Politics

07.17.14

Can John Bolton Use Benghazi to Win an Election?

The former U.N. ambassador won’t say whether he’s running for president in 2016—but he’s already jumped into the mix with his own PAC and super PAC, launching a New Hampshire ad.

John Bolton is making his first foray into the all-important presidential primary state of New Hampshire—and he is bringing Benghazi with him.

In a new online ad set to debut Thursday, Bolton’s super PAC knocks Ann McLane Kuster, a first-term Democratic congresswoman, for flubbing a question at a town hall last year about the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. In the ad, a halting Kuster says the issue is “a Senate [matter]…and I don’t think we have anything about that in the House,” though numerous congressional committees have addressed the attacks. She then tries to dismiss the question, telling the audience to catcalls, “We’re certainly not here to talk about it. We are here to talk about the Middle East.”

“This isn’t a geography lesson, but Ann Kuster should have known better,” Bolton intones after the ad’s footage of the town hall.

In an interview, Bolton disputed that he was trying to inject Benghazi, a lightning rod among conservatives, into the 2014 political debate, saying he was trying to introduce “a discussion of national security affairs into the overall political dialogue.”

Still, he added: “I think Benghazi is important for its own sake, but it is also emblematic of a greater failing in the president’s foreign policy: the decline of American influence globally but particularly in the Middle East.”

“I think there is a virus of isolationism within the Republican Party, but I plan to treat it, and this is one way we are doing that.”

Kuster’s stumbling response at the town hall, he said, is emblematic of her “cluelessness over such a significant example of the decline of American influence.”

Bolton, who advocated for an aggressive foreign policy approach while serving as ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, has raised $4 million for his PAC and super PAC that he intends to give to “candidates who believe in policies focused on a free and secure America,” according to a release from the group.

Bolton’s PAC has given funds to close to a dozen House and Senate candidates, but the Kuster online ad buy is his first outside expenditure of this campaign cycle. The Republican primary for the seat occupied by Kuster, who is considered one of the Democrats’ most endangered incumbents, is in September.

Some of the deepest pockets in Republican politics have contributed to Bolton’s effort to make a muscular foreign policy central to this year’s political debate. Among them are Robert Mercer, a hedge funder who backed Mitt Romney in 2012 and who gave $1 million to Bolton’s efforts; Paul Singer, who has been spending most of his political money on trying to get Republicans to embrace gay marriage; and Foster Friess, a conservative Christian who nearly single-handedly funded Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Bolton has been making noises about running himself in 2016, but his foray into politics comes as his brand of internationalist foreign policy is viewed increasingly skeptically, even by members of his own party. Polls show that by overwhelming margins Americans do not want to see troops sent to global hot spots such as Syria, Iran, and Ukraine. A recent Wall Street Journal poll showed that a record number of Americans want to pull back from the world stage.

And early 2016 polls show Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who favors a vastly scaled back approach to the use of military force, leading.

“I think there is a virus of isolationism within the Republican Party, but I plan to treat it, and this is one way we are doing that,” Bolton said. “I think it is small, and I think it in part reflects feelings in the party over Obama’s failures of leadership.”

Among those failures of leadership, Bolton said, are threats from a nuclear-armed Iran, which he said is “eight years closer to a nuclear weapon” despite a recent nonproliferation agreement, and an increasing threat of global terrorism, of which he cited the Benghazi attacks as one example.

“What everybody knows is that there has been no effective response to it,” he said. “And the signal that sends to terrorist groups and to state sponsors of terrorism around the world is that you can attack the personal representative of the president of the United States and essentially do so with impunity.”

Bolton would face long odds as a candidate in 2016—he demurred on the possibility of running when the question was put to him—but sounds like someone who certainly plans to be in the mix.

“I think the electorate is ready for a debate on international affairs,” he said. “Whether the political operatives are ready for it or not remains to be seen, but I hope to play a role in sparking that debate.”