While some observers of the debate in Boca Raton, Fla., thought Romney agreed with President Obama too often, Bolton says the fundamental difference between the two candidates was clear.
"Gov. Romney, in very tempered and measured language . . . stressed the argument that he's made repeatedly: that a strong American presence in the world is the most likely way to secure our interests and do it without conflict," Bolton said. "The president has never understood that relationship, and the foreign-policy failures that his administration has had, I think, reflect that."
The president, Bolton told the museum gathering, "has shown through his words and through his actions that he thinks that America is too much in the world, that it's our strength that is provocative. If only we were a little less assertive about our interests, that would make other nations happier, and if they're happier they'll be nice to us.
"In fact, obviously it's not American strength that's provocative. That's looking through the wrong end of the telescope. It's American weakness that's provocative."
Romney raised a prime example of that weakness in the debate, Bolton noted.
"He reminded everybody about that famous open-microphone conversation between President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia. . . . Our president says: 'Give me some space until after the elections. Once I get past the election I can be more flexible.'
"That's an embarrassment, ladies and gentlemen. That's the first time I have ever seen an American president negotiate not on our behalf, not on behalf of our country, but on his own behalf. You know, 'Don't do anything that will mess up this election for me, but, afterward, then we can talk.' "
Bolton joked that when "they're feeling blue at the Kremlin," they replay the video of that moment. More ominously, he said, "Our allies have seen that open-microphone conversation and all of them have calculated what it means for them."
Varied U.S. reactions to the Arab Spring, and, more recently, the administration's confusing and often misleading response to the deaths of four Americans during the Sept. 11 attacks on the consulate in Libya, have continued to project weakness. The Iranian mullahs, who continue their quest to become a nuclear power, have noticed.
"The Iranians don't believe they have anything to worry about from the United States," Bolton says, "and the Israelis fear that they're right."
Efforts taken by both the Bush and Obama administrations over the last 10 years to deter Iran's nuclear program, including economic sanctions, have failed, he said.
"Just last week," he said, "the Congressional Research Service, which is a bipartisan research organization . . . issued a report that said the sanctions had some economic impact on Iran but did not slow down the nuclear weapons program."
This is not just an "existential question" for Israel, he says. Not only would the volatile Middle East become more dangerous as other countries sought nuclear weapons, but the very nature of Iran's leaders makes this "the whole world's problem," Bolton says.
"This is a country that's armed and financed every terrorist group that's made an application," he said, "and they're fully capable of giving terrorist groups nuclear weapons to detonate almost anywhere in the world."
A strong president, and a strong United States, can make a difference.
"If people think the president has credibility," Bolton says, "if people think he negotiates from a position of strength, if they think he's got a clear view of what American interests are, that in and of itself makes a huge difference.
"That's the contrast that I thought became most apparent [in the debate] last night. Americans are very practical when it comes to national security. . . . What they want is a president who will stand up for their interests and protect those interests and keep the peace. . . . And I think that's where Gov. Romney just walked away with it last night."
Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305, email@example.com, or @ferrisk3.