John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a well-known proponent of militaristic foreign policies based at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Bolton held a number of posts in the George W. Bush administration, including serving as the chief diplomat on arms control and international security affairs and later at the United Nations. A frequent op-ed contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the National Review as well as a commentator on Fox News, Bolton often equates diplomacy with weakness and indecisiveness, and has suggested Israel should consider attacking Iran with nuclear weapons.
Bolton has also been increasingly active in the political arena. In October 2013 he officially launched an eponymous PAC and Super PAC, anointing them with a mission to "seek out and support candidates for nomination and election to federal office who are committed to restoring strong American national security policies." Seeking to roll back an increasing libertarian influence on the GOP's foreign policy, Bolton said in a statement that "We must be prepared to do what it takes to protect the idea of American exceptionalism and our basic Constitutional priorities—the preservation of which are essential not only to our security, but to our prosperity as well."
Bolton is also rumored to be considering a bid for president in 2016, making visits in 2013 to early primary states as part of what journalist Robert Costa described as "an informal national tour" to "give speeches, huddle with GOP leaders, and push back against the party's libertarian shift. He'll make the case for a muscular foreign policy." Bolton had previously considered running in 2012, a move he ultimately decided against even as he hinted that he viewed himself as the only "ideal conservative" in the race. "I hope he runs," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews at the time, "to remind the country of what everybody voted against in 2006 and 2008, and the ideology that led us into attacking a country that never attacked us, an ideology that wants to make some sort of permanent garrison in the Middle East."
A steadfast hawk, Bolton's views toward Iran have remained unchanged despite the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, widely considered a moderate wiling to deal with the West. Condemning the Obama administration for agreeing to a new round of talks after Rouhani took office, Bolton complained that "too many already believe that Mr. Rouhani's election marked a substantive rather than a cosmetic policy shift." While talks between Iran and the United States were ongoing in late 2013, Bolton insisted that "Iran's nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs will proceed unimpeded in unknown, undisclosed locations." Bolton later added that "we shouldn't trust and can't verify Iranian promises not to fabricate nuclear weapons," concluding that "We have only two very unpleasant choices: either Iran gets nuclear weapons in the very near future, or pre-emptive military force, fully justified by well-established principles of self-defense, must break Iran's control over the nuclear fuel cycle and prevent (or, at least, substantially delay) weaponization."
Bolton has also been critical of the Obama administration's position on Syria, writing in September 2013 that Obama had "failed in his stated objective to oust Syria's Assad regime from power; failed to impress Assad that his 'red line' against using chemical weapons was serious; failed to exact retribution when that red line was crossed; failed to rally anything but small minorities in either house of Congress to support his position; and failed to grasp that agreements with the likes of Syria and Russia prolong, rather than solve, the chemical-weapons problem." Yet even as he criticized the Obama administration for failing to strike Syria—and cast aspersions on a Russian-brokered agreement to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons, which helped to avert the attack—Bolton said that he himself "would vote against an authorization to use force here," adding, "I don't think it is in America's interest. I don't think we should in effect take sides in the Syrian conflict."
Bolton has remained unapologetic about the U.S. war in Iraq, even by the standards of neoconservatives and other hardline nationalists. In February 2013, as the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion approached, Bolton wrote a defense of the war for the Guardian. "Despite all the criticism of what happened after Saddam's defeat," he argued, it is "indisputable" that the U.S.-led coalition "accomplished its military mission with low casualties and great speed, sending an unmistakable signal of power and determination throughout the Middle East and around the world."
Bolton dismissed critics who said the war was unnecessary or disproportionate, claiming Saddam Hussein "would have immediately returned to ambitious WMD programs" in the absence of international sanctions, adding that, if anything, the United States should have toppled Hussein in 1991 and then immediately "turned its attention to the regimes in Iran and Syria." Bolton quipped that anyone who claims that Iraqis were better off under Hussein than they were in the tumultuous decade that followed his ouster must have "a propensity to admire totalitarianism," but in any case, "the issue was never about making life better for Iraqis, but about ensuring a safer world for America and its allies." Invoking World War II, Bolton added, "we didn't wage war after Pearl Harbor to do nation-building for our enemies."
Several observers lambasted the callousness of Bolton's remarks. In reference to his claim that the war wasn't about improving the lives of Iraqis, author Belen Fernandez observed that Bolton offered no explanation "as to the relevance of Pearl Harbor when Iraq had not attacked the U.S." Fernandez also disputed that U.S. interests had been served by the war. "Though Bolton casts wanton bellicosity as serving 'our interests,'" she wrote, "it is debatable what portion of the U.S. population would have defined themselves as personally or collectively interested in spending an estimated $720m per day on the Iraq war in 2007. Some citizens, for example, may have found domestic health care or education initiatives more deserving of funds than the slaughter of Iraqi civilians at checkpoints."
In the Obama Era
During the 2012 presidential race, Bolton served as an adviser and surrogate on foreign policy issues to the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan campaign, bolstering an advisory team that was notable for its slate of right-wing nationalist and neoconservative figures. After Obama defeated Romney, Bolton mused on Fox News that "our adversaries are breathing a sigh of relief," reverting to right-wing talking points about how Iranian leaders supposedly "sized up President Obama during his first term" and found him "a weak, inattentive leader … who doesn't see, for example, Iran's continuing progress toward nuclear weapons as the threat that it is."
A major theme in Bolton's broadsides against the Obama administration has been to attribute foreign policy setbacks to the president's "weakness" or lack of "seriousness." For instance, after the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade the observer status of the Palestinian delegation in November 2012—a move opposed by the United States and Israel but supported by most of the world's countries—Bolton blamed the outcome on "an ongoing failure by the Obama administration to take this issue seriously," arguing that the administration should have threatened to withhold UN membership dues if the vote proceeded. "[The vote] never should have been," he said. "Palestine is not a state. That's a fact. And when the UN engages in this kind of activity, it just shows a real lack of administration commitment to stop it from happening."
In the wake of the September 2012 attacks on U.S. embassies sparked by the controversial anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, Bolton claimed on Fox News: "Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist in Libya and Egypt have seen weakness and they have acted on it. And the administration has done nothing today to correct the impression that the weakness in our policy remains." Bolton tried to put the responsibility for the attacks on President Obama, saying the violence was in "large measure caused by the weakness and fecklessness of the Obama administration's policies."
Bolton has repeatedly tried to downplay the Obama administration's aggressive efforts to track down Al Qaeda members (including Osama bin Laden) and other radical forces in the Greater Middle East. For example, when the Obama administration announced the killing of the highly valued Al Qaeda target and American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September 2011, Bolton largely dismissed the action, arguing: "I think it's important as individual Al Qaeda figures and other terrorists are killed that we not read more into it than there is. Consider this analogy if you were around in the 1920s and somebody said, my God, Vladimir Lenin is dead. The Bolsheviks will never recover from this. [...] So while Al-Awlaki's death is significant, I would not read cosmic consequences into it." Similarly, in 2013, Bolton commended the Obama administration's capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, the alleged mastermind of Al Qaeda's 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa, but complained about al-Libi's eventual rendering to a federal court instead of Guantanamo Bay—a decision he attributed to the administration's "rigid ideological shackles."
Earlier, in late 2009, Bolton suggested to a University of Chicago audience that Israel should consider a nuclear strike against Iran and chastised the Obama administration's position that Iran could be deterred from using nuclear weapons as "a dangerously weak approach." Bolton declared "we're at a very unhappy point—a very unhappy point—where unless Israel is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iran's program, Iran will have nuclear weapons in the very near future."
Commented Inter Press Service blogger Daniel Luban: "An Israeli strike, nuclear or otherwise, without U.S. permission remains unlikely. But as is often the case, I suspect that Bolton's intention is less to give an accurate description of reality than it is to stake out positions extreme enough to shift the boundaries of debate as a whole to the right."
Bolton has been a key Republican Party figure since the early 1980s, when he was tapped to serve in the Reagan administration. He quickly gained a reputation as one of a breed of "New Right lawyers" who worked in high-level positions in the State Department and the Justice Department. His rise was due in part to the strong support of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) as well as New Right strategist Richard Viguerie and his influential Conservative Digest. Years later, during a January 1, 2001 speech at AEI, Helms said of Bolton: "John Bolton is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon."
During Ronald Reagan's second term, Bolton worked closely with a team of Federalist Society lawyers under Attorney General Edwin Meese. With Federalist Society members in top policy positions, the Justice Department came under the ideological influence of the "new" right.
In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, Bolton worked in collaboration with his former boss James Baker to block recount efforts in Florida. According to the Wall Street Journal, after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a halt to the recount, Bolton entered a venue where the count was still taking place and declared: "I'm with the Bush-Cheney team, and I'm here to stop the count."
This marked Bolton's entrée into the administration of George W. Bush. At the time, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney commented: "People ask what [job] John should get. My answer is, anything he wants."
As undersecretary of state representing the administration in various international fora, Bolton gained a reputation as an arrogant and hawkish unilateralist willing to redefine U.S. positions in the global arena, diplomatic consequences notwithstanding. In an exemplary display of what the Wall Street Journal described as his "combative style," Bolton warned an international conference on bio-weapons that a hotly disputed verification proposal, widely supported by arms control experts, was "Dead, dead, dead, and I don't want it coming back from the dead."
Among Bolton's more notable actions during this period was the withdrawal of the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This bilateral treaty with the Soviet Union was the bedrock of efforts to reduce nuclear brinksmanship, but Bolton dismissed it as a relic that impeded the development of a U.S. national missile defense system. Also significant was Bolton's effort to block progress on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, viewed as a cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime.
Speaking before an audience at the Heritage Foundation in May 2002, Bolton argued Cuba should be included among the "axis of evil" countries because of its alleged development of bio-warfare capacity. Cuba is world-renowned for its biomedical industry, but according to Bolton the industry was concealing a WMD project. Providing no evidence, Bolton claimed Cuba was involved in the sales of illicit bio-warfare technology as a way to boost its cash-short economy. Other administration officials declined to support Bolton's accusations. A congressional investigation of Cuba's alleged WMD program found no evidence supporting Bolton's assertions.
In July 2003, during the run-up to the six-party talks with North Korea, Bolton characterized North Korean President Kim Jong Il as the "tyrannical dictator" of a country where "life is a hellish nightmare." North Korea responded in kind, saying that "such human scum and bloodsucker is not entitled to take part in the talks. … We have decided not to consider him as an official of the U.S. administration any longer nor to deal with him." The State Department sent a replacement for Bolton to the talks.
After Condoleezza Rice became U.S. secretary of state at the outset of Bush's second term, Bolton expressed an interest in becoming deputy secretary of state. However, Rice selected Bolton as ambassador to the UN, "thus appointing to this unique post the U.S. official most publicly contemptuous of the world organization," wrote Brian Urquhart.
Bolton served as UN ambassador from August 2005—when President Bush gave him a recess appointment after the Senate blocked his nomination—to January 2007. His resignation, announced in December 2006, came at the end of a controversial tenure marked by severe criticism from U.S. senators and international diplomats. His resignation also came less than three weeks after President Bush resubmitted Bolton's nomination for Senate confirmation—the second time in six months.
During his first confirmation hearings, Bolton's record as undersecretary of state came under intense criticism, particularly regarding his contacts with Israel. According to The Forward and other news sources, Bolton met with officials of Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, without first seeking "country clearance" from the State Department. In 2000, he allegedly used his position as the Bush administration's top arms control official to shield Israel from charges of violating U.S. laws that prohibit the use of U.S. arms for "nondefensive" purposes. On July 23, 2000, Israel's air force had used a U.S.-made F-16 bomber to drop a one-ton bomb on a house in a densely populated part of Gaza where the Hamas leader Salah Shehada was staying. Fourteen civilians died along with Shehada, and more than 100 were injured. Senate staffers investigating Bolton found he had prevented a State Department memo accusing Israel of violating U.S. arms-export laws from reaching the desk of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.
When the president resubmitted Bolton's nomination, there was enormous domestic and international opposition. In late July 2006, the New York Times reported deep scorn for Bolton among UN ambassadors. According to the Times, "[M]any diplomats say they see Mr. Bolton as a stand-in for the arrogance of the administration itself." Rather than furthering his stated mission of UN reform, according to the Times, "envoys say he has in fact endangered that effort by alienating traditional allies. They say he combatively asserts American leadership, contests procedures at the mannerly, rules-bound United Nations, and then shrugs off the organization when it does not follow his lead." One unnamed UN ambassador "with close ties" to the administration said: "He's lost me as an ally now, and that's what many other ambassadors who consider themselves friends of the United States are saying."
One of Bolton's more controversial acts as ambassador came in 2005, when he sabotaged efforts to complete a joint UN declaration in connection with the organization's 60th anniversary. According to Brian Urquhart, "UN delegations, including the United States and the Secretariat, had for the previous six months been working on this document, which originally contained a fairly ambitious mixture of global objectives and UN reform proposals. Bolton's seven hundred or so amendments, designed, he believed, to increase the influence and reflect the interests of the United States, caused considerable confusion and resentment and reopened many disagreements that had previously been resolved. Among other things, he insisted that there be no mention of the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate global poverty, which the US had supported in 2000. (Condoleezza Rice overruled Bolton on this at the last minute.) Bolton also insisted on the elimination of any mention of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the ICC, and global warming."
In accepting Bolton's resignation in December 2006, Bush blamed a "handful" of senators who were determined to block a full Senate vote on the nomination.
In his memoir about his experience as UN ambassador, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad, Bolton asserts his resignation was not about his policies or performance, but about "whether I was a nice person, thereby inviting every person in government whom I had ever defeated in a policy battle, of whom there were many, to turn the issue into one of personal disparagement."
On the Issues
In law school at Yale and throughout his career, Bolton earned a reputation as abrasive, astute, humorless, and relentless in the pursuit of his political agenda, a major focus of which has been to free U.S. military power from international constraint. In his office at the State Department, Bolton displayed a mock grenade with the label: "To John Bolton—World's Greatest Reaganite."
In a 1997 AEI publication titled "U.S. Isn't Legally Obligated to Pay the UN," Bolton articulated his dismissive view of international treaties. "Treaties are law only for U.S. domestic purposes," he wrote. "In their international operation, treaties are simply political obligations."
Despite his tenure as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton has long dismissed the legitimacy of the United Nations. In a 1994 speech at the liberal World Federalist Association, Bolton declared, "There is no such thing as the United Nations." He infamously added, "If the UN secretary building in New York lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
Bolton has been a leading opponent of the International Criminal Court (ICC) since the mid-1990s. In a 1998 National Interest article, Bolton argued that signing the ICC would make the "president, the cabinet officers who comprise the National Security Council, and other senior civilian and military leaders responsible for our defense and foreign policy … the potential targets of the politically unaccountable Prosecutor in Rome."
As undersecretary of state under Colin Powell, Bolton was given the task of officially rescinding the U.S. signature on the treaty, which he later called "the happiest moment in my government service."
Bolton also has been an outspoken hawk on U.S. Middle East policy, combatively supporting policies aimed at ensuring his militarist view of Israel security. Since the mid-1990s, he has been closely associated with a number of neoconservative organizations and pressure groups tied to Israel's right-wing Likud Party, including AEI, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf.
For example, JINSA works to build "strategic ties" between Israel, the U.S. military, and U.S. military contractors. Bolton served on its board of advisers before joining the administration. Other former Bush administration figures associated with this organization include Dick Cheney, Douglas Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz.
Two months before the Iraq invasion, Bolton met with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss strategies for "preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction." The undersecretary focused on the Bush administration's disarmament targets following the planned invasion of Iraq. Shortly after the visit, Bolton said once regime change in Iraq is complete, "It will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran, and North Korea." Apparently, Israel's status as the region's only nuclear power was not on the agenda.
While at the UN, Bolton continued to champion controversial Israeli military activities. In October 2004, Bolton vetoed a measure calling for Israel to end all military operations in northern Gaza. In early July 2006, he spearheaded opposition to a proposed UN Security Council resolution that would have called for Israel to end its attacks and its "disproportionate use of force" in the Gaza Strip.
On July 15, 2006, Bolton also blocked Security Council consideration of a ceasefire resolution in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. In a Fox News interview, Bolton commented: "What our job is in New York is to make sure that that right of self-defense is not abridged arbitrarily. But also, to try and do what we can to help the Lebanese government, which was elected democratically, and to see if we can help remove the cancer [of Hezbollah]."
Bolton regarded Israel's campaigns in the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon as part of the "global war on terrorism." Rejecting criticism of Israel's 2006 bombing of Lebanon and rising calls for a ceasefire, Bolton said there is "no moral equivalence" between Lebanese civilian casualties of Israeli bombing and Israelis killed by "malicious terrorist acts."
In late 2009, Bolton joined a chorus of neoconservative voices—including UN Watch and the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg—in the attack on the UN Human Rights Council's "Goldstone Report," which detailed war crimes committed by both sides during Israel's 2008-2009 military campaign in the Gaza Strip. Bolton called the report's conclusion, that Israel targeted civilians in Gaza, an attempt "to criminalize Israel's strategy of crippling Hamas."
Bolton was also one of the administration's leading hawks on Asia policy and strongest advocates of Taiwan. According to a 2001 Washington Post investigation, Bolton had been on the payroll of the Taiwanese government before joining the Bush administration. Bolton also received $30,000 for "research papers on UN membership issues involving Taiwan" at the same time he was promoting diplomatic recognition of Taiwan before various congressional committees.
"Diplomatic recognition of Taiwan would be just the kind of demonstration of U.S. leadership that the region needs and that many of its people hope for," wrote Bolton in a 1999 Weekly Standard article. "The notion that China would actually respond with force is a fantasy."
Bolton joined a prominent group of neoconservatives and Republican Party stalwarts in signing a joint statement from the Project for a New American Century and the Heritage Foundation that lambasted the Clinton administration for its failure to offer unequivocal support to Taiwan. The statement—whose other signatories included Bill Kristol, Meese, Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, I. Lewis Libby, William Buckley, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Paul Weyrich, and James Woolsey—called for a state-to-state relationship with Taiwan.
Bolton has been closely associated, both in and out of government, with a number of political and financial controversies.
As an assistant attorney general under Edwin Meese, Bolton thwarted the Kerry Commission's efforts to obtain documentation, including Bolton's personal notes, about the Iran-Contra affair and alleged Contra drug smuggling. Working with congressional Republicans, Bolton also stonewalled congressional demands to interview Meese's deputies regarding their role in the affair.
In 1978, as an associate at the high-powered Covington law firm, Bolton worked with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and the National Congressional Club, the senator's campaign-financing organization, to help form a new campaign finance organization called Jefferson Marketing. According to the Legal Times, Jefferson Marketing was established "as a vehicle to supply candidates with such services as advertising and direct mail without having to worry about the federal laws preventing PACs, like the Congressional Club, from contributing more than $5,000 per election to any one candidate's campaign committee." After its formation, Jefferson Marketing became a holding company for three firms—Campaign Management Inc., Computer Operations & Mailing Professionals, and Discount Paper Brokers.
In 1987, the National Congressional Club reported a debt of $900,000. Its major creditors were Richard Viguerie, Charles Black Jr., Covington and Burling, and the DC law office of Baker & Hostetler—all of which maintained good relations with the right-wing PAC despite its failure to pay. Jefferson Marketing was the Congressional Club's largest creditor, with more than $676,000 owed. By the end of the decade, FEC documents showed that Helms' PAC owed Covington $111,000. But this was not considered a major concern for Covington, according to firm spokesman H. Edward Dunkelberger Jr.
A decade later, Bolton was again entangled in controversial schemes to support Republican candidates, this time involving money channeled from Hong Kong and Taiwan via a "think tank" linked to the Republican National Committee (RNC). In 1995-1996 Bolton served as president of the National Policy Forum (NPF), which according to a congressional investigation functioned as an intermediary organization to funnel foreign and corporate money to Republicans.
The NPF had been established in 1993 in anticipation of the 1994 general election. Founded by then-RNC chair Haley Barbour, the forum was organized as a nonprofit, tax-exempt education institute, although the IRS later ruled that as a subsidiary of the RNC, NPF was not entitled to tax-exempt status. A 1996 congressional investigation brought to light the role of the NPF, which reportedly channeled $800,000 in foreign money into the 1996 election cycle—after having used similar tactics to fund congressional races in 1994.
When Bolton became NPF president in 1995, the forum began organizing "megaconferences" with a fundraising hook. These events brought together Republican members of Congress, lobbyists, and corporate executives to discuss matters that were frequently the object of pending legislation. An NPF memo laid out the funding strategy: "NPF will continue to recruit new donors through conference sponsorships. … In order for the conferences to take place, they must pay for themselves or turn a profit. Industry and association leaders will be recruited to participate and sponsor those forums, starting at $25,000."
Corporate representatives professed surprise at the size of the contribution requests. "It's pretty astounding," said one invitee. "If this doesn't have 'payment for access' [to top GOP lawmakers] written all over it, I don't know what does."
In another NPF memo, two NPF employees told Bolton that, in return for a $200,000 donation by U.S. West, the telecommunications company should be assured its top policy issues would be incorporated into the agenda for NPF's upcoming telecommunications "megaconference."
Bolton left his position at the NPF shortly before Congress launched its probe into whether the group illegally accepted foreign contributions. No charges were ever filed as a result of the congressional hearings.