EXCLUSIVE: My "delightful" conversation with GOP's top hawk John Bolton

Republicans' outspokenly hawkish ex-diplomat on sending ground troops, kissing babies and his problem with Hillary

Published February 2, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

John Bolton       (AP/Steve Ueckert)
John Bolton (AP/Steve Ueckert)

John Bolton is popularly known as "that guy George W. Bush appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who hated the United Nations." For a diplomatic appointee, his decades-long record of colorful outspokenness against diplomacy turned his confirmation process into a media spectacle. His nomination was filibustered in the Senate early that summer, but President Bush recess-appointed him to the position in August.

The John Bolton saga was fascinating in how each party responded to the same set of facts. Everyone agreed that Bolton had a low opinion of the United Nations and its multilateralist approach to resolving international conflicts; he preferred swift, unilateral, hawkish responses to problems in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Russia -- you name it. Democrats thought this made him an absurd choice to represent the United States in the United Nations. Most, if not all, Republicans thought this made him the perfect choice to represent the United States in the United Nations. When then-Sen. Joe Biden said that sending Bolton to the United Nations would be like "sending a bull into a china shop," conservative hawks agreed: send in the bull.

Since his time at the United Nations, Bolton -- who served in the last three Republican administrations -- has spent time as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News contributor, and a lawyer. He's also moved into politics, setting up a PAC to support candidates who share his hawkish, interventionist foreign policy views.

Now he's talking about personally getting into electoral politics. Like most people on Planet Earth, he is considering running for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. He made murmurs about doing so in 2011 as well, but claims "logistical" concerns held him up. He's visited New Hampshire more than a half-dozen times over the last year and just recently made his first trip to Iowa.

A Bolton campaign's chance of succeeding, obviously, is minimal. But that doesn't mean he wouldn't play an important role in development of the intra-party foreign policy platform. He is still a highly respected foreign policy thinker in conservative circles. Rep. Steve King, host of the Iowa Freedom Summit, has dubbed him "our foreign policy guy." If he ran, he would set the bar for an acceptably conservative foreign policy that other candidates would strive to meet.

This, of course, means a maximally hawkish foreign policy that takes a dim view of the very concept of diplomacy.

Bolton recently spoke with Salon to outline his rationale for a candidacy, chime in on the Iran sanctions controversy and the direction of the fight against terrorism, and his contemporary at Yale Law School, Hillary Clinton. He got very angry when Salon asked him what the harm is in waiting a couple more months to see what comes of the Iran nuclear negotiations. It was a delightful conversation.

How many times have you been to Iowa and New Hampshire in the last six months or so?

I’ve been to New Hampshire eight or nine times, this was the first trip to Iowa. I was helping out on several campaigns and I helped the Republican Party in New Hampshire with some fundraising things.

What best describes your activities in these early states? Are you just trying to promote your issues within the field, are you seriously considering a run for yourself, or are you just keeping the window open so that it will keep your issues in the spotlight?

Well, I am considering running myself; I did in the 2012 cycle, motivated by the same concern I have now, that the national security issues have drifted off the radar screen in terms of the overall national public priorities in the past six years. I think that’s a problem. I cast around back in the 2012 cycle for ways to try and fix that, and the most obvious way is to run for president. Back then, by the time I had the idea and thought about it, it was really just too late logistically, just would not have been possible. But in the intervening years, my concern has only grown greater that neither the president nor Republicans collectively have done enough to talk to the American people in an adult way about the threats we face. So I’m back at it again and trying to figure out what to do for this cycle.

Doesn’t it seem, though, that the atmosphere is a little bit different going into this cycle than it was last time? You talk about the "neo-isolationist" strain in the Republican Party but that seems -- with the exception of (perhaps) Rand Paul -- that seems to have gone away a little bit in the last year or so with the rise of ISIS and some other problems around the world.

It may be that the circumstances are different but I think the problem remains the same. I think indeed it’s the circumstances that demonstrate why it’s critical to get the issue back front and center. Because it’s like gasoline prices: When the price at the pump goes down, people say, "Well, energy crisis over," and that lasts right until the prices go back up again; people don’t address the fundamental underlying problems.

Indeed, to me, when you get something like what happened in the 2014 election cycle, where national security, I do think, was a very important issue in several key Senate races, it shows that the voters, I think, really are ahead of their supposed leaders in Washington. If you look at Iowa Senate, Arkansas Senate, North Carolina Senate, even Scott Brown in New Hampshire who lost, he came close because of national security. So from my perspective, the conventional wisdom of the media and the political operatives, the people who know everything, that nobody cares about foreign policy, it doesn’t affect their daily lives, are just wrong. So leadership, particularly in the context of the presidential race, can have a big impact. Public opinion polls are not blocks of granite; people respond when they hear people who want to be their representatives in Washington talk to them seriously about the problems. If you don’t have a conversation about the problems, the people conclude, logically but unfortunately incorrectly, that there’s no problem.

Right. Well, I watched most of the summit in Iowa over the weekend, and one of the things that I find frustrating listening to speech after speech after speech is: There are a lot of poorly defined terms that get thrown around out there, like, "We need to show strength" with Russia or Iran or "we need to stand up" to Russia or Iran. What sort of actions do these mean? There are already sanctions against some of those countries. Does it mean threatening military action or what?

Well, a couple things. Number one, to me, we need a very broad and robust debate about national security issues. So just because one candidate or another gives a speech on foreign policy, that doesn’t check the box and say, "OK, now we’re done, right?" Or just because all of the candidates have two paragraphs in their stump speeches where they talk about foreign policy, that doesn’t check the box for me either.

I thought when you were listing those things that we heard in Des Moines you were going to say something about opposition to international terrorism. Remarkable fact, every Republican candidate, with maybe one exception, says he’s opposed, he or she is opposed, to international terrorism. Well, of course we are, but what are you going to do about it? That’s why I think that the debate has to be broader and deeper, given that for the past six years we’ve had a president with essentially zero experience in foreign policy and zero interest in it. And I think it’s important for Republicans not to make that mistake again. So I’m entirely of the view, I think this is where you’re headed, I’m entirely of the view that speaking in vague generalities about the United States doesn’t cut it for me.

Well, a lot of speeches were saying that the president isn’t doing enough to stop Islamic terrorism overseas, but what would be the move that you would make? There’s already a bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq.

But it’s obviously utterly insubstantial. ISIS is right now controlling a territory equal in size to Great Britain.

So would you send ground troops?

Well, I think ultimately he’s got to be prepared to do that, otherwise ISIS will create a new country in the Middle East, and it will be a magnet for terrorists. We’ve already seen reports of hundreds, maybe thousands of people, from Europe and the United States with valid European Union country or American passports move into ISIS-controlled territory where they can come back with no hint of a prior criminal or terrorist record and come back into society. The fact is, across the Middle East as a whole, U.S. influence is at the lowest ebb that it’s been really at; I can’t think of a time when it’s been at a lower ebb. Crisis after crisis in country after country is now contributing to a general descent into chaos while we sit back and watch. That’s not in our interest and that’s why, to me, you need a fundamental discussion of what are America’s interests and what are we going to do about it.

So I’m seeing in the news  that Sens. Menendez and Schumer, who were the main Democrats pushing a new Iran sanctions bill through Congress, they sent a letter to the president saying they’ll pass on that until the end of March. I don’t know if you’ve seen this yet.

Yeah, I know. Obama wins again. To me the fight about sanctions legislation was always secondary. One, the president runs foreign policy, Congress doesn’t run foreign policy. You can’t have 535 presidents, secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, CIA directors trying to run things. If you don’t like foreign policy, you need a new president. That, again, is another piece of evidence of why this has to be the centerpiece of the 2016 debate.

Number two, there’s no evidence that the economic sanctions had any effect on Iran’s nuclear weapons program anyway. Gen. [James] Clapper, the president’s own director of national intelligence, testified to that in an open session of Congress early last year. The Iranians don’t like sanctions, that’s true, but their economy’s in trouble because it’s 35 years of being run by religious fanatics and more recently by the collapse of international oil prices. Obviously the Iranians want to get rid of the sanctions, but not because its been impeding their nuclear work.

So a lot of this debate has been -- I mean, I favor the sanctions, I favor any pressure on the regime that increases the chances it might be overthrown, but no realistic assessment of the sanctions as they’ve been adopted, whether at the international level, at the security council or by the United States or the European Union, I don’t think anybody can realistically conclude that they’ve affected the nuclear program.

So would any nuclear deal that they could strike in these negotiations be acceptable to you?

No, because the Iranians are prepared to make almost any commitment that they can that allows them to continue with their nuclear work. And the administration has given up what was the centerpiece of the European effort, going back to late 2002, early 2003, which is that Iran has to stop all enrichment-related activities. Once you legitimize uranium enrichment, you are legitimizing Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. So the rest of this, there are a lot of specifics that can have significant consequences, but once you cross that threshold, the game’s over as far as I’m concerned.

So what would be your approach to Iran right now?

Well, let me just go back, and I’ve written about this in my book so you can go back and check me for accuracy, but if we had had a comprehensive, worldwide, totally enforced sanctions regime against Iran 10 years ago, we might have stopped the nuclear program, but we’ve never had that. Sanctions only work when they’re comprehensive, and Iran has been dealing with Russia, with China, with other countries in defiance of the sanctions the whole time anyway. So I think now, because neither in the Obama nor in the Bush administration did we act effectively, at the moment there are only two possible outcomes. One is that Iran gets nuclear weapons, that’s the most likely outcome. The other is that somebody uses military force to prevent that.

But is there any problem with waiting a few months just to see what deal could be possible?

We’ve been negotiating for 12 years with these people! Twelve years! What do you want to negotiate, 30 years? You say a couple more months, we’ve given them a couple more months for a couple more months for a couple more months! They’re never going to give up their nuclear weapons program. They see it as central to several objectives. Number one, regime preservation; number two, a powerful tool in the intra-Islamic struggle; and number three, a weapon for regional hegemony in the Middle East. They’re never going to give up their quest for nuclear weapons, they’ll say damn near anything and gullible Westerners will believe them as they have repeatedly during the course of the negotiations over the last 12 years. It never changes what they do.

I hate to harp on it, but when you raise it, when people say, "oh just give it until the end of March," what possible difference can it make after that pattern of behavior? Even Neville Chamberlain woke up to the fact Hitler lied to him all the time. We’ve been at this 12 years and still haven’t woken up to the fact that Iran, like North Korea, it’s like kabuki theater in the Middle East, makes commitments and then violates them.

I saw that you told Bloomberg News that you would vote for Rand Paul if it was him against Hillary Clinton. What’s your calculus on that? Do you think that Rand Paul would move toward a more traditional GOP foreign policy line over the course of a campaign?

Well, I don’t know what he would do. I think he’s a politician struggling with his deepest beliefs, so what he says on any given day is always interesting to watch.

But the conventional wisdom among some people is that Hillary is a hawk, much tougher than Barack Obama. I don’t believe that. She was secretary of state for four years; other than in the most nuanced cases in the now three years since she left or two years since she left, she has not distanced herself in any measurable way from it. And I’d say that on domestic as well as international affairs.

She and her husband were a year ahead of me in law school, and I think the way you are in grad school or law school is pretty much the way you are. And based on knowing her attitudes back then, not that we were drinking buddies or anything, but knowing her attitude back then, she is very comfortable with Obama’s viewpoint. So given that there’s no real difference, on domestic issues I think that Rand Paul’s ideas are widely shared in the party. I think on economic policy and fiscal policy, Republicans are pretty libertarian. So because that is obviously of importance, even though I disagree, the notion of voting for Hillary is just laughable in my view.

If you were to run... you’ve never really struck me as the glad-handing, kissing-babies type. Are you really interested in going through all of that, all of the church breakfasts and every little thing on the trail?

Beginning in 2011, and more recently in the 2014 cycle and when I go out to Iowa and New Hampshire and places like that, I do that sort of stuff and if I do say so myself, I’m not half-bad at it. I think that part's not a problem.

On domestic policy, have you put together something resembling at least a basic platform for all those issues?

I’ve got a view on all of them, and remember, I’ve been at AEI since I left the government, I was at AEI before that. I’ve been involved with AEI going back to when I was a law student and a research assistant for Ralph Winter, who was then one of my professors at the Yale Law School. So I’ve been surrounded over the years by some of the finest economic brains in the country. I read their stuff, I read it when they put it out, I read it on the website. I’m ready to debate economic policy and the other domestic issues right now.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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