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Bolder Bolton

Thursday, May 7, 2009

In an exclusive interview, NRANews.com Managing Editor Ginny Simone visits with John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and hero to Second Amendment supporters.

SIMONE: Mr. Bolton, what’s your reaction to President Obama choosing Dr. Susan Rice as his ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.)?

BOLTON: Well, first I’ve got to say good luck to her. I’m not sure she knows what she’s getting into. But this is a very significant appointment in many ways. Most importantly is that the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. will be designated as a Cabinet-level official. This has been done in some prior Democratic administrations--some Republican, too, but mostly in Democratic administrations.

I think it’s a mistake for two reasons. First, I think it overemphasizes the role and the significance of the United Nations in American foreign policy. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s an important job, but it doesn’t deserve to be at a Cabinet level.

And second, I think it’s a bureaucratic mistake. You can’t have a Cabinet department with two secretaries in it. You can only have one secretary of state at a time. And there’s always tension and internal dynamic in the national security area. I think this is going to make things more complicated for this administration down the road.

SIMONE: And President Obama himself has said that the U.S. needs to rededicate itself to the U.N. and its mission. In light of all that you’ve dealt with when it comes to disarmament issues, when you hear a statement like that, do you consider it a frightening statement?

BOLTON: It reminds me of Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 election when he said that American foreign policy needs to pass a global test of legitimacy. And by that he basically meant that our foreign policy had to be approved by the U.N. Security Council. Now, that is a fundamentally erroneous way of looking at how to conduct foreign policy. I think it’s very detrimental to America’s interests.

But talking about rededicating oneself to working within the U.N., as if the Bush administration wasn’t working within the U.N., sounds to me a lot like the global test with slightly better cover to it in its language.

So I think we’ve got to be on the alert here--not just on conventional foreign policy issues, but on a whole range of other issues that can have implications domestically as well.

SIMONE: When you went to the U.N., you held the line on making clear our rights--our Second Amendment rights--are not a bargaining chip. Do you see Dr. Rice and the Obama administration following that same line?

BOLTON: I think the most important thing that American ambassadors at the U.N. have to do is remember that they represent the United States to the U.N. They don’t represent the United Nations back to the United States. And it’s very fundamental that we should defend America’s interests there.

America should not be a well-bred doormat at the U.N. Now it’s a very uncongenial environment in many respects on gun issues--Second Amendment issues in particular--and when you have an administration that I don’t think is very favorable to the correct interpretation of the Second Amendment anyway, I think we could well be at risk in the U.N. system of seeing negotiations, and possibly treaties or agreements, that might try and impair our Second Amendment rights. So this is something we’ve all got to be very vigilant about the next four years.

SIMONE: One of the issues you talk about and are very concerned about is the issue of what’s called “norming.” A lot of people don’t know about it, but what will it mean when it comes to the U.N. and its anti-gun agenda?

BOLTON: “Norming” is a term that’s applied to international agreements that affect the behavior of individual governments.

And there’s a reason [a lot of people don’t know about it]. And that is that left-wing elements in our society have not been as successful legislatively as they’ve wanted to be over the past

10 or 20 years. What they’ve done is very ingenious, tactically, from their point of view. When they don’t have success, such as on gun issues in Congress or state legislatures, they stop fighting there and try and take the issue internationally. And [they try to] have international agreements negotiated by diplomats, who often don’t have the same understanding or support for some of these issues. [They] negotiate them as treaties, then bring them back to the U.S. Senate and say, “You have to ratify this treaty. One hundred and eighty other countries have already ratified it, how can the U.S. be isolated?”

It’s not a question of whether you take one side or the other on these issues that matters, I think. Because in a democracy, we debate the issues--that’s what separates the United States from many other countries. The fact is that we are capable of making up our own minds. We don’t need to be “normed” by the international community. But I think we will face this problem on gun issues as well as a wide range of others over the next four years.

SIMONE: Do you think the Obama administration would accept the concept of “norming”?

BOLTON: I think in many respects they would welcome it. It may sound paradoxical, but I think it would work this way: They know, for example, that legislation restricting gun rights--infringing on the Second Amendment--would be very unpopular and very hard to get through Congress. They may want to do it to repay certain of their constituencies, but they know there would be a fight.

If it comes in through the back door, where they can say, “Well, look, this is an international agreement,” then it’s a lot easier to say we’re simply going along with something else that may have other benefits for the U.S.

Ironically, a Democrat administration, in particular, could welcome having this international pressure put on them. So I think it’s potentially very treacherous times ahead. And, ironically, there might be less activity on Capitol Hill on this issue than there will be in New York (at the U.N.).

SIMONE: As long as I’ve been going to the U.N., I’ve heard critics and representatives from some countries say they’ll wait as long as they have to in order to get the right person in the White House to move forward with their arms trade treaty. Is Barack Obama the right guy?

I think internationally this is going to be a very difficult time for the Second Amendment and for American sovereignty, generally.

BOLTON: I think it’s just as you say--people in the U.N. system, the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), basically concluded they weren’t going to get anything through while Bush was president. So they’ve been waiting, they’ve been holding back, and it’s precisely what they’ve been waiting for--the right guy to get in the White House. I think they believe they have found him. And that’s why I think groups that care about Second Amendment rights--groups like the NRA and all of its members--really have to pay very close attention to what’s going on in the State Department and New York for the next four years. In a diplomatic world, a lot takes place below the radar screen. You don’t see it until it’s essentially a done deal, when it’s much harder to oppose.

SIMONE: When you logged onto IANSA’s (International Action Network on Small Arms) website right after the election, there was a picture of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and that organization couldn’t say enough about what this election means for moving forward with an arms trade treaty. Shouldn’t that concern every gun owner in this country?

BOLTON: Absolutely. Nobody should be under any misimpression that these discussions are about preventing small arms and light weapons from going into conflict zones. That’s a concern the United States properly has, particularly when its soldiers are deployed. That’s a problem that can be dealt with.

The hidden agenda, in fact it’s not so hidden to many of these groups, is not weapons flowing to conflict zones. It’s imposing their domestic agenda, particularly on the United States, to get gun laws enacted here in ways they couldn’t possibly be successful in doing in Congress. They’d much rather lobby the U.N. than our own Congress.

SIMONE: And you hear Oxfam and IANSA say time and time again, “This is not about civilian ownership, we are not out to get the Second Amendment.” But you don’t have any doubt that’s what they are after?

BOLTON: There is no doubt. And they may not use phrases that we would understand. That’s part of the problem with “diplo-speak,” you can conceal a lot more than you reveal by the words you use. But that’s why these NGOs have been so active for so long. They see going outside the American constitutional system as the best way to advance their agenda.

SIMONE: Do you think Susan Rice will do what you and the Bush administration did to really hold the line when it comes to our constitutional freedoms?

BOLTON: I would be really worried. I think this is something the gun control groups have looked for, for eight years now. They’ve got an administration that is favorable. I think politically, Obama will try to deliver for the groups that supported him and that includes the gun control groups. So I don’t think we should be under any illusions--nationally or internationally--that we’re in a time of challenge.

SIMONE: What do you think is at stake for gun owners and our gun rights if we have an Obama administration that is so willing to work within the U.N. to achieve what it wants to achieve as far as an arms trade treaty?

BOLTON: I think we’re in real danger of losing all of the victories that we gained during the past eight years. The victories we gained were very hard fought, but they were small. It was simply the fact that somebody was defending a Second Amendment position and not being prepared to compromise on it that got such attention. And I’m very proud of the role I was able to play.

But I want to emphasize that what we did was relatively insignificant compared to the big picture. And if you have an administration that’s not prepared to draw the line, you can lose a lot more ground more quickly than we were able to defend over the past eight years. So I really think it’s important to appreciate the extent of the risk and the extent of the challenge that we now face.

SIMONE: Just the fact that the U.N. passed a resolution last fall to begin drafting an arms trade treaty, and now they see themselves working with an Obama administration, do you see that moving the treaty process along faster?

BOLTON: I think there’s a real possibility that they will attempt to move faster now. And again, if you’re trying to pay off a political debt to one of your core constituencies, it’s very easy to do it in a U.N. context. It doesn’t get a lot of public or press attention, but the groups themselves know what’s being done. And then, when a treaty is brought back to the Senate for ratification, it’s not like a piece of legislation--it’s very hard to amend it, to send it back for negotiation.

And if it’s coupled with rhetoric about stopping arms to conflict situations or stopping the trade in crew-served mortar weapons or things like that when, in fact, the real hidden agenda is domestic American gun control, it’s very hard to come back to get people’s attention to what’s really going on.

SIMONE: If you get an arms trade treaty, it’s binding. But what does that mean--does it supersede our Constitution?

BOLTON: It doesn’t supersede the Constitution. But if it is enacted--if it’s adopted by the Senate and then enacted as positive law--it would bind Americans. So there’s a real battle to be fought here. I think the best defense is a good offense, and to not wait until it gets to the Senate or not wait until Obama perhaps tries to sign it as an executive agreement. I think you’ve got to get into the negotiations and try and affect the outcome there (see sidebar, p. 35).

SIMONE: So often you hear people say, “An arms control treaty, that’s never going to happen. The way the U.N. does business, it won’t happen.” Do you think we’re closer than we ever have been because of this new administration coming in?

BOLTON: I think we were very close in 2001 to seeing an arms control agreement that would have put us well on the road to what’s being contemplated in the arms trade treaty now. And, in fact, what happened in 2001 is that we simply kicked it five years down the road.

Now that was 2006, when many of the gun control advocates hoped there would be a new administration. They didn’t get that then, so they kicked it down the road a little bit further. But for the past eight years, they have been busy behind the scenes. They’ve made a lot of progress from their perspective. They’re ready to go. If they see a sympathetic administration willing to help them out, this could move much more quickly.

It is true, by and large, that the U.N. moves very, very slowly. But this is not just the U.N. at work here--these are very determined left-wing groups that have had this on their agenda for a long time. This is the most productive path they see ahead. And I think they will move as quickly as they can.

SIMONE: And looking forward, have you ever seen our Second Amendment rights--our firearm freedoms--at risk like they will be under the Obama administration?

BOLTON: I think internationally this is going to be a very difficult time for the Second Amendment and for American sovereignty, generally. But I think you have to worry with an Obama presidency that we’ll see consensus breaking out all over and we will lose a lot of the advantage that the U.S. could otherwise get from tough diplomacy.

SIMONE: Isn’t this more than just about gun ownership? Isn’t it about the individual rights and freedoms that make America the envy of other countries?

BOLTON: I really think this is a question about American sovereignty. And for Americans, sovereignty is not an abstract concept. Sovereignty is about fundamental, democratic control over our government. When you hear people saying at a time of globalization, “We need to give up a little bit of our sovereignty,” they’re basically saying, “You’ve got to give up a little bit of control over your own government.” So that’s not something I think we should view very hospitably.

NRA AT THE U.N. As a recognized Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) at the United Nations, the NRA gives gun owners a strong voice in the U.N.’s debate over global “gun control.” As one of over 2,000 NGOs representing everyone from religious groups to the banking industry, NRA has access to U.N. meetings that are closed to the general public, and is able to distribute informational materials to participants in U.N. activities. What’s more, NRA’s status as an NGO allows us to monitor more closely the internal U.N. debate over firearm issues and report back to our members.

As is usually the case, NRA’s role as an NGO has been misrepresented in some circles, including the media, which can’t seem to grasp why we would have any interest in U.N. efforts to regulate firearms. The fact of the matter is that the role NRA plays within the U.N. as an NGO is almost identical to the role our registered lobbyists play every day on Capitol Hill and in state capitals across the nation--educating and informing lawmakers of the facts behind the debate, and working to protect the interests of our members. Therefore, membership in the NRA is the best way for individuals to protect their Second Amendment rights against those at the United Nations who are intent on destroying America’s sovereign freedoms.

For Americans, sovereignty is about self-government, and it is about individual freedom. So I don’t have any difficulty saying I want to defend American sovereignty. I’m not prepared to cede more of it to international organizations. We have disagreements over an issue whatever it is, gun control or anything else. We debate it in a democratic fashion in the U.S., and we come up with whatever people decide is consistent with the Constitution. That’s not what happens at the United Nations. I prefer our form of government to that form of government.

SIMONE: And that’s just the way it operates--that stealth environment.

BOLTON: Yeah. The basic bunker mentality at the U.N. is because they’re afraid of what people would say if they actually saw what went on behind closed doors. Much of what goes on in public is as scripted as going to a Broadway show, and the real activity is behind the scenes. That’s why, as outnumbered as the NRA is, it’s so important that they be there.

SIMONE: We’re talking about one of a very few pro-gun NGOs there with not a lot of money compared to what the antis have.

BOLTON: If you looked at NGOs that were around during the negotiations of some of these agreements, really the number of pro-gun control groups was more than you could count. They were everywhere. And it’s a very important function that the NRA performed.

And being able to work with them [NRA] was a force-multiplier for the small U.S. delegation. So I certainly hope the NRA can continue that kind of activity. It’s even more important now, when our own American delegation is not going to be so hospitable.

SIMONE: What’s your message to gun owners and the NRA?

BOLTON: I think you’ve got a lot of work cut out for you internationally. I think this is not a time to sit back. I think you ought to be out there aggressively talking about why we don’t want the Second Amendment sacrificed in some diplomatic negotiations.

SIMONE: As you say, they’re looking for a bending knee?

BOLTON: Exactly. They want the Americans to bend the knee, and I’m worried this administration is prepared to do it. The U.N. will be ready to go.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.