Bolton through back door?


WASHINGTON - After President Bush won his second term, he declared he had acquired "political capital" from American voters and intended to spend some of it.

He has been true to his word, taking on some very controversial issues and positions, most notably his scheme for private investment of certain Social Security taxes in the stock market.

That idea ran into opposition, particularly from Democrats for whom the federal retirement system plan has been their most popular innovation. Mr. Bush finds himself spending a great deal of that political capital with little apparent return.

Now the president may be on the verge of using more such capital to get his nominee as ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, into the job. Despite the Senate's twice declining to clear the way for Mr. Bolton's confirmation, Mr. Bush says he wants to keep trying, but he has a recourse.

When Congress goes home for an extended July 4 holiday, the president by law can give Mr. Bolton a recess appointment through the rest of this congressional term, which ends in January 2007. But such a move could be counted on to raise the partisan temperature in the Senate to a boil.

The Republican justification for such a recess appointment would be that the Democrats have tried to filibuster Mr. Bolton to death. But the Democrats have made a commitment to allow an up-or-down vote on his nomination if the White House agrees to provide certain classified names he was provided by the National Security Agency - names the Democrats suspect may have become targets of his famous style of intimidation.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has implied that the Democrats have broken their recent brokered promise not to filibuster, though that agreement pertained to judicial appointments.

Mr. Bolton's reputation as a bully has been at the heart of the case against him - that and his repeated derogatory comments about the United Nations. But behind these specifics is a contest of wills between the White House and Senate Democrats who take very seriously their constitutional advice-and-consent role.

A Bolton recess appointment would be an expenditure of the president's political capital in another sphere where he has preciously little of it right now - at the United Nations itself. Sending an ambassador so outspokenly hostile to the world body, even in the guise of a reformer where reform demonstrably is needed, would be seen as an intentional slap at the organization.

Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq violated the U.N. charter, which sanctions such pre-emptive or preventive war only in self-defense. In the process, and in his own remarks about the United Nations as "irrelevant," the president dissipated much of the good will banked by predecessors through the long Cold War period of collective containment.

Sending Mr. Bolton seems the harshest way to tell the United Nations to put in order a financial house that is under severe criticism, ranging from ineptitude to corruption. While the White House was opposed when the House recently voted to withhold U.S. dues until fixes are made, the view lingers that Mr. Bush sees the United Nations more as an impediment to his role as world cop than as a helpmate.

In making his case to invade Iraq, he was dragged like a schoolboy to the United Nations by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and then went his own way when the Security Council declined to sanction explicit military action.

If Mr. Bush wants not only to reform the United Nations but also to repair the damage he has done to U.S. relations with the world body, sending Mr. Bolton as his man there seems a cynical way to go about it. And if he wants to mend his broken fences in the Senate, the same can be said about giving Mr. Bolton a recess appointment.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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