Jewish World Review June 12, 2005 / 5 Sivan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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A test for the Senate | John Bolton may finally get his up-or-down vote in the U.S. Senate this week. Or next week. Or the week after. Or maybe never, depending on how long the Democrats can maintain their filibuster against his nomination.

Now an undersecretary of state, John Bolton is the president's pick for the next American ambassador to the United Nations, an organization that long has needed a severe talking-to, not to mention a thorough investigation, fumigation and general overhaul. The oil-for-food scam may be the U.N.'s biggest scandal at the moment, but it's scarcely the only one.

All of which explains why Mr. Bolton was chosen for the job: He's had considerable experience saving that huge beached whale on the East River from its own colossal mistakes.

It was John Bolton, following in the footsteps of a defiant Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who refused to accept the U.N.'s infamous Zionism-Is-Racism resolution, and who led the fight to erase that stain from the U.N.'s record. He did it over the recalcitrance of the same kind of diplomatic establishment that is now so horrified he might speak plain at — and to — the United Nations.

An assistant secretary of state when he began his efforts to reverse U.N. Resolution 3379 in May of 1991, John Bolton was told it couldn't be done. He began by getting the State Department's cumbersome bureaucracy behind his efforts, especially the cadre of Arabists in the Near East bureau.

Then he had to overcome the passive aggression of much of this country's diplomatic corps. Soon he was calling American ambassadors around the world one by apathetic one to get them on board and working to overturn this notorious resolution. It took persistence, but he succeeded. And decency triumphed.

An aide of his from those busy days recalls that before John Bolton was done, he'd repeated Pat Moynihan's stirring words at the U.N. so often he'd memorized them: "The United States declares that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act."

Talk about undiplomatic language, Ambassador Moynihan had also referred to the distinguished president of Uganda at the time, Idi Amin, as a "racist murderer," which of course he was. Luckily, Pat Moynihan's appointment hadn't been filibustered to death. He did a great job at the U.N., and John Bolton promises to follow his example.

But first he's got to get past this filibuster.

Speaking of decency, it's been a couple of weeks since a bipartisan group of 14 senators found a way to get around this impasse in the Senate: The president's nominees would "only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances," a phrase vague enough to mean whatever each senator chooses it to mean.

In essence, that agreement was a pledge that the senators would act in good faith — that they wouldn't use the filibuster routinely nor eliminate it entirely. To keep that kind of agreement will require something more than what has dominated the debate over this nominee: bombast, smears, threats, delaying tactics, dead ends and general ill will.

If the dignity of the Senate is to be preserved, its members will have to demonstrate that rarest and ultimate attainment of statesmen: judgment. It's not an easily defined quality, but you know it when you see it, and miss it when you don't.

Even though this deal on the filibuster applied only to judicial nominees, its spirit would make an admirable guide in the case of John Bolton, too. Soon the country will see if the Senate can live up to the airy but high standard this compromise set.

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The ink was scarcely dry on this bipartisan agreement when the demand was heard that senators be allowed to rifle through the administration's files in search of still more ammunition to use against this nominee. That was not a good sign.

Whatever effect John Bolton may have on the U.N., if he ever gets there, will matter less than the effect this debate will have on the comity and reputation of the United States Senate.

Will the Senate remain a deliberative body that takes action only after careful consideration, or one that deliberates forever instead of taking action? Henry Cabot Lodge said it in another era: "To vote without debating is perilous, but to debate and never vote is imbecile."

How the senators resolve this issue will say much about the future of the U.S. Senate: Will it be a forum where self-restraint rules, and majority and minority respect each other, and live up to the spirit, not just the letter, of their agreements? Or is it just one more arena in which only raw power and too-clever stratagems count? In short, can civility survive in the United States Senate?

The answer to that question will become clearer as this nomination moves closer to a vote in the full Senate — or is filibustered to death.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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