Former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton told me yesterday in a phone interview that he is still considering a run for the presidency. He says, “What it comes down to for me is two radically different skill sets.” He compares President George H.W. Bush (good on the nuts and bolts of governance, bad on campaigning) with President Obama (“exactly the opposite”). He says, “From my years in government I am confident I can do [the governing part].” His “critical question” is whether he can do the campaigning. He’s in no rush, saying the only real deadline is November when several key primaries have filing dates. But for him, Labor Day seems a reasonable deadline. He is confident that other candidates are mulling around, with a similar time frame.
As for Monday’s debate, he was complimentary of the group, saying he agreed with the “conventional wisdom” that both Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) helped themselves. He said it was helpful in undermining the claim that the field is weak. “We have a good field.” And, he said, “This is not 1992 when the Democrats though Bush  couldn’t be taken out.” He added, “John King was the only nonserious person there.”
Was he disturbed by the isolationist tinge to many of the questions? He said, “I don’t think there is isolationism in the hinterlands. But Obama hasn’t articulated a case for his policies. No wonder people don’t know why we are in these places.” The candidates he said, we’re asked “bumper sticker” questions (How fast do we get out of Afghanistan?). What we need he says is a serious conversation about what our national interests are and how we should act in the world.
Unfortunately, not only is that discussion missing in the GOP primary debate, it’s absent in the White House. For example, on China, Bolton says the administration suffers from two things. First, “Obama’s basic mind-set is that the U.S. has been in an unfairly dominate position.” So, we need to be forthcoming with the Communist regime. Moreover, Bolton argues, “We have no policies. Saying we have benign neglect would be too praiseworthy.” He contends that Obama “just doesn’t pay that much attention to foreign policy,” noting, for example, the acute problem of cyber-terrorism that has gone unaddressed.
On Israel, Bolton told me, “There is no doubt he’s the most anti-Israel president we’ve had.” But even then, he says part of the policy failure is explained by Obama’s lack of persistent involvement. “He dips in, and then he dips out,” Bolton explained. On the Palestinians’ threat to go to the U.N., Bolton said he sees no effort by th administration to rally opinion in the General Assembly, where he expects 150 to 160 countries to vote to recognize a Palestinian state. That in and of itself, he argued, shows a lack of competent leadership by Obama.
What does he make of the administration’s aversion to casting vetoes in the U.N. Security Council? “It’s central to their vision. It’s the John Kerry ‘international test,” he said, in reference to a line in the 2004 presidential debates. He told me, “The way you stop these things is to say up front, ‘We’re going to veto. You can change it or amend it, but we’re going to veto.’ My only regret is that I only got to cast two vetoes. ” Now there’s a conservative that hawks can get behind.
As for Libya, he said he hardly blames Republicans for their lack of enthusiasm. He said members of Congress and others are right to be worried about how the administration has botched things. “We should be worried about incompetence. We are three months into this.” With proper leadership and decisive action, Bolton told me, we could have already succeeded. Now the danger is, he said, that the longer the conflict drags on, the greater chance for Moammar Gadaffi to negotiate some sort of settlement.
As for the administration’s Syria policy, he deems it “inexplicable. The least they could do would be to call for [President Bashar al-Assad] to leave.” All along we should have been pushing the Assad regime. But, he pointed out, the real problem is “the regime in Tehran,” which he predicts will expend great effort to keep Assad in power.
The depth and range of Bolton’s knowledge in foreign policy is sorely lacking from the GOP debates. If he were to enter, the level of discourse would no doubt rise, and other candidates would have to be on their toes. And, if he decides not to run, any other candidate would be lucky to have him on the ticket or in the Cabinet. (Bachmann-Bolton? Imagine what the reaction in Ramallah and Beijing would be.) For now, Bolton can remind the current crop of candidates that while domestic policy is important, there is no more critical role than commander in chief. The contenders should show both interest and proficiency in that part of the job description.