WASHINGTON - The decision by President Bush to nominate John R. Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has generated a great deal of controversy.
Mr. Bolton's supporters say he is exactly what the United Nations needs: a hard-talking, no-nonsense, experienced diplomat who will shake up an institution that needs to be reformed. Sixty-six of them signed a letter sent to Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as other committee members and congressional leaders.
His detractors - including 59 former ambassadors who wrote to senators - have expressed astonishment at the president's choice, noting Mr. Bolton's public rants about the United Nations and asking whether he's the right man for the job.
But there is a much better reason for senators to reject the president's choice: Mr. Bolton's dismal record in his current job as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Simply put, his performance does not merit promotion. Mr. Bolton's failures have been devastating and directly concern what are the gravest threats to U.S. national security: nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
Experts are unanimous that once terrorists acquire enough fissile materials, there is little chance of preventing them from carrying out an act of nuclear terrorism. But a cutoff of the supply of fissile materials virtually guarantees that terrorists cannot attack America with nuclear weapons.
Yet fewer fissile materials were secured in the two years after 9/11 than in the two years before. The reasons for the dismal progress are fundamentally political and concern disputes with the Russians over legal liability, access to sensitive sites and bureaucratic red tape. As the lead U.S. diplomat on nonproliferation, it was Mr. Bolton's job to clear these obstacles.
On his watch, North Korea likely has produced enough weapons-usable plutonium to quadruple the suspected size of its nuclear arsenal. When asked about this disturbing development, Mr. Bolton responded that concerns about the size of North Korea's nuclear arsenal are "quibbling."
What seems to have escaped Mr. Bolton is that the difference between North Korea having one or two nuclear weapons - which the CIA has suspected for a decade - and many more weapons is that North Korea could be tempted to sell the extra weapons for cash to terrorists or anyone else willing to pay.
This lack of urgency is apparent in Mr. Bolton's dealings with North Korea. In the summer of 2003, he seemed to prefer calling the North Koreans names rather than keeping his eye on the ball: that North Korea is bent on acquiring a sizable nuclear arsenal.
These rhetorical games gave North Korea the political pretext to draw out these already difficult negotiations and led North Korea to refuse to deal with Mr. Bolton, the senior U.S. diplomat on nuclear proliferation. Getting kicked out of diplomatic negotiations for calling the other side names hardly inspires confidence in Mr. Bolton's ability to handle sensitive issues and solve tough problems.
Mr. Bolton mishandled Iran. Three times during his tenure as undersecretary, Tehran made secret overtures to the United States to resolve outstanding issues between the two countries, including Iran's weapons programs. The administration declined to respond to them.
Instead, the only concrete proposal for peacefully resolving the impasse with Iran over its nuclear programs has been to haul it before the U.N. Security Council.
The proposal is puzzling, because China or Russia never would support tough measures against Iran because of their considerable economic interests there. Mr. Bolton must be aware of this, so he knows that the Security Council won't act and is merely setting it up for failure.
Some small successes can be attributed to Mr. Bolton. He played a key role in concluding the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Russia, which sets modest limits on the number of nuclear weapons each side can deploy. Unfortunately, the treaty has no verification provisions, so we can't tell whether the Russians are cheating. Implementation has been very slow.
Mr. Bolton also has worked hard to organize training exercises and other joint efforts to improve cooperation among countries to investigate and intercept suspected weapons shipments. Such cooperation is a valuable but small part of a comprehensive, layered nonproliferation strategy. But it merely strengthens years-long cooperation. Moreover, there is no binding legal framework defining the rights and duties of participants, no budget and no secretariat for coordinating cooperation.
We need a diplomat at the United Nations with a record of solving the toughest problems.
Robert O. Boorstin is senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress. Andrew J. Grotto is associate scholar in national security there.