To understand why the Bush administration has become so unpopular in the United Kingdom, one needn’t look much further than the utterly misleading headline that screamed across Wednesday’s Telegraph.
John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., recently sat for an interview with the British daily — which is hardly the most hostile organ in what has become a very anti-American media. Bolton, of course, is now out of the administration. With shabbiness that was singular even by the low standards they have imposed on confirmation proceedings, Senate Democrats first derailed his nomination (with a timely assist from Republican “moderate” George Voinovich), then, after President Bush made Bolton a recess appointee, persisted in refusing to confirm him. This, despite a performance so reminiscent of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jean Kirkpatrick in its brilliance that no less a principled liberal luminary than Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz had eloquently called for Bolton’s retention.
Freed from the constraints of his public office, Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute, has been a withering critic of administration policy on North Korea and Iran. Still, the Telegraph took pains to alert readers that he “still has close links to the Bush administration.” That was right under its bracing headline, braying that Bolton is convinced that We Must Attack Iran Before It Gets The Bomb. You quickly get the point: those American rubes, having made a bloody mess of Iraq, are salivating at the prospect of a reprise.
Except … when one reads what Bolton actually said, it turns out to be considerably less provocative. In fact, though more bluntly articulated than the State Department’s caveat-ridden diplo-speak, Bolton’s sentiments are in line with the administration view — hardly a new view — that, when it comes to Iran, all options should be on the table. Specifically, Bolton is quoted as follows (italics mine):
“It’s been conclusively proven Iran is not going to be talked out of its nuclear programme. So to stop them from doing it, we have to massively increase the pressure. If we can’t get enough other countries to come along with us to do that, then we’ve got to go with regime change by bolstering opposition groups and the like, because that’s the circumstance most likely for an Iranian government to decide that it’s safer not to pursue nuclear weapons than to continue to do so. And if all else fails, if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, then I think we need to look at the use of force.” …
“If the choice is them continuing [towards a nuclear bomb] or the use of force, I think you’re at a Hitler marching into the Rhineland point. If you don’t stop it then, the future is in his hands, not in your hands, just as the future decisions on their nuclear programme would be in Iran’s hands, not ours.” But Mr Bolton conceded that military action had many disadvantages and might not succeed. “It’s very risky for the price of oil, risky because you could, let’s say, take out their enrichment capabilities at Natanz, and they may have enrichment capabilities elsewhere you don’t know about.”
Such a strike would only be a “last option” after economic sanctions and attempts to foment a popular revolution had failed but the risks of using military force, he indicated, would be less than those of tolerating a nuclear Iran. “Imagine what it would be like with a nuclear Iran. Imagine the influence Iran could have over the entire region. It’s already pushing its influence in Iraq through the financing of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.”
What does this all mean? Well, the Telegraph translates it as Bolton’s (read: Bush’s) “stark warning” that “Iran has ‘clearly mastered the enrichment technology now…they’re not stopping, they’re making progress and our time is limited[.]’… Economic sanctions ‘with pain’ had to be the next step, followed by attempting to overthrow the theocratic regime and, ultimately, military action to destroy nuclear sites.”
That, however, is a distortion, made all the more misleading by the newspaper’s selective use of internal quotes. Bolton’s own words are used for the unremarkable observations that (a) the mullahs are irrevocably committed to developing nukes and have surmounted a critical technological hurdle; and (b) economic sanctions, the logical response, have to be painful to be of any use.
But now note what happens when we get to next steps: the asserted need to overthrow the regime and take military action to destroy nuclear development sites. That is the Telegraph talking, not the former ambassador. When Bolton is quoted on regime change, rather than summarized by the Telegraph, what he actually says is that we should seek to achieve it by supporting opposition groups. He doesn’t mention military force. And when Bolton is quoted on military action (to destroy nukes, not to “overthrow” the mullahs) what he actually says is that it needs to be seriously considered: It’s a “last option” that “we need to look at” — not necessarily to do. Moreover, he soberly concedes that it might not work. Implicitly, that’s a reason for serious people to refrain, at the very least, until all else fails.
Bolton here is the very picture of what we should want from our diplomats in times of crisis: Tough, thoughtful and measured. For that, he is portrayed as a war-mongering loose cannon. And in this, he patently serves for the British press as a proxy for Bush. Is it any wonder that the world’s most important alliance is under such stress?
That’s especially alarming because, with due admiration for John Bolton, I think he’s wrong here on some important premises. Like the State Department, he seems willing to compartmentalize Iran the aspiring nuclear power and Iran the implacable state sponsor of jihadist terror.
When those traits are taken together — which, for the sake of our security, they must be — it comes quickly clear that that we don’t need any more information to know that regime change in Iran should be already be the unambiguous policy of the United States. Not just because the mullahs are hell-bent on pursuing nukes but because they constitute an unabashed, revolutionary, terror-exporting, America-hating regime. They are precisely what they have been for nearly 30 years, and what they ever shall be. “The peoples call, ‘death to America,’ said Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a 2004 speech. “Who used to say ‘death to America?’” Who, besides the Islamic Republic and the Iranian people, used to say this? Today, everyone says this.”
Naturally, acknowledging reality makes me, through the Telegraph lens, even more of a lunatic than Bolton. But what is truly lunatic is refusing to acknowledge the evidence of sense. And saying that regime change should be our policy is not a call to arms. It is a call to focus, to guide our actions as events unfold. When President Bill Clinton made regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States, he did not bomb Baghdad the next day … or at any time thereafter. Liberals have been telling us for four years that that was the smart policy. Why is it now cowboy talk?
Bolton is undeniably more forceful than the State Department, but even he suggests — and this is State’s position — that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. Real pressure might persuade the mullahs, so the argument goes, that pursuing nukes is not in their interests. Now, Bolton would doubtless put a lot more pressure on Iran than Secretary Rice and President Bush seem willing to, and for that we should commend him. But his underlying assumption is the same: the right inducements could conceivably make this rogue change its spots. This gets it exactly backwards.
First, the regime is no more rational than any other radical Islamic movement. Repeatedly, and aptly, President Bush has said that terrorists can’t be negotiated with because they are irrational. He has said that terror supporting regimes must be equated with the terrorists they support. He is right on both scores — whether or not we are ready to live the ramifications.
Second, as between the two things, the Iranian regime is a much bigger problem than the nukes. India and Pakistan, after all, have nukes, and we don’t stay up at night worrying about it (although that will change as to the latter if President Pervez Musharraf is ousted). We don’t obsess because we understand the issue is not so much the gun as the guy who’s holding the gun. Iran’s nukes are an enormous issue because the mullahs are a single-mindedly destructive force even without the nukes.
Bolton is right that, even as we must seriously consider all options, we don’t need to invade Iran right this minute, or, perhaps, ever. But you can’t bring to bear the type of real pressure he talks about if you keep undercutting the effort by signaling that you are willing (indeed, desperate) to blink reality about the regime’s fundamental nature. Short of military force for now, we should already be using all means at our disposal to depose this menacing, incorrigible government. We shouldn’t be waiting for yet more proof that they are menacing and incorrigible.
It is hard, though, to see how any sensible Iran policy can be implemented absent Anglo-American harmony. The prospects for that are dim if the British media continues to caricature the U.S. administration.