A blistering indictment by a Republican senator cast the fate of John Bolton as the next American ambassador to the UN into renewed doubt, just when it seemed the controversial nominee was edging towards grudging approval.
As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened to take a crucial vote yesterday, George Voinovich catalogued the complaints about Mr Bolton, describing him as "the poster-child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be". He asked: "What message are we sending to the world community?"
Earlier it had been expected that the 18-strong committee, for all its doubts about the nominee, would split 10-8 on party lines in favor of sending the nomination to the floor of the full Senate for final confirmation. But that is now less clear.
Mr Voinovich, a former governor of Ohio with a fierce streak of independence, made clear he would vote with his nine Republican colleagues only on condition that the panel made no explicit recommendation of Mr Bolton. In a vote of the full Senate he would vote against the nomination, he said.
Mr Voinovich stressed that he had no personal quarrel with Mr Bolton, a vehement critic of the UN and controversial for his brusque and domineering style. He was simply the wrong man for the job, the senator said. "America can do better."
Yesterday's proceedings came as a climax to weeks of deliberation by the committee, during which a vote on Mr Bolton - at present the State Department's official in charge of arms control and international security issues - was put back for three weeks to allow more examination of charges that he bullied subordinates and manipulated intelligence.
The discussions have generated extraordinary divisions within the US security establishment, with 59 former diplomats and officials publicly urging that Mr Bolton be rejected, and as many demanding his approval. They have also laid bare long suspected rifts at the top of the State Department under the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, with whom Mr Bolton, strongly identified with the neo-conservative lobby, clashed repeatedly.
Larry Wilkerson, General Powell's former chief of staff, said Mr Bolton would make an "abysmal ambassador", and General Powell was conspicuously absent from a group of former Republican secretaries of state who publicly endorsed the nominee.
Even so, the odds had been tilting towards Mr Bolton's confirmation. The additional committee hearings failed to unearth damning new evidence against him, and even some Democrats believe that, barring extraordinary circumstances, a President has the right to choose the members of his cabinet. In most recent administrations, a UN ambassador has enjoyed cabinet rank.
With Democrats united against him, the fate of Mr Bolton now depends on unwavering support from Republicans. But not only Mr Voinovich, but three other Republicans on the panel, including the influential Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, expressed reservations. If the committee does send the nomination forward without recommendation, the outcome on the floor is unpredictable. On paper, Republicans have a clear 55 to 45 majority, but others may be emboldened by Mr Voinovich to break ranks.
Failure to secure Mr Bolton's confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate would be an embarrassing defeat for President George Bush. The White House has invested much political capital in insisting on the nomination. Mr Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr Bolton's prime patron, have personally lobbied wavering Republicans. It is rare for a President not to get his way with a nomination in the foreign and security policy field.
© 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd