to the 37-page document -- many of which may have made the plan better but also reopened old disagreements that negotiators thought had been settled.

The haggling over the document continued even as world leaders were arriving at the U.N. to sign it. Desperate to avoid a total failure, Secretariat officials appealed directly to Rice, U.N. and U.S. officials say, for permission to take the negotiations out of diplomats’ hands and craft a compromise text. The move infuriated Bolton when he heard about it the next morning. He fought for several last-minute improvements, he said, and refused to publicly endorse the document in the General Assembly.

But the next day in a keynote speech, Bush embraced a key development issue that U.S. negotiators had pointedly kept off the table.

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In the General Assembly hall, jaws dropped.

“We all wondered, why the gap? Who messed up?” a European diplomat said. “The U.S. could have gotten much more if it had made the concessions on development that Bush made anyway.”

Bolton said that was not the case. “I think we achieved in substance the bulk of the changes we wanted,” he said.

The episode seemed to boost his popularity among critics of the organization, but it also dulled his shine within it, despite a few grudging kudos for his chutzpah.

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“Bolton has positioned himself well,” said one ambassador, who has negotiated with him but didn’t want to be named. “If he says, ‘Do it my way,’ and they do, he wins. If they don’t, he still wins, because he can say the U.N. is not worth working with.”

Whether a win for Bolton is always a win for the U.S. is unclear. A State Department official confirmed that Bolton’s boss, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, and Rice often receive calls trying to exploit well-known divisions in Washington to find a way around Bolton roadblocks.

As the budget deadline nears, the phone lines are burning again as diplomats seek a second opinion.

But Bolton said he was confident there would be a solution by year’s end, and the British were busily crafting a compromise proposal.

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“With all the creativity in the U.N. and New York, the financial capital of the world, we should be able to come up with something,” he said.

“I’m hoping that sweet reason will prevail.”


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