It was a bittersweet homecoming for United Nations Ambassador John Bolton ’70 LAW ’74, a former chair of the Conservative Party who returned to the Yale Political Union Monday evening amid a chorus of hisses and politically charged questions.
In his address, which defended the Bush administration’s foreign policy, Bolton argued that voluntary contributions from states would allow major donors such as the United States to choose to fund the U.N. programs that they believe to be the most efficient. But while fielding questions from impassioned students packed into Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, Bolton candidly discussed issues such as nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, the war in Iraq and his own confirmation battles.
Noting that voluntary contributions are not yet part of President George W. Bush ’68’s policy on U.N. reform, Bolton said it was unfair for the U.S. to pay 22 percent of the organization’s budget in exchange for one vote in the 191-member General Assembly. Agencies like the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, are more efficient and more responsive to donor countries, Bolton said.
“Why shouldn’t we pay for what we want, instead of paying a bill for what we get?” Bolton said.
The audience interrupted Bolton throughout his speech with loud banging on desks and hissing, the typical YPU expressions for approval and disagreement. When asked about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bolton said the U.S. — not other countries or international organizations – should hold its own citizens accountable for possible abuse.
“We don’t need anybody else to judge us,” he said. “We judge our own.”
The answer prompted loud hissing from the audience, but Bolton offered students a question of his own.
“I’m just curious, those of you who are hissing, who do you think will judge better than us?” he asked the audience.
Most YPU officers, including party chairs, said they appreciated Bolton’s candor and his willingness to answer contentious questions after his prepared address. But Liberal Party chair Kirstin Dunham ’07 said she would have preferred a chance for students to respond if they disagreed with his answers.
The lecture’s organizers said they did not predict the degree to which Bolton’s words would divide the audience.
“If we had known he was going to be this provocative, we would probably have tried to have a student debate to hash out the issues,” YPU Speaker Goran Lynch ’06 said.
Some students said they thought Bolton was too controversial and combative, reflecting U.S. Senate Democrats’ concerns about his ability to be a successful diplomat. Congressional opposition forced U.S. President George W. Bush ’68 to appoint Bolton in a recess appointment this summer.
“He was extremely rude, extremely belligerent, everything the Democrats called him in confirmation hearings,” Jed Glickstein ’08 said. “He was all those things, but in the end he won the debate.”
While an undergraduate, Bolton was a member of the YPU and served as floorleader of the Right in addition to serving at the helm of the Conservative Party. In an interview with the News after the speech, Bolton said he modeled his presentation and answers to questions on the best speakers he remembered from his days in the YPU, those who provoked discussion and offered controversial opinions.
“The best speakers at the YPU were the ones who debated with the students,” he said.
Before the speech, dozens of students had to be turned away because the 414-seat auditorium was full and police required every member of the audience to have a seat. Entrances and exits to the space were guarded by members of the Secret Service and police officers.