John Bolton interview: Obama's in over his head
It's December 2010, so it must be 2012 campaign season. A number of possible Republican presidential candidates have suggested (perhaps to endear themselves to weary political reporters) that they won't announce -- at least formally -- for several months. But that's a dodge. The pre-announcement jockeying -- which looks an awful lot like campaigning -- is well underway. Rep. Mike Pence delivered a candidate-like speech in Detroit on Monday. And a day doesn't pass without an e-mail missive from Team Pawlenty. Here at Right Turn, we'll be looking at and talking to would-be contenders and assessing how they might stack up against the competition. Today: former United Nations ambassador John Bolton.
There's been no harsher critic of the Obama administration's foreign policy than Bolton. Whether on START, the Iranian threat or "Russian reset," he makes no bones about his concern that President Obama is simply "in over his head" on national security, as he told me in a wide-ranging interview that touched on his own presidential aspirations and his criticisms of Obama.
Bolton has begun to talk openly to conservative gatherings and media about his interest in a 2012 presidential run. "I'm seriously considering it," he told me in an interview, in large part because of the "lack of foreign policy debate." Having gotten past the idle chatter stage, he says he's going to make the decision "in a very deliberate way" and suggests that making up his mind by mid-2011 is "not unreasonable." He contends that he stands as good a chance as anyone. "The race is wide open," he says. Anticipating questions about his ability to fund-raise, he says that new media has introduced a whole different style of campaigning, and it's not necessary to have millions in the bank, as did former Texas Gov. John Connally, who famously spent a fortune to get a single GOP delegate. Bolton jokes that when it comes to the largess of a Connally, "I don't have that luxury. But there are lots of things to consider -- like losing all of your personal income."
Even admirers of Bolton acknowledge that his run would be a long shot. But in a field that includes many "serious" contenders with no foreign policy experience, Bolton would certainly have a rationale for his run -- to elevate discussion of foreign policy at a time when elected Republicans have many criticisms of the administration, but little opportunity to divert attention from domestic policy concerns. One key Republican congressional staffer confessed to me this week that with some notable exceptions, including Rep. Eric Cantor, most House members don't consider foreign policy "within their comfort zone." But a candidate like Bolton can certainly tee up issues, and in fact, amidst the buzz around his potential candidacy, he is already doing just that.
As a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Bolton travels widely and speaks to foreign policy officials around the globe. He says he hears a lot about the "fundamental weakness" of Obama's foreign policy approach. "Despite all the goodwill" when he took office, Bolton says, "the performance and the execution - beyond the substance - have a lot to be desired." Bolton asserts that "unlike every president since FDR, this president doesn't think foreign policy is a top priority." Bolton says he is particularly concerned about the Iranian threat: "Arab states don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons any more than Israel does, and they fear that Obama is going to deliver them into the hands" of a nuclear-armed Iran. (This observation was confirmed by the WikiLeaks documents released this week.)
If, as Bolton describes, the perception of Obama is now one of weakness, how does the administration get back on track? "Once you are perceived as not being up to the job, and we're at that point, only performance can get it back." But Bolton cautions that no one should wish for a crisis for Obama to prove his mettle -- and he adds that, given Obama's past performance, he's not optimistic about how the president would perform in such a crisis.
I asked Bolton if a feckless president encourages neo-isolationist voices on the right who argue that, without a competent commander in chief, we shouldn't commit ourselves to difficult undertakings like the war in Afghanistan, and should instead retreat to "Fortress America." His answer is measured: "I think it does provide them with an argument. It's not a frivolous argument." But he continues: "America's interests in the world last more than four years, or the two years we have left" in Obama's term. He argues that the new House Republican majority, and conservative internationalists more broadly, need to provide Obama "with as few chances as possible to make the wrong decision. Why is Gitmo still open? Because he has no other choice."
Bolton contends that it is desperation time for this administration. The frenzy to pass New START during the lame duck session, he argues, is because the administration is "very wary they are going to lose [the ratification vote], because they know there is so much substantive opposition." He declares it "horse hooey" that there are not legitimate reasons to be opposed to the treaty, citing his own articles. It is unusual to force a vote on a major treaty in a lame duck session, especially when there will be significant turnover. But, Bolton says, Obama administration officials have "woken up to the fact they don't have 59 votes for eternity. They need a foreign policy refurbishing." He notes that the administration before Thanksgiving reached out to "spin up" the Jewish community, which obliged with public statements of support for New Start from figures such as Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. Bolton says this same phenomenon is at work in the Middle East peace negotiations, which the administration is frantically trying to prevent collapsing.
Conservatives have long argued for the primacy of the executive in national security; so is it wise to encourage Congress to take a more active role? Bolton quotes the adage, "Separation of powers is an invitation to struggle." But his hopes are modest: Republicans in Congress should "make the arguments and persuade the voters" on conservative positions on foreign policy. They can "set up the debate for 2012."
It's no secret that conservatives aren't thrilled about the current selection of presidential contenders. (Hence the excitement over Chris Christie and the quieter buzz about Mike Pence and Paul Ryan.) If nothing else, Bolton as a candidate would certainly focus the party on national security, liven up the conversation and provide a decidedly "un-Obama" figure for the Republican primary electorate. There are worse reasons to run for president.
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