Wearing a red tie and blue shirt that patriotically complemented his trademark white walrus mustache, John Bolton entered a reception 14 stories above Biscayne Bay in Miami last week to talk about what he always talks about: the country’s bleak foreign policy challenges.
But before Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a Fox News commentator, painted his usual gloomy picture, Bolton the potential presidential candidate participated in some glad-handing.
“If you run for the presidency,” whispered Ken Klein, a producer of biblically themed television shows from Boynton Beach, Fla., “we’d like to help you.”
“Thank you,” Bolton said. “I’m still thinking about it.”
The only reason Bolton, who, practically speaking, has little to no shot at the nomination, is even entertaining a run as a protest candidate is his frustration at the lack of serious foreign-policy thinking in the presumptive Republican field. Although Bolton happily joins fellow GOP hopefuls in bashing President Obama’s response to the recent upheaval in the Arab world, that turmoil has revealed another political reality: The Republicans are all over the map.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said he largely approved of the administration’s calls for a transition in Egypt, then, on the day that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, failed to mention Egypt when he told a gathering of conservatives that Obama’s foreign policy had made the world “more dangerous.” Former House speaker Newt Gingrich agitated for a no-fly zone in Libya before criticizing Obama for instituting just that. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour questioned Republican orthodoxy by suggesting defense-spending cuts and troop reductions in Afghanistan. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is calling for action in Syria.
“I don’t necessarily see patterns developing in the foreign policy debate,” Bolton said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m considering running. I think it’s important not to have sound bites and bumper stickers but to have a sustained political discussion. Because there will come an evening in October of 2012 when there will be a debate between the Republican nominee and Barack Obama on national security issues.”
Bolton is not exactly an arbiter of mainstream foreign policy. Judged so extreme that Democrats blocked his appointment as ambassador (President George W. Bush responded with a recess appointment), Bolton supported Bush’s war in Iraq as a projection of American power. That operation didn’t shake out as planned.
A decade later, when a democratic movement swept through the Arab world, Bolton, more than any other Republican, stood firmly with Mubarak’s regime. Sometimes, he argued, American- and Israeli-aligned autocrats are preferable to unpredictable democracies, and he warned against free elections in Bahrain to avoid spreading the influence of Iran, which he isn’t entirely against bombing. He also advocates a more aggressive campaign to rid Libya of longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi.
The substance of those positions is arguable, and for Bolton’s legion of critics, so is the sanity. But not even they would accuse him of political calibration. Bolton’s views have an intellectual underpinning that he has abundantly articulated in essays, paid speeches and commentary. The problem, as he sees it, is that much of the recent Republican criticism has been partisan in nature. And before bashing Obama on Libya became politically palatable, the other Republicans in the field “weren’t saying much” at all about foreign policy.
“There was a lot of non-comment,” he said. “Not only by potential presidential candidates, but by members of Congress and the like. And that’s up to them. I try not to second-guess other people.”
These days, the Republican field can’t stop talking about foreign policy. Or more specifically, they can’t stop talking about what’s wrong with Obama’s.
After the president’s Monday night speech defending the timing and rationale of his intervention in Libya, Pawlenty’s spokesman, Alex Conant, wrote, “President Obama doesn’t give much hope to protesters in Iran, where he says ‘change is fiercely suppressed.’ ” Speaking on CNN, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani called the speech “illogical.” Barbour’s adviser, Jim Dyke, wrote on Twitter that the “speech seemed defensive and small compared to what is happening in middle east and in Africa.”
It was Barbour’s opposition to nation-building — which happens, coincidentally or not, to align with tea party politics — that opened something of a rift in the Republican Party, where a neoconservative view favoring intervention and regime change still holds sway over the majority of the presumptive presidential field.
But some hawks think the complexity of the current crisis means the traditional neoconservative approach needs updating. In an interview, Gingrich said Republicans needed a “much more sophisticated and much clearer” strategy that addresses the triple challenges of radical Islam, China and weapons of mass destruction. “If I become a candidate, one of the purposes would be to create a national dialogue about national security and homeland security in its fullest complexity,” he said.
Gingrich at times appears in the midst of his own complex personal dialogue. “I believe, ironically, that to have a successful long-term strategy, we have to be much more careful about how we use American power,” he said. “Because I don’t think it’s sustainable to run around the world dropping bombs on people. And yet I am for the U.S. providing leadership on a global basis.”
Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, another potential nominee, generally toes the neoconservative line. But he also argues that the United States should have privately persuaded Mubarak to step down rather than publicly pushing out a longtime ally who was key to Israel’s security. He said Bolton was more willing to stand with Mubarak “through thick and thin” than the rest of the nascent GOP field.
Santorum argued that the policy differences between Barbour’s “isolationist” strain of thought and the neoconservative view within the Republican field were a reflection of strength, not weakness.
“We are a broader-based party than people give us credit for,” he said. “There’s a lot of room for this and, depending on the circumstances, I might find myself in either camp.”
As he shook hands with the lawyers and judges who belong to the Federalist Society of Miami, which hosted the event, Bolton accepted a glass of ice water and numerous compliments on his Fox News television appearances. A television reporter from TV Marti, a government-backed channel broadcasting news to Cuba, asked him about the island and got a predictably hard-line response about Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s connections to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.
When the reporter asked Bolton about his plans for 2012, he lifted his shoulders and emitted an aw-shucks yelp for the camera. “Well, I’m thinking about it,” he said, adding his standard line. “We haven’t had an adequate discussion at the national level on threats to American national security. I think it is very important to get that conversation going.”
A bell alerted Bolton and the 75 attendees that the time had come for his talk. Bolton was introduced as a diplomatic Dirty Harry, standing guard with “law books and a .44 in hand” asking the world’s bad guys, “Feeling lucky, punks?”
He took the lectern and launched into his usual speech slamming the administration for lacking a coherent foreign strategy. He argued that Obama should have acted without U.N. approval to get rid of Gaddafi when he was weak. “There was an extraordinarily high likelihood,” he said, “that [Gaddafi] would return to international terrorism and resume his nuclear weapons program.” He acknowledged that he didn’t know what danger the Libyan rebels might pose but said, “When there is Moammar Gaddafi on one side and uncertainty on the other, you pick uncertainty.”
Bolton made no excuses for standing beside Mubarak, saying America’s betrayal of old friends, despotic or not, sent a destabilizing message. “No wonder other leaders in the Middle East are asking what it means to be an American ally,” he said.
He concluded by observing, “It’s sort of bad news across the board.”
After the speech, attendee Eric Padron, a defense lawyer from Miami, judged Bolton’s remarks “wonderfully direct” and said he was “absolutely” presidential material. But keeping the Republican field focused on foreign policy promises to be a taxing full-time undertaking, and it’s not clear Bolton is willing to give up his day job. Asked whether a reporter could tag along to a private engagement where Bolton would again offer his foreign policy views, the would-be candidate demurred.
“I have to earn a living, too,” he said.