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The Bolton Nomination Backup

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

The nomination of John Bolton to be the Bush administration's next U.N. ambassador is now at the intersection of diplomacy and politics and the way forward appears to have run into the political equivalent of a rush-hour pileup on Washington's Beltway.

Under the best of circumstances most nominees tread carefully until they are confirmed, lest they offend an important senator. In Bolton's case, something akin to a major roadblock has at least temporarily stopped his move to New York and the controversial diplomat's future hangs in the balance.

Over the next few weeks staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be interviewing witnesses regarding further allegations of abusive behavior by Bolton, as well as at least one former ambassador (Thomas Hubbard) who questions the accuracy of parts of Bolton's earlier testimony.

During this time President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be constantly recalibrating their so-far solid political backing for Bolton. "He is the right man at the right time for this important assignment," Mr. Bush said. "I urge the Senate to put aside politics and confirm John Bolton to the United Nations."

Bolton, now the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, knows better than anyone what new accusations might surface now that a handful of people have come forward alleging one transgression after another, already casting his nomination in a bad light. Bolton is known not only as a hardliner on foreign policy but also as a tough official to tangle with. More to the point, even his critics say he is unlikely to back down from this fight. Whether the same holds true for the president and Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, remains to be seen.

Politically ugly confirmation fights in Washington are not new. One unusual aspect of the current struggle centers on Bolton's management style and how he treats subordinates. Carl Ford, Jr., formerly the head of State Department intelligence, in his public testimony called Bolton a "serial abuser" of subordinates. Since Ford also told the committee he was a Republican, the argument that all the anti-Bolton stories coming out are politically motivated loses some of its credibility.

Late this week Colin Powell stepped into the fracas. Secretary of state during Mr. Bush's first term and Bolton's boss for the past four years, Powell is the only former Republican secretary of state not to have signed a letter of support for Bolton. Sources say Powell, who is known to have had his own problems with Bolton, has spoken privately to several wavering Republican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee. No one thinks this is a good sign for Bolton.

Although the business of Washington is government, the people who rise to the top here are not so different from others in positions of power in the business world. Some of them — Republicans and Democrats alike — are not so nice to work for. Many people here think Bolton's management style (one description of his morning staff meetings: Bolton sits, the staff stands) may not comport with what you'd expect from a senior diplomat, but it wouldn't be enough to stop the nomination.

However, it was enough to cause one Foreign Relations Committee member, Sen. George Voinovich, R.-Ohio, to unexpectedly block Bolton's nomination from moving forward. He wanted more time to examine the mounting charges against Bolton.

Now it's a waiting game while Bolton and the president sweat it out, waiting to see if Bolton can weather the storm or whether, as Sen. John McCain put it, referring to another contentious appointment, his nomination will die "a death of a thousand cuts."

By Charles M. Wolfson