Saturday, May 14, 2005

For those who missed it, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently sent the nomination of Richard Bolton to the Senate -- without a recommendation. This is an extremely rare move, and came only after the Republican Senator George Voinovich declared that while he wouldn't stop a nomination vote in the full Senate from happening, he would vote against it there.

Over at The Belgravia Dispatch, Joseph Britt posted his take on the issue yesterday. Britt raises a lot of different points, so rather than presenting a formal counter-argument against the nomination I'm just going to go off his post piecemeal.

To begin with, Britt initially stakes out a broad middle ground:
Bolton, though I recognize his abilities and past accomplishments, would not have been my choice for the UN post. Unlike Voinovich I don't think the case against him is strong enough to justify denying the President his choice....[Bush] is President, and barring something disqualifying in a nominee's background or grounds to believe major damage will result from his appointment I incline toward giving a President the team he wants.
Fair enough. Presidents do indeed deserve broad leeway when it comes to nominating both cabinet members and ambassadors. The question, as Britt himself notes, is just what constitutes either 'something disqualifying' in a nominee's past or 'grounds to believe major damage will result'.

The problem is, Britt doesn't follow through with that question. Instead he shifts his focus onto Voinovich. Part of this has to do with the informal nature of blogging, and part with Britt's own preemptory admission that his impetus for writing about the issue at all is that he once indirectly worked for Voinovich. Regardless, it's part and parcel of a bait-and-switch political strategy that's as old as human history: namely, defending A by attacking B.

To make matters worse, Britt then bungles his attack. His argument against Voinovich has nothing to do with Voinovich's judgment and relies instead only on Voinovich's timing:

I was frankly a little disappointed to see a couple of things about Voinovich's participation in this controversy. The first was the way he sprang his doubts about Bolton on the Foreign Relations Committee just before the scheduled committee vote back on April 19, after not having spoken up in hearings the preceding week. This I thought was less than considerate of committee Chairman Richard Lugar.

The main thing for me, though, is the need for timely decision on important nominations. If Bolton gets blocked in committee, the President can get started on another nominee. If he gets approved, he can get right to work -- provided of course he doesn't run afoul of Sen. Frist's plan to make the Senate more like the House of Representatives, starting next week. How about if Bolton stays in limbo for another month or two, during which time the United States will have no ambassador to the UN? What kind of message does that send about how America regards the United Nations, and if Bolton does finally get confirmed after such a protracted ordeal how effective is he likely to be?

The timing argument thus has two sides. First, Voinovich's delay before raising his doubts was 'disrespectful' to the committee chair. Second, such a delay unnecessarily sends the wrong 'message' to the UN.

Neither of these arguments holds water. With regards to the 'disrespectful' line, it's perfectly plausible that Voinovich, a Republican, went into the committee hearings with the intention of toeing the party line, but that eventually he reached a tipping point where he could no longer support the nomination in good conscience. That his doubts arose towards the close of the proceedings is entirely consistent with any narrative of internal value-conflict.

Meanwhile, with regards to the UN bit I need reply only with a simple question of my own. Which sends a worse message: leaving the UN ambassadorship open for a few months, or sending the UN someone who's on the record as saying "there is no such thing as the United Nations...If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference"? Only Douglas Feith would be a more offensive choice.

The only thing I do agree with in Britt's post is his conclusion: that if Voinovich really does have doubts about Bolton, then it's his job to block him in the committee rather than letting the matter revert to the Senate without a recommendation. It is, as Britt notes, a committee member's job to make tough decisions like that, and to do so in full view of his peers. If Voinovich doesn't want that responsibility, then he shouldn't be sitting on the SFRC.

To reiterate though, this should never have been about Voinovich in the first place. This should have been about Bolton, and whether 'something disqualifying' lies in either his past actions or present ideology. The only way Voinovich should have entered the picture was if the subject of debate was Voinovich's judgment -- ie, the standard he lays out for determing when 'something disqualifying' exists. That Britt brought Voinovich into the picture only to elide the judgment issue speaks volumes: he didn't want to get into the judgment debate because it's not winnable. Defending a UN nomination when the nominee is on the record as saying the UN doesn't exist is about as tough as making the argument that Hugh Hefner ought to front Bush's abstinence only campaign.

In the end, the only way you can defend Bolton is, as Britt discovered yesterday, to attack those who doubt him. My fear is that when Bolton goes before the full Senate Bolton's more tepid supporters there are going to make the same discovery, too. Senate Democrats -- and opposing Republicans -- need to call them out on it when they do.


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