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Former UN Ambassador John Bolton plumbing the depths of Obama’s ignorance on foreign policy

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HH: Joined now by former Ambassador to the United Nations for the United States, John Bolton. Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to the program. You’ve been listening to Barack Obama, I’m sure, over the last few days talk about Iran and the world generally. Your reaction?

JB: Well, I think it reveals a true inexperience in foreign policy, and it’s hard to describe how significant some of the things he said could turn out to be for a president in crisis. Number one, his criticism of President Bush’s comment on appeasement in Israel’s Knesset, I thought was very revealing. You know, if the show fits, wear it. And President Bush didn’t mention anybody by name, but Obama immediately reacted as if he were the target, which I certainly hope he was. And then to go on from that and say you know, Iran is a tiny threat compared to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, as if to say well what if they do launch their limited nuclear arsenal when they get it at some point, and what’s the President going to say? It was only Seattle? I mean, this is really a remarkable performance, and highlights why I think Senator McCain should take up Senator Obama’s invitation to a debate anytime, anywhere. I think the sooner the better.

HH: Your memoir, your wonderful memoir, Surrender Is Not An Option: Defending America At The United Nations, has come out in paperback. I guess you have to revise the title. If Barack wins, apparently surrender will be an option.

JB: I know, things keep changing so fast, my publisher can’t keep up with it. And I updated for the paperback, but even now as the election campaign goes on, you can see just how these issues continue to be, I think, central to American national security.

HH: Now let’s talk specifically about Iran and Venezuela, both of which he deemed tiny threats today, because they only spend a fraction of what the United States spends on defense. Let’s take them in order. That really isn’t the issue, is it, Mr. Ambassador?

JB: Of course not. The point here is that these states represent, and others as well, and terrorist groups, represent what we call asymmetric threats. Their power over us is not military in the sense that we faced during the Cold War, World War II. Nor in truth is it the kind of threat of civilizational annihilation we faced in the Cold War in the risk of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. But having only a few nuclear weapons, or chemical or biological weapons, gives these countries a terrorist threat over us. It’s not that they can destroy us militarily, but they can get what they want by threatening the use of these weapons, something that we would find unacceptable, and yet we would be unable to deal with it.

HH: Now Mr. Ambassador, one of the things he said that caught my ear on Friday was that when Kennedy met Kruschev, we were on the brink of nuclear war. It’s a minor paraphrase, but he clearly did not have a good grasp on the history of the United States in the 60’s. When Kennedy met Kruschev, it was in June of ’61. The Cuban Missile Crisis came in ’62. What does that tell you about just generally his grip on the necessary fundamentals, the basic chords of how you conduct foreign policy?

JB: Well you know, the liberals used to ridicule Ronald Reagan for remembering scenes in movies that had never actually occurred in real life, and I think what Senator Obama is remembering is the liberals’ view of the Cold War. That meeting between Kennedy and Kruschev in the early days of the Kennedy administration was a humiliation for the new President Kennedy. Kruschev understood that, and he judged new President Kennedy to be so weak at that point, weak as a person, that many think it was a significant factor in Kruschev and the Soviet Union’s decision to put those missiles in Cuba to begin with, a crisis that did, in fact, bring us to the brink of nuclear war. So this is, the stakes of summit diplomacy are high, and really goes to what I think is just a fundamentally important point about negotiation and diplomacy generally. And that is like all human activity, it has costs and benefits. It has to take place in a specific context, and you have to look at when it benefits the United States, when we should engage in it, what our objectives are. This is all about specifics and context, and that is, I think, one of Senator Obama’s biggest weaknesses. He talks in vague generalities, and so far, look, he’s getting away with it. But that’s not how you conduct foreign policy in the real world.

HH: And are our enemies watching this? Do they pay attention closely to our political debates in a political season about foreign policy?

JB: Oh, absolutely. In fact, if anything, they probably read too much of significance into some of the things that are said, even when Americans tune out. But you can bet knowing that Senator Obama is the putative nominee of the Democratic Party, Senator McCain of the Republican Party, they’re watching this debate with extreme interest, because it is revealing, really, what the candidates think on some critical issues. It’s one reason why I think the idea of debates between Obama and McCain for our own domestic purposes are so important. But I think absolutely. In some senses, I think the foreigners are watching these exchanges more closely than American voters are.

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HH: Mr. Ambassador, last week, a week ago, Barack Obama gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. I want to read to you two paragraphs of it, get your reaction. Goldberg asked what do you think of Ahmed Youssef of Hamas, and why do you think Ahmed Youssef of Hamas said what he said about you. Barack Obama responded, my position on Hamas is indistinguishable from the position of Hillary Clinton or John McCain. I said they are a terrorist organization, I’ve repeatedly condemned them. I’ve repeatedly said, and I mean what I say, since they are a terrorist organization, we should not be dealing with them until they recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and abide by previous agreements. Jeffrey Goldberg follows up. Were you flummoxed by it? Barack Obama, I wasn’t flummoxed. I think what is going on there is the same reason why there are some suspicions of me in the Jewish community. Look, we don’t do nuance well in politics, and especially don’t do it well in Middle East policy. We look at all things as black and white and not grey. It’s conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who would say to themselves, this is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein, and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, so he’s not going to be engaging in the same kind of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush, and that’s something they’re hopeful about. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate perception, as long as they’re not confused about my unyielding support for Israel’s security. Ambassador Bolton, your reaction to those two very pregnant paragraphs?

JB: Well, when you finally work your way through it, I think what he’s saying is I think Hamas is a terrorist group bent on eliminating Israel, but on the other hand, I am a pretty reasonable guy, and so it’s not surprising that they prefer me over some cowboy like John McCain. I mean, it is, this is a cultural, conceptual divide between Obama and McCain, and I think between most of the Democratic Party on the one hand, and most of the Republican Party on the other. That is a truly remarkable statement on the part of Senator Obama, and something that just leads you to want to ask even more questions explaining why it is he’s seen as such a worldly guy.

HH: Do you think he’s had any kind of a serious vetting yet in terms of the media drilling down on things like…do you think he understands the relationship, say, between Hezbollah and Iran?

JB: I think the, we haven’t plumbed the depths of that ignorance yet, but I wouldn’t count on the mainstream media to do it during the course of the campaign. Look, he has led a very cosseted, privileged existence in his life, that this is not somebody born in poverty who was risen by his bootstraps. He’s had, basically, a fairly comfortable middle class life. He’s gone to Ivy League universities, he’s lived in a liberal bubble in Chicago. And you know, you don’t have to acquire a lot of knowledge to be acceptable in those circles, and I think what we’re seeing is, as he emerges from that bubble, we’re seeing his view of reality. And I think it’s right there for Senator McCain to go after.

HH: Now you have spent way too many hours across the table from North Koreans and Iranians. How tough are they? What will they make of Odalai Bama, the kid from Chicago?

JB: Well, I think they will make hash of him and his advisors, too. Let’s not forget one of his most amazing defenses against being criticized for him saying he would negotiate with the rogue states without preconditions was to say well, I wouldn’t negotiate without preparations, without lower level exchanges, as if somehow we’re confused about what he said. But remember, he also has a team of advisors that I’m sure the rogue states would love to negotiate with, even if it never gets to him. This is a very serious issue of the United States, as to who’s going to represent us in international affairs, whether it would be Obama and his team, or McCain and his team.

HH: Concluding couple of questions off the topic of Senator Obama. Our North Korean strategery seems to be broken. Your assessment of whether or not the deal that we entered into has been honored by North Korea?

JB: It’s not been honored by North Korea, it won’t be honored by North Korea, they don’t honor their deals. I’m told some weeks ago, President Bush had a small meeting where he asked the Director of National Intelligence what he though would happen in the wake of what seems to be the latest deal with North Korea, and was unhappy when he was told the intelligence community’s assessment is North Korea won’t uphold their end of the bargain. I think that shows we’re drifting into the latter stages of a presidency where inconvenient facts don’t get through.

HH: And about Mohammed Elbaradei, there’s so much great stuff in your memoir about how they accommodated the weaseling of Iran when it came to the central mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency. More weaseling has occurred, and it seems like Elbaradei is blaming us again.

JB: Yeah, it’s always our fault. You know, I’m sure he and Senator Obama would have a wonderful relationship if the Senator got elected president. The fact is that Elbaradei has gone well outside his role as head of the IAEA, and he’s trying to engage in politics to try and find a way to justify the Iranian program. It is a sign that the non-proliferation system, internationally, is broken, and yet another threat to the United States we’re going to have to address.

HH: And finally, let’s turn to Israel, especially the threat on the northern border right now. Hezbollah kind of conducted a rolling coup, just a demonstration of power, really, and then they backed off. Do you see any prospect of stability coming to Lebanon absent another war there?

JB: I think this is a real failure on the part of the administration, and I’m sorry to say that. But I think since the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, we have not focused on strengthening the democratically elected government of Lebanon as we should. Secretary Rice has been diverted with the Annapolis peace process, which isn’t going anywhere, instead of working to shore up a democratic state on Israel’s northern border. It’s a very, very risky situation right now.

HH: And are your…I lied, one more question, your friends on the Democratic side who are tough-minded about foreign policy, and there are legions of them, they’re just not represented in the Obama campaign, are they as worried as we are about Obama?

JB: I believe they are. You know, Senator Lieberman gave a great speech last night at the Commentary annual dinner honoring Norman Podhoretz, one of its editors. And if there were more Democrats like him, we’d really have a national security debate. I think Obama is at risk of losing a substantial number of Democrats, which is another reason, if I were in the McCain campaign, I’d say let’s debate him every day on national security.

HH: I agree with you on that. Ambassador John Bolton, thanks for spending time with us today. The memoir, of course, Surrender Is Not An Option, now out in paperback, available from

End of interview.


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