WASHINGTON—In four years as the State Department's top arms control official, John Bolton has developed a reputation as a headstrong bureaucrat who thinks little of shredding diplomatic niceties or pushing the envelope when it comes to describing threats to the United States.
On Thursday, Bolton faces a key Senate test in his quest to become U.S. envoy to the United Nations.
If he's approved, Bolton's new job would give him a perch to influence foreign policy on virtually every major issue, from nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea to the future of the world body itself.
It could also set up an interesting—perhaps even uneasy—relationship with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who, current and former aides say, prizes "message discipline" and abhors freelancing of any sort.
On paper, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, like any other ambassador, is supposed to follow instructions from Washington.
In practice, he or she has immense latitude in New York and an office at State Department headquarters that serves mostly to lobby for the instructions and actions the ambassador wants. In addition, Bolton has a champion in Vice President Dick Cheney.
"If someone is as independent-minded as John Bolton, we can pretty much expect him to follow his own directions and own instructions," said retired senior diplomat Princeton Lyman.
The U.N. job is "a platform for playing on a lot of issues across the board," said Lyman, one of a group of former officials who signed a letter opposing the nomination. For Rice, he said, "I think it'll be a challenge."
Rice, in an interview with CNN's Larry King on Wednesday, strongly backed Bolton's nomination and said it was partly her idea. "I'm the one who talked to the president about having John do this job," she said.
A sharply divided Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on Bolton's nomination. It was held up last month after accusations surfaced that he abused subordinates who differed over U.S. intelligence estimates.
Democrats, who complain that the State Department hasn't given them all the documents they requested, could still move to delay the vote.
The panel's eight Democrats need only one of its 10 Republicans to join them in tying up the nomination, but Bolton appears to have gained ground in recent days as no new charges against him have arisen and others appear to have been put to rest.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan predicted victory Thursday. "We've been in close contact with members of the committee, and ... we believe that John Bolton will be voted out of committee and that he will be confirmed on the floor of the Senate," McClellan said.
Bolton's supporters, including many people who've worked with him in his 24-year government career, vigorously dispute charges that he pursues his own agenda or has cowboy-like tendencies, calling that a caricature.
He's aggressive but loyal in carrying out the White House's wishes, they say.
"John, in my experience, always operated under direction. He was never a cowboy. Never a cowboy," said Thomas M. Boyd, a former Justice Department colleague and now a partner in a Washington law firm.
"He does what he is instructed to do. He doesn't freelance. That's not the man I know," said Boyd, who signed one of several letters of support from Bolton's former colleagues in government and the private sector.
Yet documents and interviews made public in a three-week Senate Foreign Relations Committee review portray Bolton as a man who sometimes pushed the bounds of policy in furthering his hawkish views. Bolton takes a maximalist view of using U.S. power and opposes international treaties and bodies that would limit it.
Some of the charges come from aides to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose inner circle often had tense relations with Bolton. Their nickname for him was "Yosemite Sam," a reference to the pugnacious cartoon character with the bushy mustache who had a habit of shooting himself in the foot.
Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Powell's chief of staff, told the committee that he felt Bolton went too far in publicly denigrating International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei. ElBaradei had angered some Bush administration officials by questioning the U.S. rationale for war in Iraq and, in their view, by not being aggressive enough in probing Iran's nuclear programs.
At the time, the U.S. position was that ElBaradei should follow tradition and leave the agency after two terms. The United States is alone in its opposition, and no action has been taken.
But Bolton "went out of his way to badmouth him, to make sure that everybody knew that the maximum power of the United States would be brought to bear against them if he were brought back in," Wilkerson said.
Some Democrats have suggested in recent days that Bolton, who clashed with analysts at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, tried to create his own intelligence operation under another bureau that reports to him.
But in a letter released Wednesday, the State Department said the expanded access to intelligence by the Bureau of Verification and Compliance was approved by Powell, his then-deputy Richard Armitage and others.
The White House, and its allies in Bolton's corner, say the very qualities that the nominee has been criticized for made him effective at the State Department and will help him push through needed reforms at the United Nations.
Bolton's clout is bolstered by ties he has developed throughout the government, including in Cheney's office, the Pentagon and the CIA, where current and former aides have worked.
And, while he's a caustic critic of the United Nations, he's intimately familiar with its operations, having served President Bush's father as an assistant secretary of state overseeing U.S. relations with international organizations.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John Bolton
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050307 BOLTON
Need to map