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No playing at recess


No playing at recess

(Stuart Ramson for WORLD)

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).

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."

Concern over Iran, Mr. Bolton confesses, is very real. "There's much that we don't know. There's much that the IAEA doesn't know. That makes us feel a lot more nervous." Apart from the UN atomic inspection program, he said, "What we look for is if there is any sign from Iran that it wants to pursue a different kind of relationship with the rest of the world. What you see is the exact opposite."

And what would be the tipping point for the United States to pursue action against Iran apart from the Security Council? "I don't think we've reached that question. We'd like to preserve the unity of the five permanent members. If we're able to do that, that sends a powerful signal to the Iranians. That's why we've gone through this long process."

But negotiations with Iran are nearing the end of a fourth year, and "we understand that the diplomacy is not cost free," said Mr. Bolton. "Each day that goes on the Iranians can do two things. One, they can get closer to mastering all of the technology they need to be able to enrich uranium to weapons grade and then to weaponize it. And, two, they spend every waking moment using their oil and natural gas as a point of leverage over countries like China, India, and Japan that have growing energy needs." Mr. Bolton said the Iranians are trying to lock energy-dependent countries into "massive capital investments" in Iran's oil and natural gas industry, and thereby "make it difficult to oppose the Iranians when they pursue nuclear weapons."

If the Iran debate is consuming, other urgent business won't wait. Despite a mandate for a UN peacekeeping mission to the Darfur region of Sudan, Security Council agreement on the force is pending. What Mr. Bolton and other diplomats regard as genocide continues. At a March 21 briefing to the Security Council, Jan Pronk, the secretary-general's special representative on Sudan, told council members that "militia in South Darfur continued to cleanse village after village" with open support from forces allied with the government. A current monitoring force sent in by the African Union has been unable to halt violence that has already led to the deaths of at least 180,000 and the displacement of an estimated 2 million.

Mr. Bolton is not reluctant to assign blame. "The main problem in Sudan is that the government of Sudan is not protecting its own citizens, and in many respects is responsible for the conflict, the abuses of human rights, the genocide, turning whole populations into refugees and displaced persons," he said. He also blames Sudan's allies, chiefly China, "the largest external investor in the Sudanese oil and natural gas sector," and the Arab world. Last month, after U.S. and European diplomats persuaded the African Union not to make Sudan head of the organization, the Arab League turned around and made Sudan its rotating head. "So there's opposition among UN members that we are pushing against," Mr. Bolton said.

But the toughest fight-and the one given top billing by the White House-is UN reform. Fallout from the UN's inability to enforce its own resolutions against Iraq, not to mention the $64 billion catastrophe known as the Oil-for-Food program, propelled the world body into its own self-examination period while heightening the scrutiny of the United States and other high-dues-paying members.

Progress is even by diplomatic standards slow. Mr. Bolton said, "We are one of 191 countries, which means our vote is one-half of 1 percent, and yet we pay 22 percent of the assessed budget, so that our payments to the UN are 44 times greater than our voting power."

Mr. Bolton, well known for once asserting that UN headquarters could lose 10 stories and no one would notice, has surprised friends and foes alike by endorsing initial reform proposals from Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He stressed that those include what he calls "the process side of reform": procurement, personnel, budgeting, auditing, information technology, and ethics.

A separate "mandate review" is ahead to look at the substance of what the UN is about. "While we're concerned about the internal efficiency and effectiveness of the systems, that just says that the UN can do more efficiently what it's already doing," Mr. Bolton said. "The real issue is, is it doing the right things?" As the ambassador quickly summarizes, what he wants is a UN that does "fewer things better." Besides reducing its social services programs overseas, Mr. Bolton believes the size and scope of peacekeeping operations should be cut.

Real reform obviously benefits the United States and other top-paying members like Japan most. But as Mr. Bolton likes to point out to less reform-minded delegations, "Our effort at reform is to make the UN potentially a more effective problem-solver, or, you could say, a better competitor in the international market for problem-solving . . . from our perspective you make it more likely that the United States would turn to the UN for international problem-solving. That would answer the criticism that many countries make of us that we don't take the UN seriously."

Evidence that he takes the reform seriously arrived when Mr. Bolton voted against a reconstituted Human Rights Commission a month ago. Efforts to reform the commission weren't sufficient, he said, and the United States has not decided if it will even run for a seat on what's now called the Human Rights Council when elections are held May 9.

The daily vortex leaves Mr. Bolton little time to reflect on what time he has left at the UN, and less time for public reflection on his personal life, which he prefers to keep private. Home remains in the Washington suburbs, where he lives with his wife and college-age daughter. He also maintains an office at the State Department. How long he stays at the UN post "is up to the president," he said, but to extend his time beyond next January could mean another congressional fight.

Mr. Bolton doesn't seem bothered by that prospect. "I think it's important that we make a good faith, legitimate, and sustained effort to achieve reform," he said. "What I plan to do, whether it's in congressional testimony or wherever, is to tell the truth about what the result is, and not to spin it one way or the other. Whatever the outcome is, I want to tell the truth about it. And then people can make up their minds."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.