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John Bolton is a controversial proponent of hardline U.S. security policies who briefly served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. He is currently a senior fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). A frequent op-ed contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, Bolton often equates diplomacy with weakness and indecisiveness, and has suggested Israel should consider attacking Iran with nuclear weapons.
Because of his extreme militarist views, Bolton is being considered a potential 2012 presidential contender by some neoconservatives and other hawkish conservatives. When asked on a September 2010 Fox news show if he would consider running, Bolton responded he is “not saying no” and that nobody “involved with politics should worry about that until after the elections this fall."
Yet in an August 2010 interview with the Daily Caller, Bolton explained why he might run: “I’m obviously not a politician. I’ve never run for any federal elective office at all and, you know, it is something that would obviously require a great deal of effort. … What I do think, though, and what concerns me, is the lack of focus generally in the national debate about national security issues. Now, I understand the economy is in a ditch and people are concerned about it, but our adversaries overseas are not going to wait for us to get our economic house in order.”
Commenting on Bolton’s apparent presidential ambitions, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said, "Ha! Well I hope he runs—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."
Bolton has a well-earned reputation as a contentious critic of the Barack Obama administration. For example, in late 2009 he 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 Daniel Luban of the Inter Press Service: “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.”
Earlier, in an October 2009 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Bolton compared Obama to Ethlered the Unready, “the turn-of the-first-millennium Anglo-Saxon king whose reputation for indecisiveness and his unsuccessful paying of Danegeld … to buy off Viking raiders made him history's paradigmatic weak leader.” Channeling neoconservative rhetoric about the purported weakness of liberals, Bolton contended Obama’s efforts on key international issues amounted to little more than “dithering” and “indecision.”
Bolton has been a key Republican Party figure since the early 1980s, when he was tagged 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) and New Right strategist Richard Viguerie and his influentialConservative 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, Boltonl 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 the reputation as an arrogant and hawkish unilateralist willing to redefine U.S. positions in the global arena, diplomatic consequences not withstanding. 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 become 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 which 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 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 sixtieth 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 Bush administration figures associated with this organization included Dick Cheney, Douglas Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz.
Two months before the Iraq invasion, Bolton met with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and 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.”
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—includingUN 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 one of the administration's leading hawks on Asia policy and strongest advocates of Taiwan. According to a 2001 Washington Postinvestigation, 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 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 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.”[40
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.