THE NOMINATION of John Bolton to be the next US ambassador to the United Nations came under a new cloud Tuesday when a moderate Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, George Voinovich of Ohio, surprised his colleagues by saying: ''I've heard enough today that I don't feel comfortable about voting for Mr. Bolton."
If the Bolton nomination runs aground during the ensuing three-week postponement of a vote by the committee, it will be for reasons that have more to do with personality and management style than with the qualities that render Bolton truly unfit to represent Americans at the UN. What the permanent US representative to the UN must have -- and what Bolton lacks -- are diplomatic skills and appropriate respect for the basic concept of the United Nations as first resort for the preservation of collective security.
Bolton has neither. In the words of Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bolton would be ''an abysmal ambassador." Wilkerson told The New York Times that Bolton, who was most recently undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, ''is incapable of listening to people and taking into account their views."
Bolton's public remarks denigrating the UN include a notorious 1994 declaration that ''there is no such thing as the United Nations" and his bizarre assertion that ''if the UN secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
Whether the principal mandate of the next US ambassador to the United Nations will be to reform the institution or to win other governments over to American ideas about halting nuclear proliferation, fighting terrorism, alleviating poverty, and preventing AIDS and tuberculosis, Bolton is the wrong person for the job. To a position that demands tact and respect for the views of others, Bolton brings the arrogance of an intemperate ideologue.
In coming days, Voinovich and fellow Republican moderates such as Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska will be considering whether Bolton's abusive behavior coheres in a disqualifying pattern and whether he lied to the senators when denying he tried to have intelligence analysts fired for showing a caution that displeased him. Because of the Senate's traditional penchant to confirm a president's nominees, these are the grounds most likely to justify the sinking of Bolton's nomination.
These are the wrong reasons to keep the wrong man from going to the United Nations. Nevertheless, President Bush would be wise to recognize the result as a blessing in disguise. It may save him from a costly blunder and protect the country from provoking even more enmity abroad than it already confronts.