Ambassador John Bolton: An Interview

On Friday, October 26 HUMAN EVENTS editors Tom Winter, Jed Babbin and Allan Ryskind interviewed former UN Ambassador John Bolton about his new book, and a host of domestic and international political issues. Here’s an abbreviated transcript of the interview.

HE: Mr. Ambassador, thanks for taking the time with us. Your new book, “Surrender is not an Option”, is a tough inside look at Washington and the UN. Let’s start with the Senate confirmation process that I think all conservatives would agree is broken. How bad is it?

JB: Well part of the problem I think is the protocol that says a nominee can’t defend himself, other than in the context of the senate committee hearing. You can’t say anything before your confirmation hearing because that would offend the Senate. And while you’re in the hearing you’re confined and limited in being able to answer the questions while the Senators can say pretty much anything they want. And after the hearings are over you’re constricted again for fear of offending the senators or getting another hearing.

HE: So essentially you’re a punching bag that can’t punch back.

JB: Right. And in my case, for example, there were any number of career government employees who wanted to come forward and say, “I’ve worked for John Bolton, he’s a decent person, he listens to other points of view, he’s tolerant, respectful…” and so on, and yet they couldn’t do it because they were afraid they would be subject to retaliation later…So if I were doing it over I would have a different approach to what the nominee does and what the administration ought to do.

HE: How would you do it? What would you do if you were to have free rein?

JB: The fact is, the Democrats in particular have perfected the confirmation process as a political campaign. Now not every confirmation is going to be controversial, but for those that are, if you don’t treat it as a political campaign. If you’re not prepared to take the necessary steps it’s probably better not to go forward with the nomination

HE: One of the principle things in your book that I think is going to be of interest to our readers is your “dissatisfaction” with the culture of the State Department is. Now you said that a lot of people might have spoken up for you, but they didn’t because they feared retaliation. Who would have been retaliating against these folks? Is the culture of the State Department such that a conservative can’t get support there?

JB: One of the things that I hoped to do in the book was to answer the question that many Americans have asked me over the years, which is: How do they make decisions at the State Department? How do they arrive at these policies? The same kind of questions that people ask about the United Nations. How is it possible that you get outcomes like those that we read about?

So that’s one reason that the book is not simply a policy book. It’s an effort to explain, in some cases very precisely and in a very detailed fashion, how policies are made, how policies are played out. And I think that the narrative taken as a whole, proves the point that the culture of the State Department is very negative towards a conservative foreign policy. And the model that we all have, of civil servants as neutral careerists who carry out the policy of the elected president, doesn’t work nearly the way it should in the State Department. So that there are many people who want to be good civil servants, who want to try and carry out these policies, but are afraid to do so. And I’m not even counting the very small number of conservatives in the State Department who are genuinely at risk.

I describe this as a cultural problem. It’s not a question of a few individuals here and there. It shouldn’t be taken as a personal disagreement, it’s a cultural problem that needs a long-term fix. So for the next Republican president, I think it’s important that they commit the Secretary of State to the sort of sweeping reform at the State Department that we’ve seen the need for in other places such as the Pentagon.

HE: In terms of that sweeping reform, Mr. Rumsfeld called it a transformation, it seems like it happens the other way around. I knew, very briefly. Gen. Powell. And when he went over there, it seemed as if he were suddenly transformed, dipped into the evil waters and suddenly went to the dark side.

JB: Well you know I know a lot of people will be shocked when I say this, but it’s one of the reasons I’ve always felt that James Baker was one of the best Secretaries of State we’ve had in recent years. And the reason is that when Baker came to the State Department in 1989, he was reported to have said, “I will be the president’s envoy to the State Department and not the other way around.”

The tenures of Secretary Powell and Secretary Rice I think were the opposite. They were seen as the State Department’s envoy to the White House. You need a Secretary of State who understands that there is a cultural problem – and a cultural problem that can be fixed. We need a strong and effective State Department. We can’t conduct American affairs in the world without it. But a strong State Department to me means a corps of career officials who believe that their job it to advocate America’s interests and who are trained in effective advocacy, not schooled in accommodation. I’m not saying that you need a State Department that looks like the litigation department of a major law firm. But you need people who are not afraid to make the case for the United States, who are not afraid to stand their ground, not afraid to be isolated in international organizations when that’s the correct approach for our diplomacy. This is a cultural change that has to be effected through incentive systems, promotion systems, career training systems. This is not something that you can do with the stroke of a magic wand, it’s going to take years to make this change.

HE: There’s been a lot of discussion lately, I think Mr. McCain made the point in the debates recently, that when he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, he did not see a pal, he saw the letters “KGB.”

Now I’m looking at page 432 of your book and you’re saying, in some respect Russia’s policies are based on a form of racism, for example that the North Koreans and Iranians are not capable of mounting truly serious threats to Russian interests. Expound on that please. Are the Russians xenophobic, or do they really believe that they can control these nations to the best of their interests?

JB: It’s a combination, I think the Russians basically don’t think the North Koreans and the Iranians have the capabilities to get weapon systems that can threaten them, or that if they do the Russians know how to handle them and that that’s the reason that it’s all the more important that Russians be involved in the sale of high-end conventional weapons, the Bushehr nuclear reactor in the case of Russia and Iran, and similar kinds of relationships.

HE: You said, “I haven’t spent a month in Florida in 2000 to see foreign policy go in the direction it was heading.” What do you think is wrong with our foreign policy?

JB: I think in too many cases the president has abandoned the principles he advocated and tried to pursue in the first term. In the case of North Korea, in the case of Iran, in the case of the Middle East we are seeing put in place today the same policy that the State Department careerists were advocating on January the 20th 2001. And what I’m reflecting there, especially being up in New York, the battles we were losing policy decision after policy decision, and I just wasn’t thrilled about defending and implementing those kinds of policies up in New York when I thought they were contrary to what the president’s own stated position would be.

HE: Tell us about North Korea.

JB: Although I think our policy wasn’t perfect in the first term, because I think that there were unresolved differences in the administration that the president never crisply decided, at least he followed the premise that you don’t reward bad behavior: you don’t provide tangible assets to the North Koreans in exchange for unverifiable promises that they’ll give up their nuclear program, you don’t trust the north Koreans.

Which is what the Clinton administration did in the 1994 Agreed Framework, and which the North Koreans violated almost before the ink was dry. The February 13 [2007] has all of the defects of the Clinton administration [agreement]. It was basically a bilateral deal between the United States and North Korea, ratified by the six party talks. It did reward bad behavior. Within months after the North Koreans exploded a nuclear device we were re-legitimizing the North Korean regime and we and others were promising to provide tangible economic and political benefits to North Korea, thus re-entrenching the Kim Jong Il regime in return for unverifiable promises that the North Koreans would give up their nuclear weapons.

HE: What would you do? How are you going to resolve this problem?

JB: The only way to resolve the North Korean problem is to change the regime. And there are two ways of that happening. One is the Chinese put the right amount of pressure on North Korea, which they alone can do, to get a regime in that gives up nuclear weapons. The problem with that is, the Chinese are fearful, correctly in my view, that if they put too much pressure on Kim Jong Il they won’t get a regime change – they’ll get a collapse of the regime. And if there’ collapse, there’ll be a reunification of the Korean peninsula…

Which has been out policy since 1945… and they like a divided Korean peninsula. They like the satellite state between China and our forces, they fear that in a reunified Korea, American troops would be at the Yalu River and they’ve seen that movie before. They didn’t like it the first time they saw it and they don’t like it any better today. So they are quite happy with the divided Korean peninsula and that’s a fundamental difference between the way they see things and the way we see things. But our policy now is going to result in propping up the Kim Jong Il regime, not getting rid of the nuclear weapons and perpetuating the threat in a way that makes Northeast Asia more unstable and which raises the prospect of North Korea selling the nuclear weapon to a terrorist group. The North Koreans will sell anything to anybody for hard currency. If Al Queda came up with enough dollars to buy a nuclear weapon from North Korea I don’t have any doubt that the North Koreans would sell it to them.

HE: But if China is not going to help us, we are in some sort of quandary are we not?

JB: There are other things I think you can do. I think the regime in North Korea is more fragile that people think. The country’s economic system remains desperate, and one thing that could happen for example would be under a new government in South Korea, to get the South Korean government to live up to its own constitution, which says any Korean who makes it to South Korea, is a Korean citizen. A citizen of the Republic of Korea. And you could imagine the impact that would have inside North Korea if people thought, “If I could get out and make it to South Korea, I could have a different life.”

And just as that little opening in the Iron Curtain that Hungary created caused a flood of people out, and ultimately the beginning of the end of communism in Europe, if you could get refugee flows coming out of North Korea, while there’d be a very difficult humanitarian problem in the short run, both for China and South Korea, in the long run it would lead to reunification.

It’s all very dangerous and risky, but how much more dangerous and risky is it to have North Korea with nuclear weapons?

HE: Well the other big and important question, maybe even more urgent that that, is Iran. We see the Russians up to their noses involved in Iran. We see the Chinese, same way. We see our friends, and I use the term advisedly, in Europe refusing to take significant action against Iran. The president seems to be content to continue along this line. I don’t want to say it’s an appeasing sort of approach, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be one directed at producing action.

JB: Right. We have deferred to the European Union, and we used to refer to them as the EU Three: Britain, France and Germany, for over four years, going on five now. Where they have tried to negotiate with Iran, they have offered Iran, in the world of carrots and sticks that we call diplomacy, they have offered Iran every carrot that you can imagine to get Iran to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons. And they have failed consistently for over four years, to the point that Iran has essentially mastered all of the complex science and technology that they need to have a completely indigenous nuclear weapons program. That means that our options on Iran are extremely limited, to regime change or as a last resort, the use of force.

HE: Those are the only two options you see?

JB: At this point yes. I think for example, the sanctions that were announced yesterday are too little too late. Had we tried that four years ago, had the Europeans joined with us, had we had better support from Russia and China maybe it would have made a difference.

HE: Forgive me but labeling the IRGC “terrorists” is like labeling the Little Sisters of the Poor “Catholics.”

JB: Gen. Petraeus said a couple of weeks ago the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad is a member of the Al Quds force. People have suspected this for a long time. That was the first time a significant figure in our government made that public. Well if he’s a member of the Al Quds force, what does that tell you about what’s going on inside that so-called embassy of theirs in Baghdad? Where the Iranians are throughout Iraq arming, financing, equipping, training extremists who are attacking our soldiers. They are engaged in hostilities on the ground, right now, inside Iraq.

And I just felt that under Secretary Powell, and even more so under Secretary Rice, our deference to the Europeans ran contrary to the very goal that the president continues to articulate, which is to deny Iran nuclear weapons capability. That I think is the real issue here, the disjunction between the goals the president has and the policies he’s pursuing.

HE: Gov. Bill Richardson says we don’t actually have to do anything about Iran until they actually have missiles.

JB: That’s a big mistake. Number one, as I said before, you can’t know for certain when the capability arises. And the notion that we can accept what I call “just in time non-proliferation” is must too risky. It’s too risky, because good-faith estimates, and these projections about when Iran will get nuclear weapons are estimates – they’re based on assumptions. If it takes them this long to do this then it’ll take them this long to do that. It’s a PERT chart, in effect. If your basic assumptions are wrong and they can compress the amount of time then your bottom-line conclusion will also be wrong. This point is, they now have all the science and technology they need to make a nuclear weapon. And with oil now touching 90$ a barrel, they’ve got the resources to put it into effect.

We look at these facilities the IAEA has looked at in Iran, they may not be the only facilities.

HE: I heard you say in a speech at The American Spectator dinner a few years ago that Iran had an eighteen-year record, at that point, of lying to the UN.

JB: Absolutely! And that’s one of the problems with a military strike. We would go after what we know, and incur all the costs, political and otherwise, and not take out their program because they’ve got a duplicate somewhere else. But the point is, this is now in their hands, when they are going to have the nuclear weapons. It depends on how many resources they want to put in over what period of time. The idea that it’s only after they have the nuclear device, and the capacity to put it on a ballistic missile that they’re a threat, is wrong based on our own experience with them. If you can take a nuclear device and put it in a box car, and bring it into one of our harbors, we’re at risk – forget the warhead scenario. And the Iranian government is the government that supplied the arms on the Karin-A to the Palestinian Authority several years ago, they are the world’s largest central banker for terrorism, if they thought it was in their interest to give a terrorist group a nuclear weapon to use against us or against Israel, I don’t think they’d hesitate.

And the delivery of a device by means other than a ballistic missile is actually more dangerous. Because a ballistic missile, you can track the trajectory and you’ll know where it came from. But if you put it in a boxcar and put it on a boat in New York harbor, can you be absolutely certain it came from Iran? So do you retaliate on the basis of 60% certainty? Or do you take out North Korea? This is a serious problem.

HE: No American president is going to launch a Minuteman missile addressed “To Whom it May Concern.”

JB: This is a critical point: everything is at risk. So the real issue of dealing with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical or biological is: What is your tolerance for risk? And my tolerance for risk for WMD proliferation is pretty close to zero. Because otherwise, we and our allies are at the mercy of regimes like Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in Tehran, or Kim Jong Il and the Hitler-in-the-bunker mentality in Pyongyang, or others who don’t share our calculus on the value of human life. And that’s why the Bush administrations pre-emptive strategy is so important, because the only real safety is to make sure that these weapons don’t fall into the hands of rogue regimes or terrorists in the first place.

HE: The second thing is, can you actually take them out? Could we now? Do we have the capacity to act?

JB: The answer is yes. And this would not look anything like Iraq, it would be a fairly limited strike on specific facilities that would break their control over the nuclear fuel cycle. It doesn’t guarantee that they can’t recreate it, but it would buy us a substantial amount of time and it would reverse the leverage that they have now. Right now time is typically on the side of the proliferators. Every day that goes by the Iranians get closer to that deliverable nuclear weapons capability. The North Koreans do more to hide their program — building a facility in Burma, as opposed to Syria. The destruction, in this case, of the Natans enrichment facility or the uranium enrichment facility in Isfahan, would prevent the Iranians from going from uranium in the ground to highly enriched uranium in a nuclear weapon. And it would give us, three, four, five years in which to do something more serious like regime change.

And I personally would say that if it came as a last resort to the use of force, I would say it also ought to be accompanied by a serious effort at regime change.

HE: How would you do that?

JB: To show to the Iranian people, that among other things this is not an attack on them, this is an attack on the mullahs. And what we want for the Iranian people is control over their own government, which they don’t have now. So you would do it through supplying resources and support from the outside to the indigenous people who are already quite unhappy. The mullahs have made hash of the economy since 1979, there’s a huge amount of economic dissatisfaction. The young people, who are pretty well educated and sophisticated, know they could have a better life than this strict Islamic law. There’s a lot of ethnic tension. Iran is barely over 50% Persian, and Arabs, Baluchis, Azeris, Kurds and many other groups feel left out of the society. That regime has a lot more weaknesses than people see.

HE: In terms of approaching them, I am not aware that anyone has had a successful negotiation with them that changed their behavior, since the regime came aboard in 1979. Am I missing something?

JB: I don’t think that there’s any evidence that after going on five years of negotiation by the Europeans, that there’s any sign of change in the Iranian’s strategic policy that they’ve been following for close to twenty years, which is to get nuclear weapons. And until you see evidence of that, there’s no reason to have any hope that negotiation will work. And in fact, I would argue the contrary. After four plus years of negative experience, it’s about time we draw the conclusion, not only that this is not working but it’s strengthening the Iranian’s position.

You don’t negotiate only for the sake of negotiation. Dean Acheson was one of the ones who put it best some years ago. You have to negotiate from positions of strength. And right now with Iran, we’re not negotiating from a position of strength. The Europeans are negotiating from the position of “Please give up your nuclear weapons program, and by the way if you do we’ll give you several boatloads of carrots.” The Iranians are quite willing to keep on negotiating on that line for a long time.

HE: Why aren’t we doing more? I sat in general Gen. Vines’office in Baghdad two Decembers ago and got an extensive briefing on the EFPs (explosively-formed penetrators) being manufactured in Iran, sent into Iraq to kill American troops. And when I asked some senior Defense Department officials about that I didn’t get a straight answer. I came away with the impression that they were under instructions from the president to not do anything about it. What’s going on?

JB: Well I think if you look at statements from our commanders in Iraq over the past six months, it is a cry for help against the Iranian role inside Iraq. And I worry that the reason we’re not being more aggressive in defending ourselves inside Iraq is that it would disrupt the EU Three negotiations over the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Why has the administration been unwilling to talk about the Israeli raid on September the 6th? Many people believe that it’s because if the full truth came out, the Six Party talks would go into the tank. That’s not a legitimate reason to keep the Iranian presence in Iraq, or the North Korean presence in Syria from the American people. And I think it’s a real risk for Republicans especially, that if there are reasons why this information is being withheld, it will come back to haunt them later.

HE: In 1979 there was a young marine named Rocky Sickmann, and he followed his orders. He did not shoot the people coming into the embassy in Tehran. He was one of the hostages held for 444 days. I talked to him for the first time directly, last night. And he was emphatic in identifying Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as one of the hostage takers, as one of the interrogators of the hostages. Is he right or is he just having faulty memory?

JB: I’ve met with some of the hostages, maybe I’ve met with him. Some of them have a lawsuit against the government that’s precluded by the Algiers Agreement that Warren Christopher and the others negotiated with the Iranian government, because it says that the Iranian government is held harmless against claims against them by the hostages and others. And that’s still in litigation I think. At any rate some of their lawyers came in with three of the hostages, and they said that very little of their captivity can they get out of their minds, though obviously it’s been some time now. Two of them said that they were unqualified they thought if Ahmedinejad was one of the captors.

I know they feel strongly about it, and given his role as a student activist at the time, it’s not at all unlikely that he was involved in it. That goes to the fundamental point, what kind of regime this is in Tehran. And the notion that they’re just some kind of Belgians, and you can negotiate with them.

HE: You’ve talked a great deal about the United Nations. Just out of curiosity, would you ever consider going back?

JB: I don’t think so. I think, if you’ve done it once, it’s time to move on. I know what kind of person I’d like to see there.

HE: You could do that as Secretary of State.

JB: (Laughs) The second act is probably not going to be as good as the first.

HE: Well we need to get those reforms done at the United Nations as well.

JB: Well I would say, and I say this in the book, that there is really only one reform we really need and that is to move from assessed to voluntary contributions. If we could move our money around to wherever we wanted, I tell you reform would go just like that. (Snaps fingers) It would be a wonder to behold.

HE: What’s the odds of actually setting up an alternative to the UN?

JB: I think it’s very difficult. I know a number of people have proposed it but what you would need, a United Democratic Nations for example, you’d need the Europeans to join.

HE: And they ain’t going to give up their playground.

JB: They like the UN the way it is. I think I try and show in the book, what many Americans find counter-intuitive, that a big part of the problem is not the Third World, it’s the Europeans, who are cloning in some respect, the European Union in the UN system. Dealing with the Third World countries is easier in some respects, because you can put it right on the table, and sometimes you can make a deal with them.

HE: Former Deputy UN Ambassador Jose Sorzano used to revel in going in there and voting “No” on some of these nitwitteries that used to come up in the General Assembly just to make the point. Do we do that often enough these days?

JB: Not as much as we should. I think one of the best stories in the book is when we voted against the new Human Rights Council, to the dismay of our European friends after they had sold us out on the reforms that were necessary to make it different from the Human Rights Commission. Now you’ve got a little over a year and a half’s experience with the new council and both the New York Times and Washington Post’s editorial pages say it’s worse than its predecessor. So that was a case, we voted with Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands… (Laughter) our three closest allies at the UN, and we were right.

HE: Let me ask you, do you think we can do anything about Putin, anything about China? In other words, what leverage do we have?

JB: Well on China, I think there are more things we have to make an issue about on the bilateral relationship. I’ve mentioned Korea, there’s Taiwan, we have to stop the more aggressive stance they’re taking there. I think the future of China’s unknown, I don’t know what direction it’s going to go in. It could go in the right direction, it could. It could go in a very bad direction to. And that’s one reason I think next year’s election is so important. We need an adult in the White House who knows how to deal with this very complex country.

Russia — I wouldn’t give up on Russia. I think they have legitimate security concerns from Islamic fundamentalism, not only on their border but in their country. Putin has gone in the wrong direction, in many respects I think we’ve lost opportunities with Putin that we had in the early days of the administration that we don’t have now.

HE: Can you elaborate a little on that?

JB: Well Putin acquiesced in our getting out of the ABM Treaty, he acquiesced in the Treaty of Moscow, which is the perfect arms control treaty — it’s three pages long, and it lasts for ten years and it’s effective for one day. He allowed former Warsaw Pact members to join NATO. Now he criticizes us for all of this for his own domestic political purposes, but in part he can say “I can see the way the world is now and if the US wants this, fine, we’ll go along with it.”

What he wanted was to be brought into Western security structures, and we didn’t do a good job of it. It may have been impossible, I’m not saying we blew the opportunity, but we certainly missed the opportunity. Whether we can get it back again, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t give up on Russia, and with oil at $90 a barrel, they can refurbish their strategic capabilities and under an authoritarian regime, those nuclear weapons are still there and in the wrong hands we might have a problem again.

HE: One more thought about Korea. You mentioned that if South Korea opened their country to refugees, that could be the key, and obviously you don’t think this government is willing to do that. Well if that’s not going to happen, then what do you do?

JB: You might get a new government after the next election. And you’ve got to go to China and say, “If the people start crossing the Yalu River, and in some places it’s not that wide and it’s frozen in the winter, we will help you with humanitarian supplies. You will not have to bear the burden of dealing with two million humanitarian refugees alone. We’ll help you pick up some of the cost.” The problem is that China is fundamentally not willing to deal with what follows from that, which is the collapse of North Korea.

HE: But if these things don’t happen, what do you do with North Korea?

JB: That’s why you have to raise it in the bilateral relationship with China. And we talk about that all the time but we never do it. Because business and treasury say “Oh my God we‘ve got all these business interests,” but I believe we’ve got out political interests too, and you’ve got to put that higher on the agenda and say to them, “You’re going to have a problem with us if we don’t deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program effectively.”

HE: Will they dump the dollar if we do that?

JB: You know, if we live in fear that they’ll do that, they win both.