Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton critiques president’s foreign policy

October 2, 2009Duke Law News

John Bolton offered a harsh critique of President Barack Obama's foreign policy during an address at Duke Law School on Oct. 1. The former U.N. ambassador to the United Nations said the president's desire to be a consensus builder in the international community, rather than an advocate for America, emboldens countries that pose a threat to U.S. interests.

Bolton's lecture was co-sponsored by the Federalist Society, the International Law Society, and the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy.

Currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Bolton served as the United States' U.N. ambassador from 2005 to 2006. He told an overflow crowd of students and community members that Obama demonstrates a "naïve" understanding of world affairs and has prioritized domestic policy over foreign policy.

Driving the president's foreign policy, he said, is a "post-American philosophy," one that seeks to transcend nationalism and favors a social democratic perspective of the world where all countries have equal standing. Such a philosophy, Bolton argued, runs contrary to the notion of American "exceptionalism" and is more likely to produce extended negotiation than results that protect U.S. interests.

"In terms of his priorities as president he just doesn't see foreign policy as that important," Bolton said. "He doesn't see terrorism as the kind of threat that his predecessor did, and his views of the risks of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are also very different." Bolton said that he would give the president a "very low grade" during his first months of office.

"I'm very worried that he's not paying attention to our national security adequately, that when he does pay attention to it he brings a naïve Wilsonianism that leaves us defenseless," he said. "His administration, I fear, is going to end up being proof of the adage that it's not American strength that's provocative, it's American weakness that's provocative."

Characterizing some of the Bush administration policies toward Iran as "frail," Bolton stated that Obama is perpetuating them with an ineffective "carrots and sticks" negotiation strategy. He described the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapon capabilities as the "least optimal, but most likely outcome."

Bolton credited the Obama administration with understanding the strategic importance of Afghanistan and how U.S. military action in that country affects Taliban and al-Qaida activities there and in Pakistan. However, he questioned the sincerity of the president's counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan given that the strategy may soon change.

"This to me is, eight months in, as good a laboratory indication of the Obama view of the world as anything you can come up with because the policies that he's talking about now are his policies," Bolton said. "These are not the policies that he simply inherited from George Bush. He had a very active role in changing the policies. He did change them.

"He had campaigned on the basis that the war in Afghanistan was not a voluntary war, it was a necessary war, it was the right war, it was a good war," Bolton continued. "You can bet that our adversaries around the world are watching this decision as carefully as any other decision that the president has made."

During a question-and-answer session following the lecture Bolton offered the view that President Obama has not transitioned from being a candidate to being a president and that he has likewise struggled with the change from legislator to executive. Ultimately, the president needs to become an advocate for his country, Bolton said.

"An advocate is not an irrational actor. An advocate is trying to advance the interest of his client, in this case the United States, in ways that take into account that there's a more complex world out there. I don't see Obama being the kind of advocate that I think the president should be or that the overwhelming majority of the American people think their president ought to be."

Bolton’s lecture can be viewed as a webcast.
Other News