The John Bolton Interview

Last week I did a phone interview with former UN Ambassador John Bolton. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited a bit for clarity.

First of all, one thing that I’ve found a little puzzling is Western Europe’s refusal to work with us to put real sanctions on Iran. Surely they see the danger of allowing Iran to have nukes and that their refusal means that it is more likely that a military confrontation will occur. So, why don’t they give us any real help?…

I think many in Europe do not appreciate the threat that Iran poses. They don’t understand its support for international terrorism over the years, that it’s really functioning as the central banker for international terrorism, and many of them don’t believe that Iran is the threat we do in the nuclear area.

Some do; I think the British and the French see it the same way we do, but many others do not. So, if they don’t (agree) about the extent of the threat, they’re going to be less willing to engage in necessary activities.

But, even those who are willing to say, “Yes, we agree Iran is a threat,” are not willing to even take steps like economic sanctions that would impose some pain on them. I think that’s a real problem with Europe, because without even being willing to do that first step, it’s very difficult to put any measurable pressure on Iran.

If Iran were to acquire nukes, do you think that would create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with other nations like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt all acquiring nukes to protect themselves from the Iranians?

I think a lot of countries around the world are watching how we deal with Iran and also North Korea. If North Korea and Iran both escape with their nuclear weapons program intact, many other governments, including some of the ones you’ve named, will draw the conclusion that they, too, can acquire nuclear weapons. That’s what proliferation means. So, the stakes here are very high (in) Iran, and again I would say North Korea, not only because of the risks that they pose, but because of the geometric increase in risk that might take place if they maintain their programs.

Now, is it too late to stop Iran with diplomacy? Does the United States or alternately Israel need to use force at this point to stop them from getting nuclear weapons?

Well, I think you see that the Europeans have tried for over four years now, diplomatically, to convince Iran to give up its nuclear weapons (program) and have failed consistently. This four plus years of diplomacy have really given Iran a lot of breathing space — time in which they could perfect the very complex scientific & technological steps they needed to have completely indigenous control over the nuclear fuel cycle — control all the way from taking uranium out of the ground, to enriching it…to actually weaponizing it.

As a consequence, that means our options are very constrained, really boiling down to two, I think — one being regime change and the other, as a last resort, being military force. Both are difficult and unattractive options, but compared to Iran having nuclear weapons, I think we have to have them on the table.

Now, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah: what do you think of how that was settled with Israel backing off and international peace keepers being brought in to watch Hezbollah re-arm?

The consequence of Resolution 1701, I think, was while the conflict came to end, Hezbollah re-armed, re-supplied, and tried to get back to its original position. So, I don’t think the conflict is over there by any stretch of the imagination. At the same time, Hezbollah, despite the pounding it took from the Israeli Defense Forces, actually now is in an even stronger position inside Lebanon, threatening the democratic government there. So, I think the level of risk of another conflict remains high and I think it’s a risk both between Hezbollah and Israel and within Lebanon itself.

Here’s Jimmy Carter on Darfur:

“If you read the law textbooks … you’ll see very clearly that it’s not genocide and to call it genocide falsely just to exaggerate a horrible situation I don’t think it helps.”

What do you think of that statement, Jimmy Carter, and about what we should be doing in Darfur?

I think Secretary Powell previously called what’s happening in Darfur genocide and I think he was right on that. I don’t think we ought to get hung up on…a technical, legal question, because the tragedy there is very great. It’s one reason why President Bush is so concerned about it. I have to say I am surprised that President Carter, despite his efforts to burnish his humanitarian image, doesn’t appear to be so concerned about it.

Let me ask you about North Korea. Sort of a complex question here: do you think they have nuclear weapons? Assuming the answer is yes, when do you think they acquired them, how do you think the Bush administration has done in handling the situation, and how do you think we should proceed?

I don’t think there’s any doubt North Korea has nuclear weapons. They tested one last October. Many people estimate that they first acquired nuclear weapons in the early 1990’s. There’s uncertainty about how many they actually have and what their plans are, but I think the Bush Administration, in the first term, was largely paralyzed by an internal debate between those who wanted to continue the Clinton Administration policy and those who favored a harder line.

In the second term, the President has veered towards those who want negotiation and I think that’s unfortunate, because I don’t think there’s any chance Kim Jung-Il can be voluntarily persuaded to give up his nuclear weapons. So, I think we are in a dangerous situation there and as I said earlier, I think it has implications in a range of other countries, too, that are watching to see how we handle both North Korea and Iraq.

How do you think we should proceed? I mean, if John Bolton were advising George Bush, what would you tell him we should be doing to get rid of North Korea’s nukes?

Well, I would say that we should put more pressure on China because actually it’s China that’s most threatened by any instability in Northeast Asia. There would be a considerable amount of instability if North Korea kept its nuclear weapons and that induced Japan, possibly Taiwan, South Korea, or others to acquire their own nuclear weapons capability. So, we’ve all got a lot at stake here, but China has a lot at stake in particular and they’re the ones with the influence over North Korea.

The problem is that the Chinese fear that if they put too much pressure on North Korea, the regime will collapse and the two Koreas will be reunited. That’s something we favor, but the Chinese don’t because they like having a buffer zone, a satellite, between them, South Korea and the United States. That’s the fundamental difference, the fundamental problem we face in resolving the nuclear issue in Korea.

Quite understandably, there are a lot of conservatives who strongly dislike the UN. Some of them would like to see the United States pull out of the UN altogether. Do you think that would be a good idea? Why or why not?

I understand why people favor withdrawing, because it’s so frustrating; it’s ineffective, and it runs contrary to American interests and policies in many respects. But, I think being realistic, I think there are occasions when it can be useful as an instrument of American foreign policy and many of our friends and allies do rely on it and that’s kind of a fact of life as well.

So, I think we need to have massive change in the way the UN operates and I would move the US away from mandatory or assessed financial contributions toward a system of voluntary contributions, but I think we shouldn’t have any illusions about what the UN can accomplish. And, I certainly don’t think we should limit or constrain American policy to only what we can get the UN to support.

The United Nations comes across as a fundamentally anti-American and anti-Semitic organization. Do you think that’s true and can you tell us a little bit about why that’s the case?

Well, I think there is a lot of anti-American and anti-Israeli feeling in New York, but the UN is never going to be better than the geo-political reality in the world as a whole. But frequently, it’s worse than that, because of the culture that develops in the various UN cities and especially in New York. People think that they can create facts on the ground by causing a fuss at the UN and as long as we react as if they really can succeed, they’ll try and do it. So, I think you have to have a realistic and very skeptical view of the tempest in the teapot that boils up from time to time in New York and … recognize that much of it is simply theater, and that’s all.

Now, you were never able to get confirmed by the Senate. What do you think about how contentious the confirmation process has become in general in Washington?

I think it’s very partisan, very personal, and very bitter. I think that’s going to have adverse consequences for our nation because people who might otherwise be willing to engage in public service are going to look at the cost/benefit analysis and say it’s not worth going through that. So, I think this is a problem that has been emerging for some time. It showed up as long as twenty years ago in the confirmation tribulations of Bob Bork when he was nominated by President Reagan to be on the Supreme Court. That was a terrible injustice to somebody who would have been an outstanding Supreme Court justice. They tried it again with Clarence Thomas and with other people since then and unless we change that, as I say, a lot of very good people will not want to serve in the government because they will think, quite justifiably, “Why put myself through that?”

I want to read a couple of quotes of yours from 1994,

“There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.” — Also, “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

You still stand by those quotes?


The first quote was an example of what’s called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. That is to say the idea that the UN exists separate from or apart or above the member governments. That is to say, the only thing it can do is what the member governments want it to do. It does not have and should not have an existence apart from the member governments.

The second, about losing 10 stories, is a metaphor about any international organization or government. There’s not one that couldn’t be made leaner or more efficient and I certainly think that’s true of the United Nations.

Do you have an opinion on the Law of the Sea Treaty?

Yeah, I think it’s a mistake. I think President Reagan was right to reject it. As has been made clear, by Ed Meese and others, he rejected it for a variety of reasons, not just the seabed mining provision — and even that issue has not been fully addressed. So, I think it would be a mistake for the Senate to ratify that treaty — and I hope that many of the senators taking a look at that treaty and the risks that it poses to the United States, I think — are more and more determined to resist it. I am optimistic that if we can keep it from being jammed through the Senate while they are diverted on other things, that we can yet stop it.

I regularly poll conservative bloggers on various topics and for the past two years, you have ranked as one of their favorite people on the right (here & here). So, let me give you a chance to return the favor: are there any blogs you regularly or semi-regularly read?

Well, I read Atlas Shrugs, Power Line, Michelle Malkin, National Review blogs, and you know, I have left some out. But, I try to read a lot of them — you know, Redstate, RealClearPolitics — there is just a lot of good and creative thinking out there and I wish I had time to read more of them.

Tell us a little bit about your upcoming book, “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations.”

It’s going to be published on November the 6th. It’s kind of an inside view of how foreign policy was made in the Bush Administration. It deals with Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, the UN itself, my confirmation battle — and I hope it gives people a sense of what actually happens at the State Department, in Washington, at the UN — so that they ask, “How could we have possibly gotten to this point or that point,” that this will be a way of explaining it. It will be a very candid book and I think it’s very important for people to get a feeling for what actually happens in these policy decisions.

Sounds great! Anything else you want to say or promote before we finish?

I think next year is going to be a very consequential election for President and it’s perfectly appropriate for the full range of domestic issues to be discussed. You do that in a presidential election, but I want to make the point that we should look at national security issues as the highest priority — because the threats from international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have not diminished. They’re still very real and we need a President who is going to view protecting the United States internationally as his highest priority.

I know many of your readers and others are going to have a whole list of priorities and I say that’s entirely appropriate. I just want to make sure national security is up there at the top of the list.

By the way, you got a favorite for 2008?

I have not picked a candidate yet, in part because I’ve been writing my book, but I am not one who is pessimistic about this election. I think we are going to have a tough fight, but if we give up now and conclude we’re not going to win, we’re going to hand it to some left-winger, then we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Bolton…

…Happy to do it. Good luck to you.

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