John Bolton At The University Of Chicago

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on October 14, 2009

Tuesday evening, I went to the U of C to hear former Ambassador John Bolton speak on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, and take questions.

Bolton started out by stating his belief that Barack Obama is our first “post-American” President, in that he sees nothing particularly exceptional about the United States that citizens of other countries would not see as exceptional concerning their own countries. Building on the theme, Bolton portrayed the President as preferring to be above issues of national self-interest, which he stated would be to the detriment of American foreign policy. He then turned to specific issues, the first being the attempt to forge a comprehensive peace between the Arabs and the Israelis. Bolton stated that he did not think that the Palestinian Authority serves as a respectable interlocutor because of what he views as the fecklessness of Mahmoud Abbas’s government, and Fatah in general. He thinks that the Obama Administration, instead of being able to persuade Israel to soften its line on issues like settlements, instead inadvertently hardened the Israeli line. At the same time, he believes that the Palestinians will allow the United States to try to deliver the Israelis on a deal, and stated that this calculation might help the Palestinians stand fast on their own negotiating positions, while the United States worked to persuade the Israelis to compromise. Taking a longer term view of the peace process, Bolton stated his belief that the two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict was hopeless, and that instead, a three-state solution ought to be pursued; one that involves returning the part or all of the Gaza strip to Egypt, part or all of the West Bank to Jordan, and thus resolving the living arrangements for the Palestinian people. I personally don’t think that this proposal is realistic; the two-state solution is the genie that has escaped the bottle, and there is no putting it back, and a three-state solution is about as likely to be implemented as is a one-state solution in which Arabs and Jews share Israel between them.

Turning to the issue of Iran, North Korea, and both countries’ efforts to get nuclear weapons, Bolton stated that both countries viewed the Obama Administration as weak, a perception that encourages both governments in their drive towards nuclear weapons. I suppose that this is the case, but part of the problem in dealing with either Iran or North Korea concerning the nuclear issue is that both countries have learned how to drag out negotiations to near-interminable lengths in order to give themselves more time to completely master the nuclear cycle, and create weapons. Perceptions of weakness don’t help, but even if there were a perception of strength, neither the Islamic regime in Iran, nor the North Korean regime are staffed with fools, and they understand–as does Bolton–that time is on Iran’s and North Korea’s side.

Quite properly, Bolton had scorn for the Obama Administration’s decision to abandon missile defense in the Czech Republic and in Poland. Recall that part of the rationale behind the Administration’s decision was that it would induce the Russians to help us out on issues like Iran, by being more amenable to sanctions. Well, as Bolton pointed out, that just didn’t happen:

Russia publicly pushed back Tuesday against U.S. efforts to threaten tough new sanctions if Iran fails to prove its nuclear program is peaceful, dealing an apparent setback to President Barack Obama’s hopes for Moscow’s backing for fresh penalties against Tehran.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow believed such threats were “counterproductive” and that only negotiations should be pursued now.

Does anyone really expect this position to change anytime soon?

Bolton is concerned enough about Iran to have posited that nuclear deterrence would not prevail against a theocratic regime that believes in life in the hereafter. I disagree; the Islamic regime has no problem sending others to die for God, but it does not want to do the honors itself, and it certainly does not want to have the entire country of Iran do the honors by engaging in a blatant act that would invite a massive retaliatory strike. The greater danger–and I am disappointed somewhat in Bolton’s failure to address this–is that the Islamic regime might sell nuclear technology to another country, and then deny responsibility for any particularly horrible event.

Concerning Afghanistan, Bolton was properly scornful of the Obama Administration’s efforts, stating that the effort to get a strategy put in place on Afghanistan is ridiculously tardy, and an effort to kick the can down the road on the issue of troop deployments. The President announced his strategy at roughly the same time General McChrystal was asked to replace General McKiernan as the commanding general in Afghanistan. Stating now that we need a new strategy–after having announced the strategy earlier this year with General McChrystal’s appointment–is nothing short of bizarre.

The Q&A was a good one. Obviously, people took issue with Bolton’s comments concerning the need to maintain a belief in American exceptionalism, and they challenged him on the issue. The Ambassador gave as good as he got, and engaged a number of the questioners (all students) in colloquy. He was brusque at times, pugnacious always, but addressed matters with detail and coherence, demonstrating that he continues to do his homework when it comes to foreign policy. At times, things seemed to get a tad too boisterous, but the moderator made sure to keep everything on an even keel. Overwhelmingly, people were on their best behavior, and even if someone thought about rushing the stage with a cream pie to be delivered to the Ambassador’s face, there were quite a few gentlemen who could have played linebacker for the Chicago Bears, ready to stop that from happening. Fortunately, they did not need to sing–or tackle–for their suppers.

At the end of the day, there were a number of statements Bolton made with which I disagreed. However, he was very articulate in defending his views, and got challenged by several good questions. It was a fun debate to witness. Yours truly did not, alas, get a chance to ask a question; I would have wanted Bolton to address the argument I made here. Maybe another time.

  • intelleventcity

    Bolton's “three-state” solution is probably DOA, but worth discussing if only as a means to find a more suitable fix. It can now be buried right next to the “two-state” solution. The Israeli-Palestinian challenge is a gordian knot if there ever was one.

    The lecture was well attended and very informative. To find other public lectures by current and former officials, go to http://www.intelligentevent.com

  • intelleventcity

    Bolton's “three-state” solution is probably DOA, but worth discussing if only as a means to find a more suitable fix. It can now be buried right next to the “two-state” solution. The Israeli-Palestinian challenge is a gordian knot if there ever was one.

    The lecture was well attended and very informative. To find other public lectures by current and former officials, go to http://www.intelligentevent.com

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