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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/ 1/2010

John Bolton interview: Obama's in over his head

By Jennifer Rubin

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.

By Jennifer Rubin  | December 1, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  2012 campaign, foreign policy  
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Wow! 6 a.m. on 12/1 is really 5 p.m. on 11/30. Washington really does exist in a different world!

I'd like to see the Ambassador in the running if simply to elevate the conversations. He's eloquent and to the BS about him.

He'd make the left go nuts and the right think hard about serious issues and not pussyfoot around in PC jargon.

Posted by: Grantman | November 30, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

we love you jennifer! we will miss you so much on commentary but we are very proud of you! signed, your people

Posted by: jiji1 | November 30, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

You go, girl!

Posted by: ZoltanNewberry | November 30, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Rubin, Informed conservative opinion as well as informed liberal opinion free of name-calling and sloganeering is always welcome--there is little enough of it. But, you impeach your opinions if you neither know that it is John Connally not John Connolly nor are willing to adequately research your historical references.

Posted by: | November 30, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

So Sam, Is that worse than 57 states?

Posted by: JohnKnox1 | November 30, 2010 9:43 PM | Report abuse

And please Sam, don't impeach your opinions by seizing on a trivial error in a lengthy post. I mean, if it weren't for you I would have thought Jen might have been referring to the second bishop of New York. Thank you for rescuing me from that error.

Posted by: JohnKnox1 | November 30, 2010 9:46 PM | Report abuse

Bolton is a miscreant who would destroy the world. All we need is another nut job right winger writing in the Post. This kind of writing is why the Washington Times keeps losing money and will die.

Posted by: Bowerguy | November 30, 2010 11:42 PM | Report abuse

If Bolton is running for prez, he's probably thinking the mainstream/lamestream media won't ask him tough questions.
That's not a unreasonable assumption, despite the "liberal bias" of the media.

The last time Bolton was asked some tough questions with follow-up (by students at Oxford University in June 2006), John couldn't take it and he "bolted."

Posted by: edlharris | November 30, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

A Palin-Bolton presidential ticket would be a clear sign that America is hopelessly off in the weeds and the end is near.

Posted by: politbureau | November 30, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

No ego there. Uh-uh. He has as much chance of becoming President as Michael Bolton. He's also a first class horse's patootie.

Posted by: st50taw | November 30, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse

Mr Bolton has got to understand that the age of the American empire is coming to an end. Also as pointed out in a previous comment a person who cannot take serious questioning from a group of university students and runs away instead is not of the caliber to stand for election to the office of president of the United States.

Posted by: andy4 | December 1, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Too bad Bolton launched his Obama bashing campaign before the latest Wikileaks release hit. He looks pretty silly now.

Posted by: fzdybel | December 1, 2010 12:41 AM | Report abuse

John Bolton, presidential candidate? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Posted by: jonfromcali | December 1, 2010 12:50 AM | Report abuse

Jennifer, What foreign policy credentials does John Bolton have aside from being wrong on every major issue? I would rather have random person off the street than a loud-mouthed, fire-breathing idealogue who is almost always wrong.

Here are just a few of John Bolton's greatest hits:

1) Criticizing Bill Clinton's trip to get reporters released by Kim Jong Ill "perilously close to negotiating with terrorists”.

2) Criticizing Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2010.

3) Saying in 2002 that he was "Confident that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction"

4) Rejecting the idea of a 2-state solution in Israel/Palestine.

Ms. Rubin, obviously you like Bolton because of his anti-Obama rhetoric. But for the sake of intellectual honesty, wouldn't you be better off peddling someone who is not so ostentatiously and embarrassingly wrong so often?

Posted by: SaqibAli | December 1, 2010 12:53 AM | Report abuse

To SaqibAli:
You are just opposed to everything Bolton supports; he was not wrong re: the 4 items you list. For example,
Actually, Clinton cost himself quite a wad of credibility when he went to NoKo on behalf of the two leftist propagandists.
Jesse Jackson could have accomplished the same thing and left Clinton's capital account alone; secondly, note how Obama's
2010 drawdown policy in Iraq has crippled the once progressing Iraqi government; thirdly, Saddam H. did all he could do to make everyone think he had WMD's; bluffers eventually have to ante up, and he came up empty; and finally, the term "two state solution" really means the beginning of the annihilation of Israel; as in Gaza, any concession to Palestinians is used as launching pads for rocks and rockets to be hurled into Israel; the two state solution would legitimize the endless lawless agression on the part of Palestinians who will never be permitted by the Arab street to live side by side with any Israel, regardless of settlements, boundaries, treaties, or any other term the Palestinians would pretend to agree to.
So, your comments just illustrate how accurate Bolton is in his foreign policy
assessments. Obama is in over his head, but worse, he doesn't mind dangling America over the cliff while he dallies to come up to speed. Bolton would inject
some calcium into an otherwise osteoporotic spine of a government currently in power.

Posted by: realitybased1 | December 1, 2010 2:02 AM | Report abuse

Wait, where was the question about Bolton and his group distinguishing themselves in their 8 years in managing foreign policy?

I could have sworn the Iranian nuke threat started long before Obama, that the START treaty reduces the number of nukes ... both reducing the threat of loose nukes and saving us $$.

But what the heck. Put a feckless person like Jennifer Rubin in to ask a feckless former ambassador questions about competence and you might as well be asking Jim Zorn to run the Redskins.

Posted by: zcezcest1 | December 1, 2010 2:12 AM | Report abuse

You seem like a nice girl. Please listen to your mother and don't hang out with such an immoral crowd.

Posted by: newsraptor | December 1, 2010 3:00 AM | Report abuse

So Washington Post conservative basically means "supports the bombing of Iran." Got it. Thank goodness John Bolton has another platform to advocate for more war.

Posted by: bj2000 | December 1, 2010 3:41 AM | Report abuse

The point, I think, is that Obama is vulnerable on foreign affairs. To capitalize on that vulnerability, however, the GOP is going to have to find a viable candidate who has the knowledge and experience of foreign affairs to trump Obama's (by then) 4 years of managing - however poorly - our foreign policy. The case is akin to choosing a pilot for an airplane: even a pilot with a license, but who has had several near catastrophic crashes, may be deemed preferable to someone who has no experience behind the yoke at all.

I sincerely doubt that Bolton has a snowball's chance of actually winning the White House. He absolutely DOES hold the potential for stirring the pot, however.

Posted by: dryrunfarm1 | December 1, 2010 4:33 AM | Report abuse

"So Washington Post conservative basically means "supports the bombing of Iran." Got it. Thank goodness John Bolton has another platform to advocate for more war." - bj2000
I don't think this is what it means, at all, but sometimes a careful but thorough bombing is called for. Imagine what the world might have been saved if Clinton had disregarded the UAE (I believe it was) prince, and sent a cruise missile to bin Laden's tent when we had the chance.

How long do you propose we put off using force to deny Iran an offensive nuclear capability? Until desert sands have been turned to glass, and hundreds of thousands or millions of people have been vaporized?

Posted by: dryrunfarm1 | December 1, 2010 4:47 AM | Report abuse

1. wow, if gerson and the krautster weren't enough. okay, welcome.
2. there are 2 games in politics as i see it and be careful of both. one is the enormity of the spin machines of both sides for which the right is much more adept at controlling the message. and two, that real access to the powers is from 1st money and second can you bring an audience to their message.
3. don't drink the kool aid and worry about how fast your phone calls are returned or whose twitter list you are on.
4. we will see how long your ms smith comes to washington act lasts. but if you keep your voice true maybe some length of time.
5. israel will always be in peril as long as there is the apartheid created by religion.isreal must look to the south african model to figure this out.

Posted by: dem4evr | December 1, 2010 5:04 AM | Report abuse

JP ought to run for president simply because he already is presidentially qualified, having ownership of most of Grover Clevland's moustache.

Posted by: DonL1 | December 1, 2010 6:15 AM | Report abuse

Yippee another tool of the extreme right is writing for the Washington Post. And an interview with an extremist war-monger! Awesome....

Posted by: commentator3 | December 1, 2010 6:47 AM | Report abuse

We don't elect American presidents based on experience. We elect our presidents based on popularity. Why would Sarah Palin even contemplate such a move otherwise? Every president we've elected during the 30 years has been in over their heads.

It's time we start electing those with vast experience as president. I love Obama, but his learning curve is extending through his first term. In these times with demanding problems we don't have the luxury to wait 4 years for our POTUS to spin up.

Who on the Republican side has the experience we need? Nary any, and Bolton certainly is not a viable candidate with his foreign policy emphasis. Plus the man is a war hawk. Our focus is jobs, deficits and the economy at home.

Posted by: citizen4truth1 | December 1, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

Yet another WaPo columnist whose output isn't worth my time. Are the editors trying to corner the market? YAWN!

Posted by: fortenbaugh | December 1, 2010 7:07 AM | Report abuse

Thankfully Ms. Rubin has only changed addresses and will continue to give us insightful, informed, and well thought out commentary. Her effective and yet careful commentary could even produce a change in the Washington Post's uber liberal outlook on most events, especially regarding the Post's jaundiced view of Israel and it's almost pathetic worship of the Palestinians and their phony and self serving narrative.
I wish Ms. Rubin great success!

Posted by: Beniyyar | December 1, 2010 7:36 AM | Report abuse

Realitybased 1,

WMD was the main reason for the Iraq War. To excuse this error by saying Saddam fooled us is not eniugh. It was a significant failure of intelligence which led to a poor decision. Had we not gone to Iraq, we may have used sufficient resources in Afghanistan to get bin Laden, and we would now be in a much better position to deal with the far more serious problem of Iran. Bush (and Bolton) did not lie, but they sure were wrong.

Posted by: Inagua1 | December 1, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

Let's admit it, there are some fascists in the Republican party. Sadly, many of them usually have psychological hang ups. Bolton is one of that small group that is more of a danger to the Republican Party than to the nation.

Posted by: marketeck | December 1, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Good luck, Jennifer. It will be an absolute pleasure reading the "thoughtful" progressive-liberal-left comments each morning in response to your posts! The cognitive dissonance you are going to generate among the leftist readers at the WP will be entertaining.

Posted by: DocC1 | December 1, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Bolton isn't going to win the primary, and certainly wouldn't win the general. That being said . . .

@samkaplan: Misspelling a name? That's what you focus on? It's gracious to offer corrections, but to behave as if mistakenly writing "Smith" when their name is actually "Smythe" (pronounced "Smith") is something less so.

Jennifer used the typical spelling. A tragic error, no doubt, but could you come across as any more anal?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | December 1, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Only a Neocon like Rubin would want a war monger like Bolton as President and encourage it.

Rubin - wrong morally and definitely wrong when it comes to decision making.

Posted by: mikefromArlington | December 1, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I love the Rubin's 'neocons for hire" enthusiasts commenting in this blog. Keep hasabra alive!

As for Rubin, it wasnt suprising picking Bolton to interview first. The share similar world views. One that is based on highly ill informed and naive neoconservative mentality.

Posted by: wpost16 | December 1, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Is it just me or does Bolton look like an angry Muppet?

Posted by: mikefromArlington | December 1, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

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