John Bolton is a senior fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a right-wing "pro-Israel" activist group that has been accused of fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment. A longtime national security hawk, Bolton is a former board member of the Project for the New American Century and a past adviser to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard, and other right-wing media outlets.
Bolton has been a key Republican Party figure since he was tapped to serve in the Reagan administration in the 1980s, where he held a series of posts at USAID before joining a team of Federalist Society lawyers under Attorney General Edwin Meese. He later worked in several high-level positions in the George W. Bush administration, including as the State Department's chief diplomat on arms control and as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. A major focus of his work in and out of government has been to free U.S. military power from international constraint.
Bolton has long dismissed the legitimacy of the United Nations and other international institutions. In a 1994 speech at the World Federalist Association, Bolton infamously declared, "If the UN secretary building in New York lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." He has also dismissed international treaties as nonbinding "political obligations" and was a leading opponent of the International Criminal Court, which he once claimed would turn the "senior civilian and military leaders responsible for our defense and foreign policy" into "potential targets of the politically unaccountable Prosecutor in Rome."
Bolton's recent involvement in politics has included serving as a foreign policy surrogate for the 2012 Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan presidential campaign, as an informal adviser to 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and repeatedly suggesting that he will run for president.
In October 2013, he launched an eponymous PAC and Super PAC, anointing them with a mission to "seek out and support candidates for nomination and election to federal office who are committed to restoring strong American national security policies." Seeking to roll back an increasing libertarian influence on the GOP's foreign policy, Bolton said in a statement that "We must be prepared to do what it takes to protect the idea of American exceptionalism and our basic Constitutional priorities—the preservation of which are essential not only to our security, but to our prosperity as well."
Bolton's PAC and SuperPAC raised a total of $7.5 million during the 2014 midterm elections and contributed to the campaigns of 87 Senate and House candidates. The PACs made contributions to Republican candidates who espoused aggressive foreign policy positions and sponsored numerous hawkish online advertisements. The advertisements were described as "customized national security messages intended to sway distinct clusters of swing voters," relying on tactics such as positing that "President Obama is a better strategist for aiding ISIS than eliminating it."
Bolton was mentioned in an April 2015 New York Times piece that examined why Republicans are "more fervently pro-Israel than ever." The article linked such sentiment to being "partly a result of ideology, but also a product of a surge in donations and campaign spending on their behalf by a small group of wealthy donors." The piece revealed how Bolton's PAC is partly financed by "major pro-Israel donors" like Irving Moskowitz and that it "spent at least $825,000" to support the successful 2014 Senate bid of Tom Cotton (R-AL).
In February 2015, Bolton launched the Foundation for American Security and Freedom (FASF), an advocacy organization that describes itself as "committed to restoring and protecting our vital national security interests and preserving our way of life for our children." FASF states on its website that it aims to "strengthen our public discourse, making clear the inextricable links between strong foreign and domestic national policies." The conservative Breitbart reported of FASF's launch: "The staunchly pro-American diplomat explained that the FASF was designed to help America avoid the mistake of electing a president who doesn't care that much about America's national security, as it did when electing Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012."
In August 2015, FASF ran a TV ad attacking comments made Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) about a hypothetical Iranian nuclear weapon. The ad featured an American family happily sitting down to dinner when suddenly a presumably nuclear explosion occurs. The ad then transitions to a speech where Paul states that U.S. "national security is not threatened by Iran having one nuclear weapon." The ad ended with the caption: "It only takes one. A nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security."
Bolton was rumored for a time to be considering a bid for president in 2016, and he made visits in 2013 to early primary states as part of what journalist Robert Costa described as "an informal national tour" to "give speeches, huddle with GOP leaders, and push back against the party's libertarian shift. He'll make the case for a muscular foreign policy." In May 2015, however, Bolton ruled out running. "While I'm not a candidate, I am certainly not going to sit this election out," Bolton said in statement. "I'm also going to focus on the 2016 presidential race, to make certain that foreign policy is critical to winning the nomination."
Bolton had previously considered running in 2012, a move he ultimately decided against even as he hinted that he viewed himself as the only "ideal conservative" in the race. "I hope he runs," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews at the time, "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."
In the Obama Era
Bolton is a prolific commentator on foreign affairs. He has been among the Obama administration's most strident critics, particularly on Middle East issues, and has repeatedly accused the Obama White House of "weakness" and "fecklessness."
Bolton is a particularly vocal proponent of the claim that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, despite U.S. intelligence judgments to the contrary, and has accused the Obama administration of enabling Tehran by engaging with it diplomatically. "By negotiating with Iran," Bolton wrote in April 2014, Obama "has not only allowed it a path to legitimize its nuclear-weapons program, but objectively facilitated the deadly global menace in Tehran." While nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States were ongoing in late 2013, Bolton insisted that "Iran's nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs will proceed unimpeded in unknown, undisclosed locations." Bolton later added that "we shouldn't trust and can't verify Iranian promises not to fabricate nuclear weapons," concluding that "We have only two very unpleasant choices: either Iran gets nuclear weapons in the very near future, or pre-emptive military force, fully justified by well-established principles of self-defense, must break Iran's control over the nuclear fuel cycle and prevent (or, at least, substantially delay) weaponization."
Bolton says that that Iran should not be permitted to have an indigenous uranium enrichment program. "The right amount is zero. Iran should not be permitted to conduct any nuclear-related activity as long as the ayatollahs remain in power, given their record of dissimulation and obstructionism and their obvious intention of becoming a nuclear-weapons state," he wrote in September 2014.
In a March 2015 op-ed for The New York Times, published just before Iran and the P5+1 reached a political framework agreement over Iran's nuclear program, Bolton explicitly called for military strikes against Iran. Titled, "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran," Bolton's op-ed claimed "President Obama's approach on Iran has brought a bad situation to the brink of catastrophe." Bolton further asserted that "the inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel's 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required."
He added: "The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what's necessary. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran's opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran."
Responded Sally Kohn of The Daily Beast: "Would that be the same evidence you relied on to assert that Saddam Hussein was developing WMDs—the same intel the Bush administration used as the justification for going to war in Iraq? Bolton provides little solid evidence of his sky-is-falling assertions. We're just supposed to trust him, I guess, based on his reputation."
After Iran and the P5+1 group of nations reached a comprehensive nuclear agreement in July 2015, Bolton vociferously denounced it and reiterated his call for U.S. military action against Iran. "Obama's deal is a born failure for reasons we need not elaborate further here," he wrote in an August 2015 op-ed for the conservative National Review. "Accordingly, as of today, only a preemptive military strike can block Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state." Bolton then expressed support for Israel launching a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and stated that the United States should support if it does so.
In 2009, speaking before an audience at the University of Chicago, Bolton suggested 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 Inter Press Service blogger Daniel Luban: "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."
Bolton has also been critical of the Obama administration's position on Syria, writing in September 2013 that Obama had "failed in his stated objective to oust Syria's Assad regime from power; failed to impress Assad that his 'red line' against using chemical weapons was serious; failed to exact retribution when that red line was crossed; failed to rally anything but small minorities in either house of Congress to support his position; and failed to grasp that agreements with the likes of Syria and Russia prolong, rather than solve, the chemical-weapons problem."Yet Bolton later said that he himself "would vote against an authorization to use force here," adding, "I don't think it is in America's interest. I don't think we should in effect take sides in the Syrian conflict."
In April 2014, Bolton called the Syrian civil war a "strategic sideshow" and wrote that the United States should instead be preparing for war with Iran. "The Assad regime, loathsome as it is, couldn't survive without substantial Iranian assistance," Bolton wrote. "And it is Iran, through its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its decades-long role as international terrorism's central banker, which poses the central danger. Instead of focusing on overthrowing Assad or aiding his enemies, we should be vigorously pursuing regime change in Iran." Bolton accused Iran of "relentlessly" pursuing a nuclear weapon despite evidence that Tehran had reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium in accordance with an interim agreement it had made with international negotiators earlier that year.
After Russia's decision in October 2015 to bolster its military presence in Syria and launch airstrikes against Syrian rebel groups, Bolton stated in a Washington Times piece that the United States should pursue the goal of defeating ISIS and forming a new state in the territory of Syria and Iraq currently controlled by ISIS. Calling for a "forceful U.S.-led effort to destroy ISIS" that excludes Russia and Iran, Bolton stated that "our objective should be a new Sunni state where ISIS now rules, carved from Iraq and Syria, one that is either democratic or led, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, by one of our SOB's." He also added that "sooner or later, we should recognize the reality that an independent Kurdistan now exists, even if not declared de jure."
In a November 2015 New York Times op-ed, Bolton reiterated his call for an independent "Sunni state" to be formed out of Syrian and Iraqi territory, stating it "could be a bulwark against both Mr. Assad and Iran-allied Baghdad."
Bolton is a steadfast supporter of the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, like many members of Netanyahu's cabinet, an opponent of Palestinian statehood. Claiming that it "would inevitably lead to a terrorist state on the other side of the border with Israel," Bolton has fervently criticized the Obama administration for seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, Bolton has echoed the arguments of some Israeli nationalists that the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza—which he called "bits and pieces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire" with "no particular history either of national identity or of economic interdependence"—should be ceded respectively to Jordan and Egypt rather than incorporated into an independent Palestinian territory. "The only logic underlying the demand for a Palestinian state," Bolton has claimed, "is the political imperative of Israel's opponents to weaken and encircle the Jewish state, thereby minimizing its potential to establish secure and defensible borders."
Bolton has also been a defender of Israeli aggression against its neighbors. In late 2009, Bolton joined a chorus of neoconservative voices—including UN Watch and the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg—in attacking the UN Human Rights Council's "Goldstone Report," which detailed war crimes committed by Israel as well as Hamas during Israel's 2008-2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip. Bolton called the report's conclusion, that Israel had targeted civilians in Gaza, an attempt "to criminalize Israel's strategy of crippling Hamas." Bolton's comments echoed earlier remarks he had made about Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon, when he said there was "no moral equivalence" between Lebanese civilian casualties of Israeli bombing and Israelis killed by "malicious terrorist acts."
Bolton has also remained unapologetic about the U.S. war in Iraq. "Despite all the criticism of what happened after Saddam's defeat," he argued in February 2013, it is "indisputable" that the U.S.-led coalition "accomplished its military mission with low casualties and great speed, sending an unmistakable signal of power and determination throughout the Middle East and around the world." Dismissing critics who said the war was unnecessary or disproportionate, Bolton claimed that Saddam Hussein "would have immediately returned to ambitious WMD programs" in the absence of international action, adding that if anything, the United States should have toppled Hussein in 1991 and then immediately "turned its attention to the regimes in Iran and Syria." Bolton quipped that anyone who claims that Iraqis were better off under Hussein than they were in the tumultuous decade that followed his ouster must have "a propensity to admire totalitarianism," but in any case, "the issue was never about making life better for Iraqis, but about ensuring a safer world for America and its allies." Invoking World War II, Bolton added, "we didn't wage war after Pearl Harbor to do nation-building for our enemies."
After the November 2015 Paris attacks, Bolton called for more leeway to be given to U.S. intelligence agencies. "We need a more sensible national conversation about the need for effective intelligence gathering to uncover and prevent such tragedies before they occur," he opined in a Fox News op-ed. "Knee-jerk, uninformed and often wildly inaccurate criticisms of programs (such as several authorized in the wake of 9/11 in the Patriot Act) have created a widespread misimpression in the American public about what exactly our intelligence agencies have been doing and whether there was a 'threat' to civil liberties." He added: "Now is the time to correct these misimpressions."
Bolton has also struck a hardline on the South China Sea territorial dispute between China and several of its neighbors. In October 2015, after a U.S. military ship sailed through waters claimed by China in the South China Sea, Bolton declared: "If we are going to do this in a serious way, we have to have more ships in the water." He heaped criticism on the Obama administration for sending the single ship, telling the conservative Newsmax that he is "worried the White House may have not thought the action through completely, because 'if we get in a situation where the Chinese crowd our ships and impede their passage and there is a collision at sea, what do we do then?'"
In the Bush Administration
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, Bolton 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 a reputation as an arrogant and hawkish unilateralist willing to redefine U.S. positions in the global arena, diplomatic consequences notwithstanding. 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 withdrawing 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. Bolton was also given the task of officially rescinding the U.S. signature on the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, which he later called "the happiest moment in my government service."
Bolton was a key proponent within the Bush administration of taking military action against the so-called "Axis of Evil," or countries identified by the Bush administration as "rogue state" rivals of the United States. Two months before the Iraq invasion, Bolton met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss strategies for "preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction," focusing 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."
Speaking before an audience at the Heritage Foundation in May 2002, Bolton argued that Cuba should also 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 Bolton claimed that the industry was concealing a WMD project. Providing no evidence, he insisted that 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.
Bolton was also one of the administration's leading hawks on Asia policy and one if its strongest advocates of Taiwan. According to a 2001 Washington Post investigation, 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 1999 Weekly Standard article. "The notion that China would actually respond with force is a fantasy."
Bolton's penchant for intemperate statements often compromised his work as a diplomat. 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 had to send a replacement for Bolton to the talks.
After Condoleezza Rice became 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 had met with officials of Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, without first seeking "country clearance" from the State Department.
There was enormous domestic and international opposition to Bolton's nomination. 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 60th 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. Bolton himself asserted that 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."
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."
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.