Washington, D.C. — John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told a Georgetown University audience Monday that he “would have put troops on the ground” on “day two or three” of the Libyan conflict in order to secure the port and airport in Tripoli and protect U.S. citizens and expatriates from being killed or taken hostage in the strife. Separately, he argued, an earlier no-fly zone “might well have tipped the balance irrevocably against Qaddafi.”
Bolton, a potential 2012 presidential contender, spoke for an hour to undergraduates about his foreign-policy views. But his remarks centered upon the ongoing crisis and Libya and President Obama’s mishandling of the situation. Obama, he said, failed to grasp in mid-March how Libya was evolving on the ground: “Better late than never is the best I can say now.”
“If you recall, in those first few days, the opposition was on the move and Qaddafi’s allies were defecting, whole units of the army went over to the opposition, and he was in a very precarious position,” Bolton said. “But we did not intervene. We did not take advantage of that opportunity. As time went on, Qaddafi was able to regain the military momentum and up until this past week, I think he was very close to a conclusive victory over the opposition forces.”
Bolton warned that Obama is leading the U.S. into a potential “quagmire” by not making ousting Qaddafi a top military priority. It has become clear, he said, that President Obama’s use of military force is “not intended to overthrow Qaddafi — that apparently remains our political objective, but not our military objective.”
“We could watch this drag out for a long time militarily, while Qaddafi remains in power,” Bolton said. “That is just incomprehensible to me. On top of that, the president has repeatedly said that in a few days, we are going to turn over command and control of this operation to somebody else.” Maybe, he mused, it will be the British, the French, or a “committee.” And if U.S. soldiers find themselves under foreign command, he predicted that the issue would become a hot topic on Capitol Hill.
“This is a very, very passive American attitude,” Bolton continued, looking more broadly at how Obama has handled Libya. “We are, in the president’s view, ‘hanging back,’ so that we are not pinned with the major responsibility. My answer to that is: Who is he kidding? Who do you think has carried the bulk of the military burden to date? Who do you think has done the heavy lifting militarily?” By shying away from leadership, the president, he said, is “dodging responsibility” and “demeaning and patronizing” Arab citizens who “have the same ability to see reality as we do.”
Editor’s note: This post has been updated.