Editor’s note: Below are the video and transcript to Ambassador John Bolton’s address at the Freedom Center’s 2014 Texas Weekend. The event took place May 2nd-4th at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas.
Daniel Pipes: Please join me in welcoming John Bolton.
John Bolton: Thanks, Daniel. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.
I’m always delighted to be able to be part of a Freedom Center event. The work that everybody does is just so important, and becomes more important. So for all of you who are supporters, believe me, it’s support that’s put to very good use. I can assure you of that.
I wanted to talk for just a little bit tonight about some of the problems that the United States and its friends in the world face. And I’m acutely conscious that I’m the only thing now that stands between you and dinner.
So I’ll try and make these remarks as pointed as I can.
It is a very dangerous time for the United States and its friends in the world. And in large measure, it’s not because of the individual crises that we see in the world around us. The biggest threat to our national security is sitting the White House. And it’s –
It’s something that we never could’ve predicted. It’s unquestionably the case in my view that the President’s the most radical President that we’ve ever had, and not just on domestic issues. He has a fundamentally different view of America’s place in the world than any other President in history, to the point where I think most of us already look back at the Jimmy Carter Administration in the late 1970s as the good old days.
Which tells you something right there.
So before I get into some of the specifics, I want to talk about what it is about this President that makes him different, and the particular reasons that his worldview is so contrary to our national interest.
I think, to start with, it’s important to understand that the basic concept is he just doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. Now, this is a subject that’s controversial sometimes even with our friends when we talk about American exceptionalism. My view it’s not a statement or a belief in American superiority; it’s a recognition that our history has been fundamentally different from virtually every other country around the world.
And it wasn’t the United States or its citizens that first proclaimed American exceptionalism; it was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who, in “Democracy in America,” his insightful analysis of the United States in the first part of the 19th century, said that it may be said of the Americans that they are truly exceptional, in that no other democratic people will repeat their experience. And it’s right. And it has shaped our view of America and America’s role in the world.
It’s sometimes controversial. But the fact is that it’s been so widely shared among Americans that nobody’s ever really given it serious thought, until we got Obama. And the views that he picked up during his time at Columbia and Harvard Law School, and working as a community organizer in Chicago, have made him fundamentally different.
Now, it’s quite interesting – in his first trip to Europe as President, a British reporter asked him if he believed in American exceptionalism. That’s how apparent it was to the rest of the world that he didn’t that the reporter actually put the question to him. And Obama’s answer, which a number of people have commented on since 2009, is worth reviewing again as we look at the policies he pursues today. In response to this question, he said – yes, I believe in American exceptionalism, just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
Now, let’s parse this sentence, which is classic Obama. In the first third, he says – yeah, I believe in American exceptionalism. So all those people who say that I don’t are wrong. But then, in the second two thirds of the sentence, he takes it back by referring to the British and Greek views.
You know, there are 193 countries in the United Nations. And he certainly could’ve gone on – just as the Papua New Guineans believe in Papua New Guinean exceptionalism –
— just as the Burkina Fasians believe in Burkina Fasian exceptionalism.
The point’s clear. If everybody’s exceptional, then nobody’s exceptional. And that’s what he really thinks.
He’s not the first Democratic Party leader to believe that. I think if you go back to 1988, George H.W. Bush said about Michael Dukakis – “my opponent believes that the United States is a nice country out there somewhere on the UN roll call between Albania and Zimbabwe.” In other words, just one more country. That’s what they think.
And so, in his view, since America’s not exceptional, since we’re not different than any other country – we have our interests, they have their interests – he looks at American strength as part of the problem in the world – that we’re too much – we’re too assertive, too dominant, too successful, really, over the years.
And so in the Obama view, because our strength is part of the problem, one way to get to a more peaceful, more stable environment is for the United States to withdraw, to be less assertive, to be less in the world.
Now, I think this is like looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s not American strength that’s the problem; it’s American weakness that’s the problem. And certainly, Obama is proving that on a daily basis.
He’s not, though – although his policies get you to a declining, withdrawing America, it’s not that he’s an isolationist, in the sense that we see a rising isolation in some parts of the Republican Party; he’s a multilateralist.
And he doesn’t view what happens in the world through a nationalist prism. He said – and these are really chilling words, when you think about it – he said in 2009, in his first speech to the United Nations – it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009, more than at any point in human history, the interests of nations and peoples are shared. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.
Now, that is a statement that essentially says everything that we’ve seen in, you know, roughly 100,000 years of human history doesn’t apply anymore. Coincidentally, 2009, more than at any point in human history, when Barack Obama becomes President – which is when history begins for Barack Obama –
— these are core beliefs of his. And they are reflected in his policy.
I’ve worried for a long time what he meant when he said no world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. I wondered, what is he talking about there? What does he really mean? And the more I looked it, it finally came to me – he’s talking about us. He’s talking about us. We’re one nation elevated over another, that’s not going to succeed. So his determination is to make sure that in fact we are not the dominant power in the world.
Now again, this is not the first person to hold this view. I think it’s very similar to what Woodrow Wilson believed, and caused us so much trouble. Wilson said, in his famous Fourteen Points speech – the interests of all nations are also our own. He talked about peace without victory in 1918. And Wilson said – there must be not a balance of power, but a community of power. And he wasn’t even a community organizer.
Not organized rivalries, but an organized common piece based on – listen to this – the moral force of the public opinion of the world.
Now, nobody’s ever told us how to get the public opinion of the world, unless you’re Woodrow Wilson or Barack Obama and you know it. I mean, it speaks to you. This is a very, very precarious and dangerous basis for a President of the United States to make policy. It is detached from the interest and views of the American people. Because he’s listening to the public opinion of the world.
Now, the opposite view on this was expressed very clearly at the time by Theodore Roosevelt, when he was asked – well, what do you think of this business of making the world safe for democracy? And Roosevelt, the Republican Roosevelt, said in response – first, we’re to make the world safe for ourselves.
And that is the real bedrock, or should be the bedrock, of American foreign policy. We can’t shape the rest of the world, but we can shape it adequately to defend ourselves and to defend our interests around the world.
That’s why when I hear within the Republican Party voices that hark back to the isolationism of the 1930s, I get worried. Because by moving away from the Theodore Roosevelt view, they end up – although they start with a very different analytical premise – they end up in the same place as Barack Obama – that it’s America that causes the problems, and that if indifference to the world, withdrawing from the world, makes us less provocative, that that’s what we ought to do.
You know, that leads to a real absence of thinking about American national security. We already see in the Democratic Party, they don’t have a national security wing anymore. There’s no Scoop Jackson wing, there isn’t even a Joe Lieberman wing anymore.
And yet, we see within the Republican Party today a view of America’s place in the world that will fundamentally leave us in the same position as the Obama view, which is a weaker, less outward-looking, declinist America.
This is fundamentally the opposite of Ronald Reagan’s view of the world – the view that brought us to a successful conclusion in the Cold War, which rejected multilateralism, which rejected isolationism and which, in the phrase that Reagan used over and over again, was based on peace through strength. That is, to achieve American objectives without the use of military force.
It is a way that protects America and its friends and allies because of the strength, military, political and economic, of our position. It dissuades and deters adversaries from trying to take advantage of us. And it recognizes that you are best able to achieve peace when you are strong – that it’s not American strength that’s provocative; it’s American weakness that’s provocative. And that’s something that Obama, and some people in the Republican Party today, unfortunately, have never really understood – that it’s the first duty of the sovereign, as Adam Smith said, to protect the society against the violence of other societies.
So it’s a basic chore of government, and it’s something that really our way of life, our standard of living in the United States, depend on. Whatever minimal order and stability there is in the world – and there’s very little of it – is because of the United States and its structure of alliances. If we don’t fulfill that role, you’re going to have others attempting to fill the void, or you’re going to have anarchy. And it’s going to be the worse for us here.
Now, many people complain – and rightfully so – that other countries benefit from this and don’t pay their fair share, they don’t bear their fair share of the burden; that’s true. And it’s something we should try and fix. But let’s be clear – we’re not doing this for them; we’re doing it for us. And there isn’t anybody else that can cover our back if we’re not able to do it.
And I’m afraid that the proof of this is something that we see around us in the world almost everywhere. And I think that, in fact, I worry that over the next three years, the pace and the scope of the challenges that the United States faces is going to grow. Because our adversaries and our friends have watched the Obama Administration in its first nearly five years in office. They fully understand what the President’s about. And those who want to take advantage of us understand that the 2016 election may bring something very, very different. So if you want to move on your agenda contrary to American interests, this is the time to do it.
And you can pick so many places around the world where this is evident. Let’s just start with Russia and Ukraine. You know, this problem has been evident for quite some time. If you go back to 2006, when he was last president of Russia, Vladimir Putin said – the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and a tragedy for the Russian people. He was saying even then that his objective was to reestablish Russian hegemony within the space of the former Soviet Union. Not necessarily to take it over again, because I don’t think he wanted the problems that the newly independent republics had. But he wanted Russian domination.
And I think the West understood that. I think that’s one reason we expanded NATO membership to Eastern and Central Europe. I think it’s why we put the Baltic Republics in NATO. But we failed to follow our own logic. We left a gap between NATO’s eastern border and Russia’s western border – Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries.
George W. Bush moved to try and fill that gap in April of 2008 – to bring Georgia and Ukraine on a clearly defined path to NATO membership, to end the ambiguity and to allow those countries to join the West, and to pick up that space for Europe and the United States. The Europeans, even then fearful of what Russia might do with their oil and gas supplies, rejected the Bush proposal.
And four months later – this is kind of like a laboratory experiment you don’t often get in international affairs – four months later, the Russians invaded Georgia and carved off two provinces of Georgia that they still hold onto.
Now, at the time of that Russian attack, Barack Obama, candidate for President of the United States, was asked what he thought about it. And his first response – he later walked away from it, but his first response was to call on both Russia and Georgia to exercise restraint.
I mean, just think about that for a minute. He had to – as I say, he had to reverse that position. But in the Kremlin, they took very careful note of what his first reaction was.
So, Obama comes into office. He could be thinking about the strategic implications of what Russia had just done in Georgia. But instead, he spends his time pressing the famous reset button, giving up bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, where we would’ve put missile defense assets to protect the United States itself, to protect us in the homeland, against the potential for ballistic missile attack with nuclear warheads from rogue states in the Middle East. He gave that up. Because the Russians were afraid of it.
He gave the Russians the New START Arms Control Treaty. Very ill advised. He gave concession after concession to the Russians in controversy after controversy. And as was entirely predictable and in fact predicted by some of us, the Russians did what they did during the Cold War. They took one concession after another. They put it in their pocket and said – what have you got for me next?
So Obama today is utterly unprepared for what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine. Putin suffered a setback when the Yanukovych government was overthrown. And he’s systematically, for the past three months, going about reversing that. And he’s accomplishing it. Even the New York Times today had to admit that the economic sanctions the President’s put in place have been utterly ineffective in deterring Russian conduct.
And let’s be clear what Putin has done here. First, in 2008 – but even more boldly in the past few months – he has used military force on the continent of Europe to change international boundaries. And in response, the West has done nothing. So that the signal to Putin and all the other former Soviet Republics is basically – you’re on your own.
Moreover – and we have to acknowledge the problem – the European response, if anything, has been weaker than Obama’s. That’s not an excuse for anybody. It’s a cause of a cyclical problem, where Obama can say – well, you know, the Europeans really aren’t up for tough sanctions. And therefore, I don’t have to do anything. And the Europeans can say – well, the Americans aren’t leading. So we’re not going to lead, either. And this downward cycle simply encourages Putin to continue his agitation, his destabilizing of Ukraine, to achieve the objective he wants, which is regime in Kiev that’s compliant with his wishes.
But the signal to others, to the Baltic Republics who are NATO members, leaves them in fear. Because they now worry that Obama, even though they’re NATO members, won’t protect them, either. And I think Putin didn’t start out this way. But he sees a chance – potentially, potentially – to shatter the NATO alliance, something he never could’ve dreamed of four or five years ago.
So when you add to the internal problems of the European Union, the possibility of the post-Cold War arrangement in Europe coming unstuck, I think is rising. And it’s rising in substantial measure because of the absence of any American leadership.
Now, there’s no country in the world watching what’s happening in Ukraine, other than the participants themselves – nobody watching it more closely than China. Because China is engaged in its own expansionist effort in the waters off its seacoast. And this is an issue vastly underreported in the United States, even with the President’s recent trip to Asia. It’s like it just – it’s too hard for people in the media to cover.
Certainly, Obama didn’t give them any reason to cover it while he was in Asia, because he simply repeated the same policies that his administration has pursued for five years. And they are policies that are failing in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
You know, in the government, and even in American business circles, there’s a kind of a mantra that China’s engaged in a peaceful rise, and it’s going to be a responsible stakeholder in world affairs. Well, okay. That’s possible; a lot of things are possible.
But that’s not the most likely scenario by a long shot. In fact, China’s modernizing its army, it’s building up its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capabilities. It’s creating a blue-water navy for the first time in 600 years. It has one of the world’s – certainly the most aggressive and one of the most sophisticated programs in cyber warfare. It has developed anti-satellite weapons to blind our capabilities to surveil China from space. It has extensive development of what are called anti-access area denial weapon capabilities to push the US Navy back from the Western shores of the Pacific, where we’ve been dominant since World War II. And all the while, it is making territorial claims in the East and South China Sea that make what the Russians are doing in Ukraine look timid.
Now, people say that these claims are these little rocks and reefs and islands that are barely above water at low tide, and that’s true. But they’re not the issue. The issue is whether China can break free of the island chain that prevents it from getting out into the Pacific, and whether they can turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, taking it from being international waterways to being Chinese water.
What difference does that make? Well, if you’re in Japan or South Korea or Taiwan, all of your oil from the Middle East comes through the South China Sea. So if China makes that a territorial lake, they’ve got their hands around the throats of the economy of Japan and the other countries, and puts them in an enormous position to affect Southeast Asia, which is obviously – all of the trade and investment and commerce we have with East and Southeast Asia is at risk. And this is at a time when the American Navy has the lowest number of warships at sea since 1916.
And you know, Romney tried to raise this during the debate with Obama. And Obama’s response was again – it’s very revealing. He didn’t have an answer; he had snark. He said – well, you know, our ships are much more sophisticated than the ships of 1916. We have submarines, we have aircraft carriers. So, you know, you’re just counting numbers.
Well, that would be a good answer if the ships of our adversaries had been built in 1916.
Unfortunately, they’re not. They’re building ships that are just as sophisticated as ours are.
And that’s where the blindness of Obama’s vision is so important. He just doesn’t see how declining American strength affects others – the Japanese are very worried, the Koreans, the Taiwanese, obviously, most worried of all. The Indians are now very worried about what this rising Chinese capacity means. And they see no answers from the United States. And when they look at Ukraine, and they see actual military territorial aggression, and no American response, you can imagine what conclusion they draw.
But to me, the biggest threats that we face in the near term are the continuing threats of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons especially.
And here, the Obama Administration has failed completely. They’ve failed to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, they’ve made a deal with Iran that essentially legitimizes Iran’s uranium enrichment capability. Iran made superficial, easily reversible concessions on its nuclear program. And in return, they blew a hole through the international sanctions, which were not slowing down the nuclear weapons program but were imposing a cost on the Iranian economy.
They’ve done nothing in the White House to stop the North Korean program. And there’s ample evidence that Iran and North Korea are cooperating on ballistic missiles for sure, and quite possibly on the nuclear weapons side as well.
This is, again, a huge lesson to our adversaries – to any would-be nuclear weapon state – that if you are simply persistent enough, you too can have nuclear weapons. And the threat that that poses to Israel, to friendly states in the Middle East, is really extraordinary.
You know, Israel is a small country. Half a dozen nuclear detonations – there is no more Israel. That’s why Ariel Sharon once described it to President Bush as the threat of a nuclear holocaust. And he was not exaggerating.
The Iranian nuclear weapons program is not Israel’s problem; it’s our problem. Because we’re the only country ultimately that can stop would-be proliferators from getting the capability. And yet, we’re doing nothing, which is why the spotlight is on Israel to take the very hard decision, whether they will, as they have twice before in Israel’s history, strike a nuclear weapons program in the hands of a hostile state.
Frankly, if I were in Israel, I’d have done this five years ago. And I think they’re wasting time.
And I think it will be incredibly important for the United States to come to Israel’s defense if we wake up one morning and find that they are already attacking Iran. This will be an entirely legitimate exercise of Israel’s inherent right of self defense. And the United States ought to say that immediately after we learn that the attack has begun. We ought to resupply Israel militarily immediately. And frankly, we ought to do a lot more. I just don’t think the Obama Administration will do anything.
And the Iranians understand that. They don’t believe the President when he says all options are on the table. I don’t even think the President believes the President –
— when he says that.
And the Iranian nuclear threat is not simply a regional threat in the Middle East. It forms the basis of the risk of a perfect storm with terrorists – that Iran would supply nuclear weapons to al-Qaeda or others that they don’t need a ballistic missile to deliver, that they can put in a boxcar, put in a ship, sail it into any harbor in this country or anywhere in the world and detonate it.
And that’s where, really, the threat of international terrorism remains so acute. Now, we’ve had developments just this week on one of the central issues of the war on terrorism – the attack on Benghazi on September the 11th, 2012, with the revelation of what we knew all along – that the White House had no intention of being candid about what happened in that attack. But also, today, as I think most of you probably heard, Speaker Boehner has finally announced the formation of a select committee in the House which will unify –
— the investigative efforts from six committees, six committees, into one.
And as I said to a few of you before dinner, I was at the Justice Department when we had to face in the Reagan Administration the Iran Contra select committee. And let me tell you, it is a powerful, powerful tool in the congressional arsenal. And the fact that we’re finally going to have it, I think, could make a real difference.
But the fundamental point on the ground in the region remains that the threat of international terrorism is just as acute today as it was before 9⁄11. The administration’s own Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said as much two months ago in testimony before Congress. It’s a different structure for al-Qaeda than it was before the first 9⁄11. But if anything, it’s a graver threat because it’s metastasized into countries all over the region. And other terrorists have come along. We’ve seen what they’ve been able to do in Iraq, what they’re doing today in Syria.
And so the whole approach of the administration, which is to say – well, we’ve hurt al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we were able to kill Osama bin Laden – and therefore, what they define as core al-Qaeda has been weakened.
Now, it’s not like al-Qaeda sat around in caves in Afghanistan drawing corporate organization charts and working out exactly how they were going to do things. They had objectives. They knew that different people would be attracted to their efforts for different reasons, and they accepted that. And that’s what’s happened since 9⁄11.
While Obama has focused on defining terrorism down to Al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda down to core al-Qaeda, and core al-Qaeda down to Osama bin Laden so he can take credit for it; the rest of the terrorists have been ignoring this esoteric discussion and conducting terrorist operations.
And that’s what the attack in Benghazi was, and why it was such a threat to the administration’s entire tissue fabric of argument that al-Qaeda was on the run, Osama bin Laden was dead and General Motors was alive.
They knew that if people really understood what had happened at Benghazi, the American public would understand that the threat of international terrorism is very real.
So the whole argument about how they had failed to understand that Libya was dissolving into anarchy, that the terrorists had come back to use it for training and for base camps; and that therefore, the notion that the Arab Spring had brought progress to the Middle East and reduced the threat of terrorism was fundamentally wrong. They did nothing in the months before the September 11th attack to build up capabilities in the region to protect not just our diplomats but American citizens who are even more vulnerable than people in the embassies and consulates.
You know, in February of 2011, we withdrew all civilian personnel from Libya. This was at the time Khadafi was about to fall. Things were very dangerous. We didn’t have naval assets that could bring those people out. We had to rent a ferryboat in Greece and bring it to Tripoli to pull the Americans out.
So from February of 2011 to September of 2012, what did we do to put capabilities in the region to protect Americans who might be at risk? Zero. That’s what we did. Zero.
You know, Americans don’t realize that the Sixth Fleet, our Mediterranean fleet, on a permanent basis, consists of one ship – the flagship in Italy. The rest of the Sixth Fleet is whatever happens to be going between the Strait of Magellan and the Suez Canal at any given time. We don’t have the capability in the Mediterranean anymore. And that’s the result of years of budget cuts. And it is a tragedy, and it’s embarrassing. And we saw the impact on 9⁄11 in Benghazi.
Could we have done anything on that day? People whose military judgment and understanding out of respect say no. I don’t think that’s an excuse; I think it’s a confirmation that we failed in the months before that attack to be ready for it and to protect Americans in danger elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East.
But the worst part of it is not the failure before 9⁄11, not the failures on 9⁄11; but the failures since the attack in Benghazi. And this to me is both the most troubling and the most indicative of what’s wrong with the Obama foreign policy.
You know, an American ambassador in a foreign country not only presides over an embassy staff from all different departments – Agriculture, Defense, as well as State – the ambassador is the President’s personal representative to the country where he or she is accredited, the President’s personal representative. When the ambassador drives around the capital city, the American flag flies from the right front fender of their car. Everybody knows what the American ambassador does.
So, let’s be clear – what happened in Benghazi, with four Americans being murdered, was a tragedy for all of them. But in particular, it showed that the terrorists could kill the personal representative of the President of the United States and have nothing happen to them – that under Barack Obama, you can murder his personal representative and get away scot free.
That is a terrible lesson for the terrorists, the state sponsors of terrorists, and our adversaries generally, to learn. It is a sign for 20 months – 20 months! We’ve done nothing. Not only have we not arrested anybody; there’s no revenge, no retaliation, no retribution, and no prospect that anything’s going to happen.
So this signal of American weakness, I think, is something they understand in the Kremlin. They understand it in Beijing, they understand it in Tehran, they understand it all around the world. They understand it in the capitals of our allies, too – that if the Obama Administration won’t even go after people who are killing his representative, who are they going to come to defend? How can you trust the word of the United States to meet its commitments when they won’t even defend their own people?
This is something that I think we need much more discussion of at the national level. And maybe this select committee will help jog the national media into doing it.
But fundamentally, it’s for American citizens. You know, we get the kind of government that we deserve. And if we don’t make national security a higher priority going forward, if we don’t insist that our candidates for President and Senate and House explain to us how they’re going to protect America, then we’re not doing our job.
So I think, looking forward to this November, looking forward to the 2016 election, we’ve got to re-center this debate. And we’ve got to demand of candidates at the presidential and congressional level that they explain whether or not they agree with Ronald Reagan’s view of peace through strength, and that a strong America is the best way not only to protect our interests, but to protect our interests and preserve the peace. This is absolutely critical to ourselves and our friends around the world.
Thank you very much.
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