John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and frequent political pundit for the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, spoke to a crowd — the majority of which were Ohio residents — on Wednesday night about his understanding of the immediate threats to the United States’s national security. Chief among his concerns were the threat of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For many students in attendance, though, the message communicated by Bolton was one of provocative political rhetoric designed to impart neoconservative viewpoints with shaky epistemic foundations.
Associate professor and chair of philosophy Tim Hall, faculty advisor for the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians, said that Bolton’s lecture was an opportunity for the presentation of a viewpoint often ignored on the Oberlin campus.
“The Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians came into existence in response to the repressive political atmosphere at Oberlin. Conservative and libertarian views are simply not given a serious hearing here as often as they should be given, and too often students affect that such views are beneath discussion instead of, as befits a college campus, considering such views,” Hall said.
The views expressed by Bolton on Wednesday night are not popularly held by the majority of the student body. There were a number of interjections from audience members in opposition to remarks that Bolton made throughout his speech, which Andrés Feliciano, College senior and lecture attendee, characterized as “inflammatory.”
Feliciano said, “I walked into this talk expecting to hear views very different from mine, but I consider myself someone who’s very open to the idea of democracy, which means being open to ideas that you don’t necessarily agree with or like. But there were very many statements he made which were not only skewed, but also… flip, because he basically took issues that are very complex and very sensitive and made a mockery out of [them].”
Bolton characterized both Iran and North Korea as “terrorist states” and posited that North Korea and Iran have been collaborating on the development of weapons of mass destruction for years. He also stated that, with the addition of Syria, these countries constitute a veritable “Axis of Evil.”
Bolton gave particular attention to the current state of political affairs in the Middle East, with an eye to Iranian-Israeli relations, saying, “[The] analysis that the Obama administration has rested its policy on … the proposition that the presence of Israel in the Middle East is so offensive that in order to have long-term peace and stability, Israel has to make concessions. In fact, the Obama Administration, looking at the Middle East as a whole, has concluded effectively that the greatest threat to peace and security in the region is not Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but Israel’s construction of apartment buildings in East Jerusalem,” presumably referring to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, an area considered part of the Palestinian territories.
Nick Miller, College junior and president of the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians, said that the group brought Bolton as part of the Ronald Regan Political Lectureship Series in an effort to host an expert with a different view on foreign policy than those widely held on this campus. “As a general principle, we do our best to bring the best and most qualified speakers on any given issue,” Miller said.
Miller went on to note that the viewpoints expressed by speakers hosted by the OC Republicans and Libertarians do not necessarily reflect the opinions held by the club. He did insist, though, that there is value in providing conservative perspectives to students.
“There are many awesome events, speakers and other opportunities on this campus that are awesome, but the vast majority have a liberal viewpoint. We try to even things out somewhat by bringing a mix of conservative and libertarian speakers,” said Miller. “Even if most of the campus does not share the viewpoints of our speakers, they are still very relevant and important viewpoints held by many Americans, and they are worth considering given this widespread importance.”
Feliciano, who said he was disappointed with the rhetoric employed throughout the lecture, took particular issue with Bolton’s framing of complex political issues and the overwhelmingly positive reaction from audience members to these statements.
“Without giving any background to statements [about Iranian-Syrian and Iranian-Israeli relations], he had the audience applauding and guffawing at all of these things that, in the way he presented them, seemed ridiculous. But, of course they seemed ridiculous, because that’s how he framed them. And because his statements were suffixed by this anti-Obama rhetoric, which had everyone in the very conservative audience applauding, it made the whole thing reek of false,” Feliciano said.
Feliciano also said that though it was framed as a lecture, Bolton used his time to criticize the current administration rather than as an opportunity to engage in a critical discourse.
“Not only was I disturbed by [Bolton’s attempts to blame the Obama Administration for a number of foreign policy issues], but I was infuriated by how much inflammatory rhetoric he put forth in the process, which was essentializing and infantilizing a lot of really serious issues that are much more complex than the way he presented them,” Feliciano said.
In his lecture, Bolton posited that the Obama Administration’s foreign policy concerning the Middle East has made the region less secure and less amenable to American foreign policy interests abroad.
“If anything, today, three years after Obama took office, our influence in the Arab world is less than it was three years ago and is declining. …The administration demonstrated such ineptitude (during the Arab Spring) in dealing with the region that we now see a less secure and stable Middle East and more hostile to American interests than we did before,” Bolton said.
According to Bolton, this instability, and Iran’s uranium enrichment program, requires a “pre-emptive strike” against Iran as the only feasible option for a United States interested in avoiding a “world where religious fanatics don’t have their finger on the nuclear button.”
After Bolton equated the burning of the Qu’ran by American soldiers in Afghanistan with the proper retiring of an American flag, College first-year Arianna Gil shouted, “The greatest threat to humanity is fear!” and invited others in the audience to “stand against imperialism” and leave the lecture hall with her.
Gil, who verbalized her contentions with Bolton during the question-and-answer portion of the lecture, said that the purpose of expressing her rejection of Bolton’s politics and leaving was to “demonstrate our disapproval of his position and challenge the inherent hierarchical structure of the forum.”
Gil said, “When he stated that the burning of the Qu’ran by U.S soldiers was equivalent to the retiring of a flag, I was outraged. He was strategically dismissing the violence that is inseparable from our wars abroad. The comment was bigotry at its worst and disrespectful to all faiths.”
Feliciano characterized the egress of Gil and other students as a manifestation of frustrations often experienced during lectures in this series. “I was going to join her, but I wanted to stay because I wanted to ask a question. Because I knew that in the format of this lecture, that was the one opportunity I would have — in my role as an audience member — to introduce another perspective.”
Feliciano compared the interruptions and protests of students at this event to what occurred when Karl Rove spoke on campus in 2010 and thinks this kind of behavior can prove to be problematic when trying to encourage dialogue.
“If you want any sort of democratic dialogue to happen, there needs to be a modicum of respect, which I feel is necessary for any dialogue of that sort to be legitimized, because we’re on a very liberal campus,” said Feliciano. “It’s hypocritical to say that you believe in having your voice heard, but you don’t want to hear someone else’s. So I think the problem is that this lecture series introduces an element to our discourse on campus politically that is an outlier to what we normally expect and what we like to hear.”
In response to Gil’s interjection, Bolton, and a number of members of the audience, dismissed the comment as “insignificant.”
On the way out of the lecture hall, Gil relayed the Occupy Movement’s motto: “We are the 99 percent.” Bolton’s response to this was, “This is what the Obama presidency has brought us.”
After receiving a positive audience reaction to this statement, Bolton, addressing the older members of the audience to the exclusion of the students in attendance, said, “I went to college in the 1960s; I suspect some of you did, too, and, you know, these people are insignificant compared to the protestors back then. Another four years of Obama, and it’s only gonna get worse.”
Gil said that she was disturbed by Bolton’s use of fear as a means of communicating with the audience. “I was disturbed that the only emotion he appealed to in the crowd was fear, although [that] is generally representative of the politics of the far right. They rely on fear to convey their message.”
Feliciano, Gil, Hall and Miller all seemed to agree that the only effective response to the frustrations that often result from these discussions for campus liberals — and the frustrations that result from a dearth of these discussions from campus conservatives — is more active dialogue, though their understandings of what this entails is ostensibly varied.
Gil said, “The idea of bringing politicians from different dispositions is to facilitate dialogue, but, in forums that only allow for one opinion to be voiced, that is impossible. That is why we interjected, to challenge his assertions and monopoly of power.”
Feliciano said this open dialogue could be an opportunity to discuss reactions after the introduction of political messages that are often oppositional to those held by many in the Oberlin community.
“We need a channel for dialogue after these events happen,” said Feliciano, “because otherwise people are just going to be more concretely cemented into the views that they have; which is the opposite of dialogue, which is the root of all bad things. That is what makes America bad, on both sides of the political spectrum.”