Media conservatives misrepresent Moynihan to support Bolton nomination


Supporters of President Bush's nomination of Undersecretary of State John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations have echoed the administration's comparison of Bolton to the late former U.N. ambassador and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But comparing Bolton to Moynihan ignores fundamental differences in their views of international law and misrepresents Moynihan's position on the U.N.

Both men have been described as "outspoken," but beyond their style, the comparison does not hold up. On the issue most essential to the job of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. -- his or her views of the value of a system of international law and the United States' place in that system -- Bolton's views stand in stark contrast to those held by Moynihan. In 1999, Bolton made clear his views on international law:

"It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so -- because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are [sic] those who want to constrict the United States."

Bolton has also made numerous contemptuous comments about the U.N., asserting that "there is no such thing as the United Nations" and suggesting that if the U.N. building in New York "lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

In contrast, while Moynihan, a Democrat, was sharply critical of some aspects of the U.N., he was a proponent of a strong and enforceable system of international laws and supported U.S. involvement in the organization. When a 1983 Senate resolution cut the U.S. financial contribution to the U.N. in half, Moynihan defended the organization in a New York Times op-ed, arguing that the decision could spur the U.N. to move to Vienna and stating that "The nation and New York City have been done a disservice." Moynihan explained the significance of having U.N. headquarters in the United States, writing that "the diplomatic center of the world was put in the principal city of the world's most important democracy." After summarizing the U.N. Charter, he concluded: "It is of inestimable value that these are the proclaimed standards of the nations of the world, to which they are bound by solemn covenant."

In 1984, Moynihan further demonstrated a clear difference in his views from those who view international law as a constraint on U.S. actions abroad:

"A great many people seem to think of law as a kind of self-imposed restraint on America's ability to act decisively or with force in world affairs. This misstates what law is, and obscures the fact that international law can actually enhance the national security of the United States. ... In the realm of law, the United States seems almost to have forgotten our once deep and abiding commitment to the rules of international conduct."

Moynihan, who died in 2003, was appointed to cabinet or sub-cabinet positions by presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, served four terms as a senator representing New York, and was the author of On the Law of Nations (Harvard, 1992). A Columbia University account of a speech Moynihan gave in 1996 reported that he argued that "America is loosening its grasp on the importance of international law, letting the threads of responsibility among nations slip away as the United States moves farther from the ideology that helped form the nation." A description of an exhibit on Moynihan at the Museum of the City of New York noted that he "argued for active engagement in the international organization [the U.N.]" and added that "He became increasingly vocal in his conviction that America should be cognizant of international law."

In a March 7 commentary on, Fred Kaplan wrote that Moynihan "had no problem with the concept of international law," while "Bolton, as a matter of principle, opposes everything about it." Former U.S. alternate ambassador to the U.N.Nancy Soderberg said of the Bolton nomination on the March 8 edition of PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: "It's a bizarre choice. It's one thing to be a blunt speaker in the tradition of Moynihan and [former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Jeane] Kirkpatrick. It's another to be a flamethrower. And that's John Bolton's record." And a March 10 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial (registration required) noted that while Moynihan could be a "strong critic" of the U.N., he "affirmed the value of international laws and organizations."

Yet the misleading comparison of Bolton to Moynihan, first made in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's March 7 announcement of Bolton's nomination, has been regularly repeated by media conservatives ever since:

  • On March 8, Frank J. Gaffney Jr., National Review Online contributing editor, contended that Bolton's derisive comments about the U.N. "should be recognized as in the best tradition of American representatives to the U.N., such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan."
  • A March 8 Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that "the U.N. has also been the place where past ambassadors such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan" have "made America's case," adding: "We expect Mr. Bolton will carry on in that tradition."
  • In a March 9 column in the Los Angeles Times, editorial writer and Hoover Institution media fellow Jacob Heilbrunn asserted that Moynihan "did not just display contempt for the U.N., he flaunted it." But Heilbrunn provided no examples of Moynihan expressing contempt for the U.N. itself.
  • On the March 11 edition of PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, New York Times columnist David Brooks claimed that "our best ambassadors to the U.N. have not been diplomats, they've been people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan." Co-panelist and CNN host Mark Shields responded by saying Moynihan and Bolton "should not be mentioned in the same sentence."
  • On the March 11 edition of CNBC's Kudlow & Company, Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund said of Bolton: "In the tradition of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I think he's going to give the U.N. fits."
  • On the March 12 edition of Fox News' The Beltway Boys, host and Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes said of Bolton's nomination: "The job of an American ambassador to a place like the U.N. is to accommodate himself or herself to that institution. That's not what Moynihan did, that's not what Kirkpatrick did, as you pointed out, and that is certainly not what John Bolton's going to do, and more power to him. I think it's a great appointment."
  • On the March 12 edition of CNN's The Capital Gang, syndicated columnist and host Robert Novak claimed Bolton is "in the mold of Pat Moynihan," adding that "nobody" believed the U.N. was "a more corrupt institution than Pat Moynihan did."
  • On the March 13 edition of Fox News' Fox News Sunday, syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer lauded Bolton's nomination, saying: "You want a guy who's a Pat Moynihan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick model, a guy who speaks on behalf of the United States, who's not co-opted by the U.N., and who will defend our interests and advance our interests."
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National Security & Foreign Policy
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