John Bolton delivered the following speech on March 31, 2006, at a special retreat with David Horowitz in Santa Barbara, California. -- The Editors.
I’m glad to be here in Santa Barbara and to participate in this event, which I think, having looked at the program, has just been rich with people and ideas, and I think, I’m sure, extraordinarily stimulating to everybody’s who’s participated in it.
What I wanted to do tonight was focus on the battle of ideas we’re about to have over national security in the upcoming election. Because I think this election is going to be one of the most consequential that we’ve had in a long time in America. know we think about that every time it gets to be presidential election year. But the stakes are particularly high this time. And given what happened in the 2006 elections, nobody should have any feelings of complacency at all. And if we’re not prepared, and if we don’t prepare the intellectual battlefield, the consequences in ‘08 are going to be even worse than they were in ‘06.
And, you know, there are a variety of ways that we can approach this. Obviously, individuals are going to be picking their candidates, and so on. But I think it’s important for people like the people in this room to go beyond that. I think that the battle among the candidates for the nominations, as important as it is, is not as important as people who are interested and concerned about these issues having the candidates address them. And by insisting that until they address them in a satisfactory way, they’ve got a long way to go before they deserve to be elected President.
Because it is people here who care deeply about these kinds of issues that can make a difference. And it means a lot more work for everybody here. But I just think it’s critical, or otherwise we will lose this election by default. And we will complain about it a lot, but we will only have ourselves to blame.
So my message tonight really is: there’s a lot of work to do. And the people who have to do it are right here, and people who think like us. Because if we don’t, you can certainly count on others doing it for us and coming out with the wrong result.
And a lot of what I’m concerned about is typified right now, exemplified by what’s happening with respect to Iran. Iran has obviously been pursuing, in a clandestine fashion for close to 20 years, a nuclear weapons capability. Despite what some of the people on the other side say, there’s simply no explanation for their behavior, other than to acquire nuclear weapons. And right at this very minute, I couldn’t pick a better case study of how not to respond to that kind of threat than what’s going on in this country and in Europe in response to Iran’s capture of 15 British sailors and marines.
And let’s just review the bidding here. The Iranians have held these people now for nine days. Frankly, if they released them tomorrow, the Iranians already would have learned what they set out to determine. And that was that they took people who were manifestly in Iraqi waters and -- get this now -- pursuant to a Security Council resolution, 1723 -- another example of how carefully Iran pays attention to the Security Council -- authorizing Coalition forces to be in Iraq in support of the Iraqi government. The Iranians know just as well as the Brits do that those people were in Iraqi territorial waters. I think that was part of the deliberate provocation -- to see what they could do, and then to see what the British -- and then more generally, the European; and even more generally, our -- response would be.
The episode was not accidental. It was carried out by naval forces of the Revolutionary Guards. This is the core military support of the Islamic revolution dating back to 1979. They take their orders only from the very top of the government in Tehran. This was obviously well-planned and well-executed; it had been in preparation for quite some time. And the timing of it itself, I think, was unquestionably geared to the most recent Security Council resolution, imposing very limited sanctions on Iran for its continued refusal to comply with even earlier Security Council resolutions on the nuclear weapons program.
So these 15 British sailors and marines were taken captive. We don’t know where they are now in Iran, but you can bet they’re a long way from the Persian Gulf Coast. And what has been the response to what’s, in a provocation, part of the larger Iranian effort to project power in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf -- and the Middle East more widely -- and across the globe?
Well, the first reaction, of course, by the British Foreign Office is the typical reaction by the British Foreign Office. In fact, some would say it’s the only reaction by the British Foreign Office -- a policy they themselves call “softly-softly,” which is you don’t want to provoke anything, you don’t want to cause any trouble, you sort of say to the Iranians, “Don’t you think you ought to give those people back to us?”
The Iranian reaction, which came very quickly, was, in subtle, nuanced form, “Take a hike.” The British responded to that by further elaboration of the “softly-softly” policy. They have been -- elements of the British government have been leaking to their press that the Iranians have been offering ways out of this crisis.
They were doing that toward the end of last week, when unexpectedly, Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, said that the most recent Iranian offer actually didn’t offer any solutions at all. The Foreign Office, in their fashion -- which they either learned from our State Department or taught to our State Department -- then leaped up against the Foreign Secretary, saying, “Actually, that’s not what the Iranian letter said.” More days have gone by, and these sailors and marines are still in captivity.
Now the British didn’t simply call in the Iranian Ambassador to London and ask that these people be released; they went to the Security Council. And it was a very impressive performance. You know, in the Security Council, you can do three things -- you can pass a resolution, which is supposed to be binding on U.N. member governments under the U.N. charter; the next level down is what’s called a presidential statement -- the president of the Security Council reads a statement from the chair of the Security Council in the chamber. And then the third, lowest response, is what’s called a press statement, which the president of the Council reads out at the press stakeout location outside the Security Council.
Now, here we have a situation where British forces, part of our Coalition in Iraq, have been dealing with Iranian efforts to kill their soldiers, just as they’ve been trying to kill ours; and kill soldiers and police from the Iraqi government for several years now. These people have been snatched illegally, in violation of the Security Council resolution, and taken hostage. And so what is the British response in the U.N.? Would they come in for a resolution? No, that’s much too provocative. Would they come in for a presidential statement? No, certainly not.
Remember the policy -- “softly-softly.” So the British offered to the Security Council a three-sentence press statement. And, you know, this is a fearsome document. It called on the Iranians to take note of international legality. Boy, that’s a long study in Tehran. And the British went into the Security Council with the statement which, under the conventions of the Security Council, requires unanimity for it to be adopted.
Six hours later, after the Russians, the Chinese, the Qataris, the South Africans and the Indonesians were finished with it, the president of the Security Council went out and read this press statement, or what was left of the three sentences. And that was denounced by the Iranian Foreign Ministry as provocative. President Ahmadinejad criticized the British. And what was the British reaction to that? They started backing away from the press statement that they themselves had suggested and couldn’t get negotiated.
That wasn’t the end of the British reaction. They went to the other foreign ministers of the European Union countries and said, “Look, we ought to talk about economic sanctions against Iran if they don’t release our sailors and marines.” And the other 24 countries of the European Union, having thought about that for a few hours, decided they didn’t want to do that, either. So that the European Union’s response, 25 countries, was basically to say, “We think you ought to release these sailors, please.”
Now, during this nine-day period, or eight days up until today, the United States State Department followed essentially the British lead, deferring -- and there’s a certain argument for this, I have to say. They are British sailors and marines at stake here--but basically saying next to nothing. Because after all, if the British are pursuing a “softly-softly” policy, that’s certainly something the State Department’s very good at. And it comes quite naturally.
And so the U.S. government essentially had very little to say on the subject, until today, when President Bush finally got a chance to say what he thought on the subject. And he said, “This is unacceptable.”
Now, we’ll see whether the State Department gets the message. I’m not holding my breath. But we are at a point, nine days into this hostage-taking, where, as I said a moment ago, the Iranians could conclude that they’ve already conducted their experiment, and they’ve seen what the response is. There is no response.
This is a lesson that I think, in their calculus, they could apply on the battlefields in Iraq, in terms of the aid and assistance that they’re giving to the Shiite militias and to the terrorist groups, that they give to Hamas and Hezbollah, and in their conduct of their nuclear weapons program. They could cut this experiment off, having established what they needed to, tomorrow. Or they could continue it, as they did in 1979 and ‘80 and ‘81, for 444 days, and teach the British what they taught us in the taking of hostages in our embassy in Tehran.
Now I have spoken personally to some of our hostages from the embassy who believe they recognized Ahmadinejad when he became president of Iran as one of the people who visited them in prison during the time they were held hostage. Ahmadinejad has denied that. Other hostages say they don’t believe that Ahmadinejad actually was one of the hostage guards or participated in it, although he was certainly part of the Islamic revolution; there’s no doubt about it.
I think the recollection of our hostages may well be right. Ahmadinejad, at least, was of the vintage that he knows exactly what impact hostage-taking has on countries that are not prepared to do something about it.
So this example right now, even if it ends at the tenth day, tomorrow -- or if it continues -- has brought another unfortunate lesson to us -- that when faced with provocation by the Iranians, if we don’t respond appropriately, the lesson they draw is to do something even more threatening to us. And this is about as clear a kind of scientific experiment as you can get in international relations, that proves the point that weakness is provocative. Weakness is provocative.
The sense that the United Kingdom is not willing, at this point, anyway, to do anything other than engage in diplomatic chitchat when 15 of its people are being held there, obviously being forced to say things that they don’t believe in -- nobody can read these letters that the Leading Seaman Faye Turney is said to have written and believe that she actually wrote them. Nor are the “confessions” that they’re broadcasting on television the honest views of these people. The British have different responses to people who are being held in prisoner situations than we do. But there’s still no doubt that this is an effort by Iran to exploit these hostages.
And I think we may have only begun. The optimistic scenario is they get out immediately. The more realistic scenario, I think, is that the Iranians put them on trial. And then you have a long show trial about the -- all of the alleged improprieties that the British and the Americans have engaged in during the last several years.
Now, this is -- this whole episode is simply a piece of Iran’s effort to project power, and to see what the limits are on that power. Sadly, this past summer, they had another experiment in the war between Hezbollah and Israel. The conclusion that I think they drew from that was that Israel, and perhaps the United States, were not willing to carry through the logic of their own public statements, and that Hezbollah emerged from that struggle certainly battered to an extent, certainly with its infrastructure in Southern Lebanon substantially weakened, but not destroyed, which is what the government of Israel said that its objective was.
Now, you know, the government of Israel could have said, after the Hezbollah attack across the Blue Line that resulted in three Israeli soldiers being killed and two being kidnapped -- they could have said, “We’re going to retaliate.” They could have engaged in military action for a week or so. They could have dealt Hezbollah some severe damage and said, “That’s our retaliation; that’s all we’re going to do.” That would have been a legitimate and coherent response. But what Israel did say was, “We’re going to destroy Hezbollah.”
And I can tell you that for three weeks in New York, we withstood a barrage of efforts by Kofi Annan, by the Arab League, by the Non-Aligned Movement as a whole, to have the Security Council declare an immediate cease-fire in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. And we resisted that, on the ground that Israel was exercising its legitimate right of self-defense, a right that is -- a right that’s actually embedded in the U.N. charter, not that anybody pays a lot of attention to it.
But, you know, we were met with a lot of abuse -- although that’s nothing new at the U.N. -- but with arguments about what Israel was doing that were wrong when applied to Israel but particularly important to the United States, because they are or have been or will be applied to us as well. And the principal argument was that the Israeli response was disproportionate; that Israel was using too much force; that after all, they were engaged in extensive bombing operations, they sent thousands of troops into Southern Lebanon. The scale of their military actions was quite large, compared to a raid by Hezbollah across the Blue Line that resulted in, honestly, just a few casualties and merely two people being kidnapped.
Now, nobody ever quite explained what a proportionate response by Israel was. I finally said at one point that I didn’t understand; did that mean that Israel was limited to killing three Hezbollah people and kidnapping two of their soldiers, and that once they accomplished that, then the mission was supposed to stop?
The fact is that even if you believe in some kind of legitimacy to a forceful response being proportionate, we felt Israel was well within its rights to destroy Hezbollah. Because the threat was not simply the one attack across the Blue Line; the threat had been carried out over years by constant rocket attacks against civilian populations in Israel, on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, by an extensive military capability that Hezbollah had that supposedly had something to do with the liberation of remaining Lebanese territory from foreign rule -- the only piece of which they could define Israel holding was the so-called Shabba Farms region, which the Syrians thought was theirs; the Lebanese had conceded to the Syrians. And why that was enough to justify Hezbollah’s armament, which included anti-ship cruise missiles, nobody ever quite explained.
But the whole argument about what Israel was doing was based on the perception that this threat was real, and that it had been made concrete by this latest attack across the Blue Line. And if it’s not permissible to destroy the threat that you face as an exercise of your self-defense rights, then it’s hard to understand what a right of self-defense means.
I said at the time that this argument that you could not destroy the threat itself necessarily meant that in 1941 and ‘42, the United States would have had to stop attacking Japan after it had sunk a comparable number of ships to those sunk at Pearl Harbor, and that therefore the United States was guilty of a disproportionate use of force in beating Japan and Germany and Italy, and the other axis powers.
That’s why this argument, even though applied in the context of the Israel-Hezbollah war of the past summer, is so important to us. Because we too are always being accused of using disproportionate force. And if you buy this argument, it means that we are constrained by what we can do, and fundamentally not able to defend ourselves.
And this goes to an absolutely critical point with respect to the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, and any other nuclear weapons programs that are out there, that may be in early stages now but are being conducted by countries that are watching very closely how the United States responds to Iran and North Korea.
The whole purpose of countries like this acquiring nuclear weapons is to hold innocent civilian populations hostage. These are not true military threats to the United States anymore. They are intended to be able to hold our populations and those of our friends and allies hostage. And if we allow these weapons, if we allow rogue regimes like this to come into possession of these weapons, we’re simply announcing that we’re willing to tolerate even greater proliferation to other rogue states, and perhaps, even worse, to terrorist groups.
That’s why -- although it’s not the preferred course we want to follow -- the only way to defend ourselves against the threat or use of these weapons is not to allow them to come into existence, or not to allow them to be held by these kinds of countries. And why, therefore, the threat of the use of force against Iran, against North Korea -- why ultimately, at least in my view, you need regime change in both Iran and North Korea is the only way to protect us from these threats.
Now, if you listen to our critics in Europe, in the left of this country, they will say that that’s illegitimate. They will say, even if it’s not simply illegitimate, we don’t have the capabilities to do it; we’re pinned down in Afghanistan, we’re pinned down in Iraq. You have to accept a negotiated solution to Iran and North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. This is a counsel not only of despair, but it’s a counsel that says to the government in Tehran and says to the government in Pyongyang, “You’re just about okay. You’re just about there. In fact, if you just wait until after the ‘08 election, and you get the right result, you’ll be more than okay; you’ll be secure.”
So I think we’ve got a limited amount of time here, within which these problems are going to be resolved. I think the prospect of a candidate winning the ‘08 election who also believes in a “softly-softly” approach is going to be so detrimental to our security over the long term that I don’t even want to think about it -- not in the sense of the destruction of our civilization, which we would have faced in a Cold War exchange of ballistic missiles with the Soviet Union, but in a way that gives impoverished that are not any serious threat to us in a way more leverage, or at least as much as the Soviet Union had.
Because even if North Korea or Iran only have a limited number of nuclear weapons, the threat to use them against civilians is very powerful. You can’t say, “Well, you know, it was only Seattle,” and expect that a Democratic government can survive. It’s one reason why it was so critical that President Bush carried through on his campaign promise in 2000 to get us out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so we can build missile defense -- which I hope we can get well underway before the ‘08 election -- but that brings me back to the hostage-taking of these 15 sailors and marines.
Iran has seen for nine days, in what to them is a low-cost experiment, that even this kind of activity does not provoke from the government of Great Britain what is fundamental to the purpose of government, which is protecting its own citizens. Now if the government of Britain, and Europe more generally, and the United States, are not prepared to take action faced with this kind of provocation, why should the government of Iran think that we are serious when we say force is an option against your nuclear program? I mean, this is about as distressing an experiment -- an outcome of this kind of experiment -- as I can imagine.
Now, I don’t know how it will play out, obviously, in the next few weeks. It’s possible that the British will stiffen their position. It’s also possible they’ll find a way to apologize and not call it an apology. I think that would be probably the worst outcome of all.
But I just urge you to watch this -- the unfolding of this. While it has not been as important here as it has been in the United Kingdom, this is a potentially dispositive moment in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapon, and North Korea, and any number of other states out there that you might want to mention -- possibly Egypt, possibly Saudi Arabia, possibly Syria, possibly others as well.
And it really comes back to the point I started with. It is critical that people in this room, people who understand why our national security is so critical, and why strong foreign policy and strong defense are important -- that we make the candidates come to our position in 2008, and not wait for them or hope that they will articulate the right position.
So David, I want to thank you for all of your work, and everybody here supporting David’s work; it’s critical. I appreciate being here tonight. Good luck to all of you. Thank you very much.