Now more than ever we need a strong voice at the United Nations. But petty partisan politics has deprived us of one of the strongest ever. Most important is what the UN will or won't do about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. An effective UN sanctions regime may be the only step, short of war, that can keep weapons Hitler only dreamed of out of their hands.
Push is coming to shove. The U.S., the four other permanent members of the Security Council, and Germany are meeting in Paris Tuesday to agree on the text of a UN resolution. This is not a time for the US delegation to be leaderless.
Push is also coming to shove in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, the Shiite militia backed by Iran and Syria, is trying to force the democratically elected Lebanese government to resign. The purpose of the Hezbollah putsch, many think, is to derail the UN inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syria is implicated.
The Oil for Food and related scandals have shown the UN bureaucracy is rife with corruption. There will be no meaningful reform of the UN without vigorous American leadership.
But the White House announced Monday that UN Ambassador John Bolton will leave his post when Congress adjourns this week.
This is not because of any shortcoming in Mr. Bolton. He has been the most effective UN ambassador since Jeanne Kirkpatrick (1981-85) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1975-76). But he was serving as an interim appointee because he could not obtain senate confirmation.
Mr. Bolton's resignation "represents a tremendous blow to the effectiveness of U.S. leadership at the UN, as it disrupts the continuity of our diplomacy at a critical moment," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn, who in the expiring Congress chaired a subcommittee which investigated the Oil for Food scandal, in which Saddam Hussein bribed UN staff members and officials in France, Russia and Britain.
"Ambassador Bolton's tireless diplomatic efforts yielded considerable results, including Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea's nuclear activities and a call for UN peacekeepers in Darfur," Sen. Coleman said. "He has built a consensus among our allies on the need to constrain Iran's nuclear program and work towards reform of the UN."
It's been customary for the senate to confirm a president's nominees for executive branch positions provided the nominee is qualified, and there are no issues of moral turpitude. (Federal judges, who serve for life, are another story.) But most Democrats in the senate including all those on the Foreign Relations committee opposed Mr. Bolton when the president nominated him in January, 2005.
There were enough votes on the floor of the senate to confirm Mr. Bolton. But the defection of two liberal Republicans on the Foreign Relations committee sealed his fate.
Initially, it was Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio. But after watching Mr. Bolton at work for a year, Sen. Voinovich changed his mind: "He has demonstrated his ability...to work with others and follow the president's lead by working multilaterally," Sen. Voinovich said in a statement in July.
Then the fly in the ointment became Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, an initial supporter of Mr. Bolton, whose switch doomed hope the lame duck senate would confirm him.
"The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of issues, and presumably one of those is on foreign policy," said Sen. Chafee, who was defeated in the election. "At this late stage in my term, I'm not going to endorse something the American people have spoken out against."
But Americans are unhappy about Iraq, not about Mr. Bolton's stellar performance at the UN.
Ostensibly, Democrats opposed Mr. Bolton because he'd been an outspoken critic of the UN, and because he'd been said by some to be a difficult person to work with...a criterion which, if universally applied, would sharply circumscribe Hillary Clinton's opportunities in public service. But I suspect much of the Democratic pique was derived from Mr. Bolton's role in the Florida recount in 2000. When it comes to politics, Democrats have long memories, and hold grudges.
It's appalling to me that Democrats would let partisan pique deprive America of as able a public servant as John Bolton at this critical time.
James Webb, the senator-elect from Virginia, made headlines when he snubbed President Bush at a White House reception last month for the new members of Congress. Some commentators described his behavior as uniquely boorish. But I think he'll fit right in.