Picture President Bush in March of 2005, still rosy with re-election afterglow. Recent voting in Iraq had bolstered hopes for stability there, while other hotspots in the region (Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon) experienced a moment of comparative cool. The president's speeches were mostly about his plans for Social Security. Regular gas was $2, and there had yet to be a hurricane named Katrina.
It was at that moment that the president chose to nominate John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Overnight, the nomination relit the partisan fires in the Senate. Democrats sputtered to life after spending the months since November more or less in mourning.
In the absence of more substantive battles, the Bolton nomination provided a splendid symbolic substitute. And no one did more to make it so than the nominee himself.
Since his college days in the 1960s, Bolton had been a confrontational activist who could not hide his contempt for liberals, Democrats and the United Nations. Among other things, he suggested the U.N. building in New York City would profit from having many of its floors removed — along with their occupants.
Bolton's confirmation hearings were held in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the jurisdiction of Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana and a respected internationalist. The Democrats were led by Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, as longstanding in his liberalism as Bolton was in his conservatism. Right behind Biden was Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, another traditional Northeast liberal who'd clashed with Bolton often over Cuba, a special interest for both.
In the course of the hearings, the nation learned of Bolton's penchant for flare-ups and run-ins with various officials foreign and domestic. Bolton was said to use intelligence selectively to push his policy priorities (senators demanded and were denied State Department documents related to these allegations).
Above all, the nation saw Bolton's fierce loyalty to the interests of the United States, primarily as defined by defense hawks such as Vice President Dick Cheney — his chief champion in the White House.
After weeks of controversy, Lugar could not get the votes for a positive committee recommendation. All eight committee Democrats were lined up against the nominee, as was one Republican, George Voinovich of Ohio. Calling Bolton a symbol of the administration's "go it alone" view of the world, Voinovich proclaimed him "the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be."
So the nomination went to the floor without recommendation on a tie vote of 9-9. In the floor debate that followed, Voinovich and the Democrats found just enough votes to block a confirmation vote.
President Bush waited for Congress to leave for summer break and gave Bolton a recess appointment on August 1, 2005. It put Bolton in the job, but only until the end of the current Congress in January 2007.
Since then, Bolton has delivered what his nomination promised: the good, the bad, and often the ugly. Many in the UN world give him grudging respect, others clearly regard him as riding point for a cowboy superpower.
One critic who's been won over, though, is Voinovich. In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Voinovich declared that Bolton was not quite the blunderbuss he'd expected.
"My observations are that while Bolton is not perfect," the senator wrote, "he has demonstrated his ability, especially in recent months, to work with others and follow the president's lead by working multilaterally."
It's not clear that Bolton would regard these comments entirely as a compliment. But he knows a useful endorsement when he sees one. President Bush has reactivated his push for confirmation, and Lugar has scheduled a hearing of Senate Foreign Relations with an eye toward a majority vote. That would put the issue back before the full Senate soon.
Will we see a redo of last year’s Donnybrook? Surely Washington has no further need of symbolic flashpoints. Indeed, as the Bolton issue returns, Senate Republicans must feel pangs of nostalgia. Remember when one prickly nomination looked like the president's biggest problem?
Since then, U.S. foreign policy has all but disappeared in a forest of frustrations. The war in Iraq has not only ground on but grown increasingly sectarian and deadly. Israel is making war in Lebanon again, responding to attacks by the Hezbollah and its sponsors in Syria and Iran. The major powers are at a loss to halt Iran's nuclear program or North Korea's missile program. Afghanistan has gotten shakey again as U.S. ground troops go and the Taliban comes back.
Given all this, does it make sense for the Democrats to mount another anti-Bolton filibuster? Whatever one thinks of Bolton, he is on the job in the midst of multiple crises. With southern Lebanon and much of Beirut in ruins, a filibuster against the working U.N. ambassador may look petty and partisan, especially if no Republicans take part.
At the same time, Senate Democrats must also heed the seething ire of their own constituencies. Bolton remains a potent symbol of the single-minded White House, pursuing its vision of Iraq and an array of other reactions to 9/11 at home and abroad.
And if Senate Democrats question the depth of outrage in their ranks, they have only to look at Connecticut’s three-term Senator Joseph Lieberman. Democrat Lieberman, who supported the war in Iraq (but also supported the filibuster against Bolton), now trails in the primary to be held August 8.
A year ago, no one thought Lieberman’s nomination would be in jeopardy. A year from now, who knows how the Bolton issue will play?