The John Bolton I experienced at Duke's Dave and Kay Phillips lecture series Monday wasn't what I expected. My impressions of the former National Security Advisor were that he was highly opinionated, sometimes blunt and caustic, a highly intelligent policy wonk who was equally articulate. I saw and heard the intelligent, articulate Bolton, but also a strategist who could be charming, a bit humorous and coy, at the same time serious and knowledgeable about world politics. He is obviously a student with positions that venture beyond what most of the sold-out crowd at Page Auditorium had considered.
To be sure John Bolton secured a handsome speaking fee and there is little question that he was there to promote his book, which he hopes will not be stopped from publication by the White House. But there was also the sense he wanted to explain himself and his positions.
Most of those present for Bolton's first appearance since the impeachment trial wanted to hear what he knew about the Ukraine situation and subsequent impeachment, as well as his opinions about his former boss, President Trump. He deferred most questions on both fronts; it was hard to figure whether his reticence was due to being legally muzzled or just in wanting to tease us into buying his upcoming book. But there were a few tells.
He promised that the book deals in depth on Ukraine, saying his words are like the "sprinkles on the ice cream sundae."
A student had inquired whether he thought Trump's call to Ukraine's President Zolensky was "perfect," to which Bolton said, "you'll love chapter 14."
Why was he willing to testify to the Senate and not the House impeachment hearings? Bolton said it was complicated, explaining that all the witnesses in the House had, to the best of his knowledge, been subpoenaed. When he was subpoenaed, the White House told him he wasn't to testify. Through an aide Bolton asked the courts what he was supposed to do. Both the White House and the House filed briefs and it was obviously going to be a lengthy proceeding. The House decided to withdraw their subpoena, the case was ultimately dropped, and no subsequent subpoena issued. But he said he faced a decision whether the executive branch or the legislative branch held a higher priority than his First Amendment right to speech. That's why he decided he would testify to the Senate if subpoenaed. That didn't explain, however, why he hasn't been more forthcoming with the press or the public when no subpoena resulted.
But Bolton was not bashful in talking about foreign policy, saying our current policies toward both Iran and North Korea are wrong. From the first Bolton has insisted that a regime change is needed in Iran and believes there is strong support within that country for such an action. He said Trump was correct in taking his advice to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement, adding that current policy has failed because we haven't applied "maximum pressure" on Iran.
Moderator Peter Feavor, Duke professor and former Bush advisor, asked if Bolton was worried that a regime change might create a power vacuum similar to what happened in Iraq? Bolton said some had criticized his response to this question but said he would "give them [the new regime] a copy of The Federalist Papers and wish them good luck,"
allowing Iranians to have the power to make their own decisions.
Bolton agreed that strategies by previous administrations toward North Korea had proved unproductive and Trump tried a new tact - trying to make friends with Kim. The approach but was doomed to failure because North Korea had previously agreed to get rid of nuclear weapons and "just couldn't seem to get around to doing it."
He added there wasn't a single piece of evidence indicating that North Korea has made a decision to give up nuclear weapons and the two years we've wasted has just given proliferators more time to develop nuclear weapons.
Bolton spoke about the situation in Venezuela, which he said was also a policy failure, adding that the Maduro dictatorship was being propped up. "If you take the Cubans out of Venezuela the government couldn't last a week."
The country is important because it has the second largest deposits of in-ground uranium in the world.
Asked if he thought President Trump had been aggressive enough in criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping's handling of the coronavirus Bolton sidestepped the question by saying China had known about the virus for weeks and not reported it. Many knowledgeable Chinese had left the country out of fear, but Xi Jinping lied to his own people. How can we credibility conduct trade negotiations with a country that lies to its own people? That response got a twitter of laughs from the audience. His closing line on the subject was "If you're intimidated by China when they are spreading a deadly disease, you're a pretty intimidated person."
A bit tongue-in-cheek Bolton said he hoped his book would be published, adding that if the White House kept leaking parts of it you wouldn't need to buy it. He complained about being unable to respond to some of Trump's statements about him, saying "He tweets, but I can't say anything. How fair is that?"
In closing, Bolton became a bit philosophic, saying he went into the National Security Advisor's job with his eyes open, but in order to "get the right policy, I was willing to put up with a lot."
Looking a bit toward how history might judge him he said he wasn't looking for martyrdom. He said, "I knew - I think I knew - what I was getting into and I did it for 17 months."
He reiterated he hoped the book would be published, saying it was "an effort to write history and I did it the best I can. We'll have to see what comes out," meaning what is allowed to be published.
It was a most interesting 90 minutes with a fascinating player in the political arena.
Publisher's note: Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN
, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30pm, Sundays 12:30pm and UNC North Carolina Channel Fridays at 10:00pm, Saturdays at 4:00pm and Sundays at 10:00am
. Contact Tom at NC Spin.