John Bolton Interview: Former Ambassador Mulls Presidential Run
The famously prickly former U.N. ambassador has served several presidents, but he's never held elected office. He tells Lloyd Grove why he's thinking about taking on Obama and his indecisive foreign policy.
For the past five months, John Bolton has been pondering the possibility of running for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
But he isn’t convinced that he has the proper temperament.
“I think it’s a legitimate question,” says the notoriously prickly former ambassador to the United Nations, an assignment President Bush gave Bolton through a recess appointment after he proved unconfirmable even by a Republican-controlled Senate. “One person I spoke to said you have to be ready to get up every morning and enjoy campaigning for a year and a half roughly. And if you’re not prepared to enjoy it, this person advised, don’t do it.”
As ambassador for 16 months between 2005 and 2006—the capstone of a controversial, combative career in various Republican administrations—Bolton was never mistaken for anybody who aspired to the title of Mr. Congeniality. With his acid tongue, hard-line policy views, impatience with bureaucratic niceties, and open contempt for the U.N. as a vehicle for American security and world peace, he exhibited all the finesse of a bulldozer.
One of Bolton’s prouder moments was when he was a State Department negotiator in 2003, and the North Korean delegation, upset that he’d publicly insulted Kim Jong-Il’s paradise as a “tyrannical dictator[ship]” and “a hellish nightmare,” banned him from the so-called six-party talks on nuclear proliferation, labeling him “human scum and a bloodsucker.”
“I bet Theodore Roosevelt would have taken it as a badge of honor if Adolf Hitler had called him ‘human scum,’” Bolton tells me, notwithstanding the ahistorical impossibility of such a scenario.
"The conventional wisdom is that foreign policy never makes any difference in presidential elections. I happen to think that’s wrong," says Bolton.
He certainly was, and is, no diplomat. It’s difficult to conceive of the famously mustachioed Bolton—whose detractors probably imagine that the unruly white shrub on his upper lip conceals a perpetual snarl—sitting in an Iowa farm family’s living room and feeling their pain.
“I’ve been in the government bureaucracy, I’ve practiced law, I’ve done a lot of different things,” the 62-year-old Bolton tells me. “But I’ve never run for office. So I don’t know what the answer to that would be. There are aspects of it I’m pretty sure I would enjoy, and there are aspects of it I’m not sure I would enjoy. And I need to think that through.”
Bolton—who, when not writing op-eds for The Wall Street Journal and sharing insights with the viewers of Fox News, is happily ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative Washington think tank where he was a senior vice president during the Clinton years—claims he actually is thinking about running. That is, he’s not just pretending to be thinking about running in order to raise his public profile and, by extension, his lecture fees.
Nor should he be confused with some of his Fox News colleagues—Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich possibly among them—“people who say they’re thinking,” Bolton tells me, “but are actually getting ready.” When I ask what his path to victory might be, he hedges. “I am really in the analysis stage. It’s a serious decision with a lot of implications. So thinking about what a path to victory would look like, and piecing it together, and all the different aspects of it—organization, fundraising, and that sort of thing—is exactly what I’m doing now.”
If Bolton does run, it will be as a harsh critic, arguably a caricaturist, of President Obama’s foreign- and national-security policies. The Senate recently ratified Obama’s nuclear arms-control treaty with the Russians over Bolton’s strenuous objections. He says Obama has mishandled the Middle East, has been nowhere near tough enough on the nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea, and has generally projected an image of weakness that will inevitably invite challenges to America’s unique role as the planet’s beneficent superpower.
“The conventional wisdom is that foreign policy never makes any difference in presidential elections. I happen to think that’s wrong,” says Bolton, whose credentials include high-level jobs in the Reagan administration’s Agency for International Development, where he was general counsel and assistant administrator, and the Reagan Justice Department, where he was an assistant attorney general, and Bush 41’s State Department, where he served as assistant secretary for international organization affairs and honed his disdain for the U.N.
“I think that, especially among conservatives, there’s a clear understanding that there are three legs to the conservative stool,” Bolton tells me. “There are the free-market economics conservatives, the social conservatives, and the national-security conservatives. So that makes up a pretty important segment of the activist base. Given that I do have a very free-market orientation in domestic policy, I don’t see why that leg of the stool shouldn’t also be possible. And we’ll see where we go.”
Bolton says he supports the repeal of Obama’s health-care reforms—“I wish I were a member of the House so I could vote to repeal it”—and he’d also like to see the president’s financial-reform regulations undone, claiming they are woefully misdirected and should have focused instead on privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Yet his domestic-policy expertise is admittedly thin. At AEI, he says, “I’ve been surrounded by some of the best economic minds in the country, and hopefully I’ve absorbed some of that.” And he also could be vulnerable on social issues in a Republican primary. For instance, Bolton supports Obama’s congressionally approved repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell regulations that had long excluded avowed homosexuals from military service.
“Because I don’t think there’s any answer to the question, Why shouldn’t gay and lesbian Americans be able to serve their country in the military?” Bolton explains. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy for the military to adapt to it. And I think we need to be careful how it is done, especially with several wars going on, but in terms of the substance of the question, I don’t think there’s any other answer that’s acceptable, other than repealing it.”
He also endorses the Pentagon’s decision Tuesday to remove the Navy captain from the command of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier after revelations that the officer starred in lewd, gay-bashing videos. And Bolton speaks highly of his predecessor at U.N., Richard Holbrooke, who was the president’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan when he died suddenly last month of an aortic tear. “I thought he was a patriot and a great public servant,” he says.
And that, pretty much, is where Bolton runs out of kind words for the Obama administration.
“The amazing thing about President Obama,” he says, “is how much he varies from the long line of presidents of both parties going back to Franklin Roosevelt, who put national security at the top of their list of priorities. That is not what gets him up in the morning. It’s not what energizes him during the day. He is entirely focused, I think, on rearranging our domestic economy in a social democratic direction. And what that means is he simply does not pay adequate attention unless he has, almost physically, no alternative. The case of Afghanistan is a good example of this.”
Bolton continues: “His policies come from a foundation of near-disinterest in national security, influenced by his view, which he expressed many times during the campaign, that he doesn’t see real threats and challenges to the United States in the world as a whole. The consequence of those two views is that he portrays a weak and indecisive presidency, which is manifest in a variety of case studies—like the collapse of the Middle East negotiations and the failure to do anything to restrain Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. So, in the world as a whole, our friends and adversaries alike have now sized up the administration as being weak, and they have calibrated their policies accordingly. Which is why I am worried that the pace and the scope of international challenges to the United States will actually accelerate over the next two years.”
The White House didn’t respond to my request for comment on Bolton’s critique. In the meantime, Bolton is doing the things that prospective candidates do, handing out endorsements and traveling to make speeches, notably at a celebration of Ronald Reagan’s centenary next month in Illinois. He says he will decide by this summer whether to take the plunge and put his money where his mouth is.
“My family”—his wife, Gretchen, who lives with him in Bethesda, Maryland, and an adult daughter, Jennifer, who works as an investment banker in Hong Kong—“have a mixed view on this, and that’s another factor we’re trying to work out. My wife has a lot of votes.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.