As expected, the Democrat victory in last month’s congressional elections has claimed its second scalp: US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, announced yesterday that he would withdraw from the job when his temporary appointment expires.

Bolton, a hard-line ideological opponent of the UN, was nominated for the post early last year. It was widely interpreted as a gesture of contempt for the organisation, not unlike John Howard’s appointment of Keith Windschuttle to the ABC board.

But whereas no-one outside Australia much cares about the ABC, relations between the US and the UN can dramatically affect the rest of the world.

Even though Republicans had control of congress, Bolton’s attempt to win Senate confirmation ran into trouble with the opposition of several moderate Republicans. Bush resorted to a “recess appointment”, under which Bolton could serve without confirmation until the end of the next congressional session.

Last month the Democrats won control of the Senate, dooming any confirmation attempt next year. But the old congress remains in office until 3 January, and Bush resubmitted Bolton’s nomination in the hope that the Republican majority would push it through. (It only requires a simple majority, not two-thirds as the BBC says.)

Bolton has now recognised the hopelessness of that cause, also forestalling any administration plans for creative legal moves that might enable him to by-pass confirmation altogether.

Bolton’s departure comes at a crucial time for US foreign policy. The agenda of supporting democracy around the world – perhaps never more than a smokescreen – looks shakier than ever, with Lebanon’s democracy in danger of collapse and the fanatically anti-American Hugo Chavez democratically re-elected in Venezuela.

But as with the downward spiral of Iraq, Bush shows no signs of being convinced that a change of approach is necessary. His clinging to Bolton for as long as possible, and the bad grace with which he gave in, suggest that US policy will continue in splendid isolation, and the UN, like the ABC, will stay alienated and unreformed.

Peter Fray

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