Ambassador John Bolton made a reputation as a forceful advocate for American interests both during his tenure in the State Department and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Since partisan leftists deprived the nation of his service, Bolton has acted as an expert spokesman on foreign policy, from North Korea and Iran to Europe and the Middle East. Reut R. Cohen sat down with Bolton to discuss the monumental changes in foreign policy over the last few weeks. -- The Editors.
Cohen: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview with us. We appreciate your time.
Bolton: My pleasure.
Cohen: In light of recent events with Russia and Georgia, how would you grade the presidential administration’s response with the Georgia/Russia conflict? What are the long-term implications of the Russians’ actions?
Bolton: Well, I think the administration was very slow to react when the Russian troops moved in, and the failure to respond quickly was a signal of indecision and really a lack of any coherent response. And I think that encouraged the Russians to push further ahead. They certainly could have done whatever they wanted to do militarily, but if there were any chance for restraining them politically, the administration lost that.
Since the president got back from the Olympics, rhetorically at least, he’s been much clearer of the extent of the US opposition and the potential consequences. But we’re still a long way from responding effectively. I think what we need to do is call a meeting with NATO and the foreign minister level and reverse the decision from the Bucharest NATO summit this spring and put Georgia and Ukraine on the path to NATO membership. There are a lot of other implications from this and other former states of the former Soviet Union, and we need to be very clear to the Russians that they cannot act militarily like this with impunity.
Cohen: You have also been critical of the Bush administration on both North Korea and Iran. If you had the President's ear, what course of action would you advise in each of these troubled foreign policy areas?
Bolton: Yeah, I don’t think either Iran or North Korea will give up their nuclear weapons programs voluntarily. Whatever chance diplomacy might once have had perhaps with Iran combined with very substantial sanctions, I think that opportunity is gone. So with respects to both countries, our options are very limited. I think with North Korea we have to apply a lot more pressure on China because China does have the ability to force North Korea to give up this nuclear program. We have not taken that approach, unfortunately, but I think that’s the way that I would certainly propose to go.
With respect to Iran, we’ve had five years of failed European Union diplomacy and that leaves us with very few options. Regime change would be the preferable option, and I think that regime is weak. I think there is a lot of opposition to it inside Iran. But we have to be honest with ourselves regime change isn’t something you can do overnight. It may well be for that reason that we’re at the last resort which is the use of targeted force against Iran’s nuclear program. I don’t think President Bush is going to do that during his office but I think that really puts the pressure on Israel to make a decision whether they will use force, and I think they are very serious about considering it. The only other alternative is an Iran with nuclear weapons and I think that’s a very undesirable alternative.
Cohen: In this case you feel that removing the regime by military means would be the best route to go?
Bolton: No, you wouldn’t remove the regime by military means. You would support dissident Iranians both inside the country and in the diaspora around the world. I don’t think the regime is as stable as people may think on the outside. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the economy, there is a lot of dissatisfaction among the young people who know that they could have a different kind of life, and three is a lot of ethnic dissatisfaction. So I think the possibilities are there. I don’t think it would in any way require military force by the United States.
Cohen: So you do believe that there could be a diplomatic solution to the Iranian ambition for nuclear weapons?
Bolton: No, as I said, after five years of failed European diplomacy, we really don’t have very many desirable alternatives. Regime change by supporting the Iranian dissidence is one. But it may take too long. And that leaves us with the last choice which is the choice of targeted military force against Iranian nuclear weapons sites.
Cohen: In your recent book, you discuss that, like the UN, the U.S. State Department is another department with an out of control bureaucracy. On page 448, you wrote that "what happens at State, where too much of the permanent bureaucracy thinks it is responsible not just for implementing policy, but for setting it, no matter what the president of the moment thinks...." How do you think the state department has interfered with the goals of the current presidential administration?
Bolton: In both the cases of North Korea and Iran, it’s not so much they interfered with them as they have captured the secretary of state. Secretary Rice now channels their view and because of her dominant position within the administration the irony is that the state department has now reversed the president’s own state abuse from his first term and gotten the administration to pursue the preferred policy of the state department. And that’s not untypical, especially in Republican administrations. And I think the point is that the democratic legitimacy the president possesses is what gives him the authority under the constitution to make policy. The State Department legitimacy comes only to implement those policies. So, in effect, the citizens vote and they get a foreign policy very different than the one that they voted for, that’s a fundamental problem for democratic theory.
Cohen: To what do you attribute the growing anti-American sentiment across the world? And do you even think there is an anti-American sentiment growing across the world?
Bolton: I really don’t think the anti-American sentiment is growing. You know if you look, for example, at Europe where people have said that administrative policy on Iraq has made America very unpopular, just look at the recent elections. Schroeder has gone Merkel. This phrase about Schroeder is incomplete – it probably should say “Schroeder is gone, Merkel is much more friendly to the US.” Most dramatically of all, Chirac in France replaced by Sarkozy. Even though Blair has been replaced by Brown in Great Britain, there’s no fundamental change there. And the biggest irony of all is the Berlusconi, very pro-American, is back in Italy. You know, public opinion polls in these countries go up and go down, and the real test is how their leadership behaves because that’s ultimately what governs relations between nations. And I think that we’ve seen a shift in the past few years towards, clearly, more pro-American regimes.
Cohen: What has been the biggest challenge for you in position of US ambassador to the UN?
Bolton: The hardest thing is to try to maintain advocacy of America’s interest when so many Europeans are ready to compromise and give in, for example, on questions of Arab-Israeli issues. And that is a continuing challenge. I don’t regard it as difficult, in a sense, because it should be easy for an ambassador to represent America’s interest. But this is a problem in the foreign service when they often find it difficult to do that.
Cohen: In regards to the Israeli-Arab issue, especially with regards to Iran and their repeated calls to annihilate Israel and to wipe it off the map, what do you think Israel is considering doing in light of opposition from the European Union?
Bolton: I think they are trying to decide whether to use military force against Iran, and I think despite the opposition of the Europeans, the Israelis will make their own decision. I don’t know what the decision is going to be, but I have no doubt that if they think, as I believe they do, that Iran represents an existential threat to the State of Israel that Israel will do what it feels is necessary to represent its independence.
Cohen: You have an amazing reputation for being very blunt and very straightforward with your colleagues. How does that work for you?
Bolton: Well, I think most people appreciate it—you know, in America plain-speaking is a virtue. And I think those who don’t, it’s not so much they object to the straight-forwardness of the language; it’s that they object to the substance the policy. You know, that’s what diplomats ought to do is argue for American policy and American interests, and if that’s unappetizing to some countries, well, that’s a problem they’re going to have to deal with.
Cohen: Would you ever consider running for public office?
Bolton: I don’t think so, I don’t think that’s for me.
Cohen: Those are all of the questions I have for you. Again, I sincerely appreciate your time and I look forward to hearing you on Tuesday night.
Bolton: Thank you very much.
Ambassador John Bolton will be appearing this evening, August 19, at 6:00 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. For more information about this event contact firstname.lastname@example.org.