June 11, 2004

John Danforth—Bad Choice for U.N. Ambassador

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Cheers went up on both sides of the aisle last week when George W. Bush nominated John Danforth to be the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Easy confirmation is expected for the former Republican senator from Missouri who has much experience brokering agreements in the Senate.

Coincidentally, Danforth, an ordained Episcopalian minister, was also tapped to officiate at Ronald Reagan’s funeral Friday, as Billy Graham is hospitalized. With millions of Americans watching that emotional event, the senators who will vote on Danforth’s nomination would be hard-pressed to oppose it.

Hail fellow, well met. Danforth is popular among his brethren in the Senate.

Unfortunately, John Danforth “doesn’t know much about the U.N.,” according to former ambassador Robert Oakley. William H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association, said Danforth would be hampered by his lack of knowledge about the U.N. “He hasn’t had any great experience in diplomacy,” said Oakley. “But,” he added, “knowing how to work the crowd in the U.S. Senate teaches you how to work the crowd anywhere.”

So how will Danforth work the crowd at the United Nations? He voted against imposing sanctions on South Africa for its system of apartheid in the mid-80s, and for cutting funds for U.N. peacekeeping in 1990s.

But most telling is Danforth’s vote to limit U.S. support for international family planning – the litmus test for a Bush nomination. With the premier international peacekeeping organization at a crucial crossroads in this “preemptive strike” period, Danforth’s anti-abortion pedigree does not qualify him to take the United States seat at the Security Council.

Danforth is a right-wing zealot in moderate’s clothing. By his own account, he ferociously rammed Justice Clarence Thomas’ imperiled nomination to the Supreme Court through the Senate in 1991.

In his cathartic book, Resurrection: The Confirmation of Clarence Thomas, Danforth wrote he was “ashamed” by his unchecked emotions and the methods he used to discredit Professor Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Aware of Hills’ charges, Danforth didn’t tell the senators, instead trying to force a vote before the Senate had been able to hear Hill’s accusations. He also threatened to refuse to support a civil rights bill if moderate Democrats opposed Thomas.

“In my years in the Senate,” wrote Danforth, “I had never witnessed an explosion of uncontrolled anger like mine.” Danforth admitted, “I completely lost my temper in a table-pounding, shouting, red-in-the-face profane rage.” Even Sen. Strom Thurmond was shocked. “You are a minister,” Thurmond told Danforth. “You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”

Aside from Danforth’s irascibility, the book reveals his poor judgment in supporting a paranoid and unstable future Supreme Court justice who thought people were out to kill him long before Hill came forward with her allegations. Danforth characterizes Thomas in a state of hysterical withdrawal, nearly catatonic, clenched in a fetal position, hyperventilating and sobbing convulsively. Frightening allegations about one of the judges who sits on the highest court in the land, albeit silently, during oral arguments.

Danforth asserts disingenuously, “Clarence did not want to be nominated to the Supreme Court,” a claim belied by Thomas’ own frequent statements to the contrary. Danforth also admits using questionable methods to tarnish Hill’s credibility, with conduct so unprincipled that some of his own staff threatened to quit. Rob McDonald, Danforth’s top aide, thought Danforth “had to win at any cost.”

“Ms. Hill was outspoken and argumentative,” wrote Danforth. “In Clarence’s words, ‘She was certainly not a Republican. She was not part of the Reagan team.'” Indeed, Clarence had campaigned for Reagan in 1984.

Often referred to as “Saint Jack,” Danforth describes praying with Thomas and playing “Onward Christian Soldiers” for him just before Thomas’ final defense in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And when Clarence left my office for the Caucus Room,” Danforth wrote, “it was not as a martyr with his eyes fixed on heaven. It was as a warrior doing battle for the Lord.”

Most alarming, Danforth expressed a fear several times that Thomas’s denials might subject him to perjury charges and possible impeachment.

Aside from Danforth’s questionable judgment on domestic matters, what about his international experience?

Shortly before September 11, 2001, Bush appointed Danforth to be his special envoy to Sudan. In the past year, Sudan’s government and its allied death squads have killed an estimated 30,000 people in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Mukesh Kapila, the U.N. resident coordinator for Sudan, said, “In my view this is the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis and possibly the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe … There has been systematic burning of villages and displacement of the population. There are reports of women being raped, other men and women disappearing.”

Danforth helped broker a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and rebel forces. But if Danforth had engaged the United Nations in this conflict in a meaningful way, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur might have been prevented.

An editorial in the Washington Post earlier this week said, “The tragedy is that aggressive diplomatic pressure would have a good chance of working … The United States and its allies should press for a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding full and humanitarian access … And they should authorize the use of military escorts for emergency aid.” But, according to The Post, “The United States is overcommitted militarily in Iraq and elsewhere.”

Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in the Post last month, “The U.S. should take the lead in the U.N. Security Council – where members are reluctant to take a stand in the face of a strenuous lobbying by the Sudanese government – to lay out a schedule for the reversal of ethnic cleansing.”

Moreover, John Prendergast, special adviser on Africa to the non-partisan International Crisis Group, described Danforth’s “lack of engagement in details of the [peace] negotiations” in Sudan, “which he left to staff people.” Prendergast sees this as a possible “liability at the U.N.”

John Danforth is uniquely unqualified to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

But he has other qualities besides his dogmatic religiosity that would endear him to Bush, defender of corporate interests. Danforth is now reincarnated as a corporate lawyer who sits on the Boards of Directors of The Dow Chemical Company, Time Warner, General American Life Insurance Company, Cerner Corporation and MetLife, Inc.

He is also a former senator from Missouri, an important battleground state. Every victorious presidential candidate has won Missouri.

Bush expects Danforth’s nomination to sail through the Senate. But John Danforth’s spotty record should give us pause about how he would behave on our behalf in the Security Council in these most perilous times.