My Lunch with John Bolton
Recently, President Trump fired John Bolton as National Security Adviser.
I met Mr. Bolton one time. We had lunch together a couple of years ago down in Washington. We talked. Here’s a photo…
John Bolton and your Editor. Photo by BK.
It was April 2015. Bolton and I were speakers at an event that concerned the U.S. energy industry. It was a high-powered event, I might add. We were inside the U.S. Capitol Building; room HC-8 as our badges indicate. Let me tell you a little bit about it…
Back then, I was writing about energy for Agora Financial. Somebody must have liked some of what I said. Early in the year I received a nice email from a particular group asking if I’d be interested in speaking at an event in April. I said yes…
Later, I learned that the draw for the event was John Bolton. He was keynote speaker. In 2015 we were in the midst of the Obama administration, and Bolton was a critic on the outside of power. For that particular group, Bolton was a good “get.”
Long story short… The event included lunch, and I was the pre-lunch speaker. It’s a dangerous slot, because the only thing between people and food is “me,” the talking guy. While Bolton spoke after lunch, as people picked at dessert.
Bolton is a long-time Washington player. His first political job was with former Vice President Spiro Agnew during the days of Richard Nixon. Meanwhile, Bolton attended Yale Law School with future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In the 1970s, Bolton began professional life in Washington as a lawyer at a big-name firm, Covington & Burling.
In the 1980s Bolton worked under Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush in the State and Justice Departments. In the early 2000s he was back at State under President G.W. Bush. Later, Bolton served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Bush II.
The short version of Bolton’s world-view is that he comes down hard on the side of U.S. national sovereignty and interests. But then the question comes; what are true “national interests?” It’s fair to say that he’s very pro-Israel as well.
Bolton speaks bluntly. He’s a “hawk” on the spectrum. He’s known to recommend the use of hard national power, ranging from fire-and-brimstone diplomacy to tough economic sanctions to military force.
Bolton was one of the architects of the 2003 U.S. war against Iraq. He – and many others, to be sure – counseled invasion to take down Saddam Hussein.
Other times, Bolton has supported using military force against Iran and North Korea, although no president has yet taken that particular advice.
Bolton rubs some people the wrong way. According to journalist Lawrence Kaplan, Iran’s Foreign Ministry once called Bolton “rude” and “undiplomatic.” Another time, North Korean counterparts called Bolton “human scum.”
Of course, one might say that a person is known by his enemies as well as his friends.
At any rate, a lot of people showed up for lunch and to listen to John Bolton. Many were friendly, some not-so-friendly and more than a few just Bolton-curious… Who is this guy?
Before lunch, I spoke about the oil business. It was April 2015, and there were issues.
My point was that U.S. fracking was producing increasing volumes of oil; but fracking is an expensive way to produce oil. Oil company profits were drying up with lower prices. It was only “cheap” money – low interest rates and easy access to equity funds – that kept many firms afloat.
Then, I sat down at the same lunch table as John Bolton. We were total strangers to each other, but in adjacent chairs, elbow-to-elbow.
Bolton was polite. He smiled and said “I don’t think I ever met a geologist from Harvard. Most of the Harvard people I meet went to the law school, or studied economics or history there.”
I replied, “It’s a shame that people think of Harvard in terms of its lawyers and economists. They give the place a bad name. The world needs more geologists. Washington needs more geologists. Fewer lawyers, I daresay.”
Bolton laughed. Then we talked about energy.
Bolton referred to the 1980s, when Saudi crashed oil prices to shut off cash flow to the former Soviet Union. “That was a Reagan policy, you know. Reagan’s people wanted Saudi to increase output, drop prices and bleed the Soviets of dollars.”
We discussed how the 1980s oil crash hurt the Soviets.
I added, though, that the price crash strangled large elements of the oil industry. Low prices killed off many U.S. and Canadian companies and supply chains. In the end, with a much-diminished domestic energy business, North America entered the 1990s quite vulnerable; heavily dependent on oil imports from the Middle East.
Then in 1990, Iraq overran Kuwait. Global oil supply was hostage. The U.S. chose to fight over it. That’s how we wound up with a war; Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, in which I served while in the Navy, I pointed out to Bolton.
Then, the U.S. went through the 1990s spending big bucks to keep forces near Iraq, including in Saudi. It was all about oil. Bolton understood every point I made. He was nodding.
I told Bolton that fracking, and the oil that U.S. industry was then lifting because of this new technology, was a gift of fate. That is, after many decades we don’t really need Middle East oil.
“We’re not exactly energy-independent,” I said, because we can and should trade with the world. “But we’re much more energy-secure. We have more strategic flexibility.”
That opened the issue of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bolton said that he believed U.S. troops and forces across the Middle East are a “necessary” thing. It was/is the price of being a superpower.
I replied that as of 2015, we were engaged in Middle East matters for over four decades. The U.S. had inserted itself into other people’s wars since the 1980s. I cited Sun Tzu, that “No nation has ever benefitted from a long war.”
Bolton sort of smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He’s heard it before…
We discussed the costs of war; the money and the human costs. I mentioned that under 1% of the U.S. population serves in the military at any given moment; and a truly miniscule percentage serve in actual combat roles. Our foreign expeditions fall disproportionately on certain segments of society.
Bolton understood my points. He emphasized that as a nation, the U.S. can’t disengage. “We can’t just pack up and leave. There would be chaos.”
Bolton’s view was that the U.S. is a great power with great responsibilities, and there’s no getting out of it. Spoken like a true Washington policymaker, I must opine…
I said that we had been in Afghanistan for 14 years (as of 2015); in Iraq for 12 years (ditto). And the U.S. was spending immense amounts of borrowed money on things that the nation simply lacks the ability to pay for.
I mentioned how generations of U.S. troops have served “over there.” I told Bolton that I was onboard an aircraft carrier in 1985, offshore southern Iran. Six years later, I was back again, in Bahrain, Saudi and Kuwait. Then I was in the Middle East numerous times in the 1990s.
“Is this ever going to end?” I asked rhetorically.
At that point, it was time for Bolton to give his keynote talk. And it was a fist-pounding stem-winder about the radical side of Islam, crazy Islamists and international terror. Plus, dangers posed by Iranian and North Korean nuclear developments.
After the talk, and after appropriate pleasantries with the audience, Bolton and I shared a few more minutes together. By then, other thoughts had crystallized in my head.
I mentioned that since the early 2000s, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. was fighting against people who were not organized into a modern army; just gunned-up militias at best. There’s no opposition navy. No electronic warfare. Nobody has an air force or defenses against our aircraft. Our side owns the sky and spectrum.
Yet we haven’t defeated anybody. We’re just fighting, fighting, fighting.
I asked Bolton if this indicates a fundamental problem with the very idea of what we’re doing? Indeed, what are we doing? “What’s the theory of victory?” I asked… a question that was driven into my head at the Naval War College.
Now remember, this was 2015. Bolton was a civilian, not holding any government job. He was “of counsel” with a Washington law firm. Bolton wasn’t making policy.
Bolton deflected the premise. Basically, he blamed President Obama, and Obama’s policy people, for not knowing what to do and screwing things up.
And that was that.
Mr. Bolton and I wished each other well and parted company.
In 2018, I saw the news that John Bolton was invited to be National Security Adviser under President Trump. My first thought was to wonder how in the world such an odd arrangement came about. Why would Bolton work for Trump?
Or to say it more accurately, why did Trump hire Bolton in the first place? They seem to have two quite different views of how to get things done in the world.
I can only speculate…
Perhaps Trump wanted Bolton onboard as a well-known hard-liner; and as part of a “good-cop-bad-cop” approach to doing foreign policy and the like.
Then, after allowing Bolton to do his thing for a year or so, Trump showed him the door. It’s a very visible, high-profile de-risking measure.
Well, if that’s the case the de-risk is working…
When news broke of Bolton’s departure, the price of both oil and gold dropped. The North Koreans and Iranians took notice. Russia and China both indicated approval. U.S. Neocons were apoplectic.
Now what? Will Trump bring in the peacemakers? And just who might those people be?
Oh… If only the world worked that way.
On that note, I rest my case.
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Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder