Ambassador John R. Bolton, a diplomat and lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the united nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. Ambassador Bolton is presently at the American enterprise institute, where his area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy. inFocus editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him this month.
inFOCUS: Was the First Gulf War the peak of the Reagan Revolution? We had Reagan’s foreign policy and the defense buildup in the 1980s, and in 1990 George H.W. Bush reaped the benefit.
John Bolton: He did. Of course the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein took place as the Soviet Union was really beginning to crumble, but it crystallized in many respects the ending of the Cold War. A lot of UN Security Council Resolutions we adopted, specifically UNSCR 660 and 661—right after the invasion—were co-sponsored by the Soviet Union and the U.S. That would not have happened if the Cold War wasn’t headed toward victory, because it represented a fundamental change in how, at least for that period of time, Washington and Moscow conducted international relations. That came as a result of the policies Reagan put into place. Just a year later they led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
iF: So it made it easier to herd the cats into the coalition. Was that part of the problem George W. Bush had in 2003; the inability to orchestrate the same sort of coalition?
JB: Well, it wasn’t that easy to herd the cats. People really didn’t see that lesson when it came to the second attack on Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State Baker, to get UNSCR 678 that authorized the use of force, personally spoke to the foreign minister of every member of the Security Council, including the then-foreign minister of Cuba. I’ll never forget the meeting in New York the day before the vote, with the foreign minister of Cuba and their UN ambassador. Baker tried to convince Cuba to vote in favor of this resolution. He finally said, “The point of is to prevent big countries from invading small countries.” Stone faces from the Cubans. “To prevent BIG countries from the NORTH from invading SMALL countries to the SOUTH.” Nothing. The Cubans hadn’t quite gotten over the Cold War yet.
When it came to George W. Bush and the Resolution on Iraq, Colin Powell did not visit every foreign secretary. And we did not get approval from Turkey to put the 4th Infantry in Turkey across from Northern Iraq. In 1990-91, the Bush 41 Administration also expended a lot of effort in what was called the “tin cup exercise,” going around to Japan and other countries saying, “You won’t contribute troops to the coalition, how much are you going to pay for it?”
iF: You orchestrated the repeal of the UN Resolution on “Zionism is Racism.” Can the U.S. still exercise leadership at the UN, or have those times passed us?
JB: I think we still can, but it requires a president who is willing to do it. The repeal of UN-GAR 3379 (labeling Zionism a form of racism) took a lot of effort and a lot of people were involved inside and outside the government. As we were working our way to the General Assembly vote in December 1991, President Bush was on the phone; Jim Baker was on the phone; I was having daily meetings with every Bureau in the State Department, looking at the votes, calling ambassadors.
I remember calling Harmon Kirby, our ambassador in Togo at the time; we didn’t have Togo lined up. I said, “Harmon, how are we doing?”
He said, “John we’ve got a coup going on out here!”
I said, “Find whatever government is in control and get their vote!”
If the president himself isn’t prepared to devote the effort then you won’t get the result.
iF: To go back to the First Gulf War, we did what we said we would do. We reversed the invasion of Kuwait and we sent the Iraqis home. But we stopped, and ended up having to go to Baghdad anyway in 2003. Should we have gone to Baghdad in 1991?
JB: With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, yes, I think we stopped too soon; the famous “100 Hours of Battle.” We clearly stopped too soon. It was an objective at the time to see Saddam overthrown, but the view was we had destroyed most of his army and the people would rise up and that would be the end of it. We let the Republican Guard back in the country. We made a number of accommodations to them. Saddam simply clamped down under pressure. He didn’t accept the “Oil for Food” program for four or five years until the Clinton administration made a number of concessions, which turned what should have been a humanitarian effort into an instrument to enhance his power.
I think we just completely misjudged what would happen at the end of the war. At the time, I thought stopping when we did was the right thing, but almost immediately I was told by Brent Scowcroft and others that you had to flood the country with UN observers, UN Oil for Food people. We needed to show that the regime was illegitimate, and we needed to bring it down. We could have brought it down if we had followed the Republican Guard back to Baghdad. The argument at the time was that the coalition would break up, but I’m not sure.
In any event, there is no doubt historically that by failing to pursue that possibility, we made a Second Gulf War inevitable and probably not on terms as advantageous as we should have had. That’s purely hindsight but that’s what hindsight is for.
iF: So do it again. Looking at Iraq post-2011, with hindsight, did our departure set up the circumstances whereby we have the problems we have today?
JB: To the famous question, “If you knew then everything you know now, would you still invade Iraq?” The answer is yes. Removing Saddam Hussein as a threat was absolutely right. The best approach after that would have been NOT to keep large numbers of American troops there, but to turn the government back over to the Iraqis. You don’t encourage political maturity by making decisions for other people; you encourage it by having THEM make the decisions. I said back then and since then we should have given them a copy of the Federalist Papers and said, “Good luck.” Not to say we don’t keep troops there, but in terms of governance, we’re not going to govern Iraq better than the Iraqis.
The biggest mistake was not in Iraq, but in the region as a whole: not following through and dealing with Syria and Iran. We had just overthrown the Taliban in Afghanistan, we had overthrown Saddam Hussein in Iraq, we were never more powerful in that region and the entire world—and they knew it. That’s why Iran temporarily suspended its nuclear weapons programs. I’m not saying we needed to invade Syria or invade Iran. We had enormous leverage and we walked away from it. We walked away from Iraq, and it was the decision made by President Obama in 2011 to withdraw—not the 2003 decision to invade—that’s why we are where we are now.
iF: We have an emerging understanding between Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States and Israel about the threat that Iran poses, the threat that ISIS poses. What could be or should be the role of the United States in encouraging that? Or shouldn’t there be one?
JB: There is a confluence of interest on the Iranian nuclear weapons issue and the broader question of Iran’s role in the region. None of the Arab monarchies want Iran to have nuclear weapons. They understand that the Vienna deal paves the way for Iran to get nuclear weapons. What has happened in effect is that we have encouraged the launch of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East: the Saudis with their options on Pakistani nuclear weapons and now starting their own indigenous program. Egypt, Turkey, Jordan doing the same, UAE already has one. Other Gulf States may follow. The fact is there are only two outcomes now in the Middle East: one is Iran gets nuclear weapons, far and away the most likely outcome; or two is someone uses military force to prevent it. And that’s not a belligerent statement; it’s our president who says all options are on the table, by which he means military force. The problem is that no one believes him. The Iranians don’t believe him, the Israelis don’t believe him, and most Americans don’t believe him.
And that’s why the spotlight is on Israel—and that’s not fair. This is a tiny country and the Iranian nuclear weapons program is not their problem, it’s our problem. But because Israel has twice be-fore gone after nuclear weapons programs in hostile states, and because we have defaulted the position that we should be pursuing, attention is focused on Israel. The Israelis and Saudis know what they need to do. If there’s going to be an attack, they’ll be able to figure it out on their own. I don’t think they’ll tell us and I don’t think they should with this administration in the White House.
The question for America is, if Israel, in conjunction with others or not, goes after the Iranian program, what should the American response be? The answer is twofold: one is to give political sup-port, and to say that an Israeli attack is a legitimate exercise of Israel’s inherent right to self defense; and then operationally to resupply Israel the planes they will lose, the cruise missiles and ordnance they will expend. Because I think Iran’s most likely response will be to unleash Hezbollah and Hamas rocket attacks, Israel needs air superiority over the Bekaa Valley and over Gaza. We can’t supply the pilots but we can supply the weapons and intelligence. We ought to do all that, we ought to do more, but I have to be realistic with Obama in office. That’s why support in Congress is so critical; not to allow Obama to withhold resupply for Israel and threaten it with adverse consequences.
iF: We tried the Arab Spring. It wasn’t very successful. Now we’ve got the Arab Winter, and there is a tendency to say, “a plague on everybody’s house.” There is no one there who is our friend; Kurds perhaps, Yazidis perhaps, minority groups and of course Israel. But you can’t say that can you?
JB: No, the region is very complicated. It’s not just here and there a game of checkers for us to pick a side. It’s a game of Chinese checkers—maybe three-dimensional Chinese checkers—because our allies in one conflict will be our opponents in another. You can see this now as the Kurds try to work out what they are going to do with the PKK, an ally against ISIS but potentially a mortal threat to the territorial integrity of Turkey. I think we’ve got the same kinds of problems, so you have to prioritize. So to me Iran’s nuclear threat is priority one and ISIS is number two, a close second.
The fact is though that over the last six-and-a-half years we’ve withdrawn from the Middle East, and that has helped encourage the slide into chaos that is transpiring. As hard as it is to be visible and active in the region, we have a lot of interests that require us to be there. That doesn’t mean we have to do everything for everyone there, but we can’t abandon them either.
Look at case after case in the region; at Libya, for example. I favored overthrowing Qaddafi because he threatened a return to international terrorism. He had ordered the destruction of Pan Am 103, and committed any number of other terrorist acts. It wasn’t because of the “right of humanitarian intervention” that Obama said he was interested in. But what did Obama do after Qaddafi was overthrown? He walked away. He walked away from Iraq. He walked away from Yemen. Obama walked away from what were perceived as any number of “American commitments” in the region.
Everything that was built up so painfully over a long period of time has begun to melt away. You have the anomaly of Russia selling weapons to Egypt, something that hasn’t happened since the 1970s. Our ability to alienate every aspect of Egyptian society, including the military we have given billions of dollars in military equipment to, has pushed us back 40 years. It’s unbelievable how quickly this happens but it’s a lesson that without American participation, order will break down–even if there is only a little bit of order–it will break down and break down quickly.
iF: Condoleezza Rice talked about pots and pot lids at one point. If you take off the lid, if you take away the strongmen, you end up essentially with chaos.
JB: Each country is different. In Egypt, Mubarak was not a Jeffersonian democrat, but he upheld the Camp David agreement and was with us in crisis after crisis. To throw him over the side as quickly as we did was a real mistake. Not because of what subsequently happened in Egypt, but because of the impression it gave to the other Arab allies, who had not made peace agreements with Israel. I know the Gulf States said it; they said it to me. “If that’s what America does to a friend like Mubarak what will they do to us when our time of trouble comes?” That’s why I opposed getting into Syria against Asad. I thought it was a sideshow, the real enemy there was Iran. As Alexander Haig used to say, “Go to the source.” And the source was Iran
Libya, to me, was a different circumstance, you had a regime that pursued nuclear weapons, had engaged in international terrorism, and was threatening to go back to it. Libya is a tragedy, but it is an example of leading from behind. If you make an ideological pronouncement and then walk away, there are consequences.
iF: One thing that is clear is that we cannot make democracies out of other kinds of countries. We get what we get. Do you then have to throw out human rights, or is there a role for us in nudging them in a direction that makes them better to work with?
JB:We have to be true to our own values, there’s no getting around that. We favor representative government, that’s what we do. Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote the lesson 35 years ago in Dictatorships and Double Standards. She quoted John Stuart Mill on representative government in an essay and it struck me ever since.
He said, among other things, that the conditions had to be right for representative government to succeed, and the phrase I always liked most was he said “people must be ready to receive it.” And that is a statement that says holding elections is not tantamount to democracy. When you say people have to be ready to receive it, there are conditions that have to go beyond political campaigns and counting votes at elections. It does not happen overnight.
Some people are afraid to say this because they’ll say you’re casting aspersions on a particular ethnic group, or particular region. I don’t think so at all. Take Europe: they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory the past 100 years. Or Russia, a country that came out of an authoritarian regime and went through a period of democracy and from everything I can see is now going back to authoritarianism. It’s not a problem unique to the Middle East; it’s a problem for everyone. The people must be ready to receive representative government, and it’s no aspersion on anyone to say we don’t think the conditions exist yet.
iF: Picking up on the Russians, they’ve made a comeback. How do you see them in the Middle East or Persian Gulf, in the next 5-10 years?
JB: They have long believed that Iranian nuclear weapons capability is fundamentally an American problem. There are Russians who understand that a nuclear capable Iran could be a threat to them too, but the dominant view in Moscow is that they know how to handle the Iranians. I think it’s a little bit tinged with racism, but they’ve had a long experience. They think they know what they need to know. They see real advantages to Russia: selling nuclear reactors, selling high-end conventional weapons, joining with Iran on natural gas because they both have large domestic reserves. They fundamentally see it as a thumb in our eye.
We have some common interests with the Russians in opposing ISIS, al Qaeda, and Islamic terrorism, but it’s hard to get to that point when they’re flying political cover for Iran, and working with China on North Korea. Putin has followed a course that really put him in odds with us and until that changes it’s hard to see how to work cooperatively with him. I’m not saying we should ignore the possibility, but right now what they’ve done to us in this Iran deal will be hard to overcome for a while.
iF: You just mentioned North Korea. North Korea-Iran relations: there are people who think Iran already has a nuclear weapon and North Korea has tested it. Or North Korea has tested missiles for Iran. How close do you think that relationship is?
JB: The relationship is close, but how close we don’t know. We do know a few things: since 1998, Iran and North Korea have cooperated very closely on ballistic missiles. In 1998, North Korea launched a missile that landed in the Pacific, East of Tokyo, and the Japanese went through the overhead. North Korea said, “OK we won’t engage in launch testing from the Peninsula,” which was a moratorium until July 4th, 2006, when they started testing again.
In the 8-year period they worked very closely with Iran on ballistic missiles. They were both using the same Soviet-era Scud missile technology. They were doing it for the same purpose, which wasn’t to launch weather or communication satellites. It was to be a delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons. They knew what they were doing and they shared a lot of information. It leads logically to ask the question, if they were collaborating, as we know they were on ballistic missiles, were they collaborating on the nuclear side as well?
There is strong reason to believe the reactor the North Koreans were building in Syria was a three-way joint venture with Iran. I testified back in 2004 that I was concerned about Syrian interests in nuclear capabilities. Then-Senator Joe Biden said that that was ridiculous, there was no evidence of that and that the Syrians didn’t have the money to facilitate that. Well, OK, if they didn’t have the money for it, who was paying for that reactor that the North Koreans were building? One should at least ask whether the Iranians were paying for it.
It is a question Congress needs to look into as it considers the effects of the Iran deal.
iF: Let me give you a wrap up question. At some point we have to repair the mistakes, we have to move forward. As you look ahead, what are some things the United States could or should do with the countries in the region to find common footing and to move forward on things that are important to us?
JB: The next president has to do two things. One, on a big political level, is to make clear that the U.S. intends to assert its interests in the region and protect its friends—politically, economically, and with military force. That we are not going to sit by and watch weapons proliferation or the development of a new terrorist state occur, which is what ISIS is making out of what used to be Iraq and Syria. You can’t go back to the status quo, because Iraq doesn’t exist as a state anymore and I don’t think anyone will put it back together. The same is probably true of Syria, and other states might collapse—Yemen and Libya already have. It will be a tall order.
A lot of this the next president has to set by tone, much as Reagan did when he contrasted how the United States behaved under the Carter administration.
On a second level, we have to rebuild our capabilities and unleash the U.S. domestic economy even as we build up our force capabilities and intelligence. There is an integral linkage between domestic and international policy, and you can’t have a strong American way of life at home without a strong American presence internationally. Building up the defense and intelligence capabilities that we’ve lost or haven’t refurbished over the past six and a half years is going to take time and money. But just as Reagan’s political strategy bought time for the military buildup that eventually was a major contributing factor to the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too the way the new president sets priorities and manages the capabilities increase is going to be very important.
Nothing has happened that we can’t fix, but we should not underestimate the difficulties. It’s going to take a president who spends a lot of time on international affairs. The next president has to focus on international affairs. He has a lot to do domestically, but if we simply manage the situation that the next president inherits instead of reasserting American authority and interest, we will pay for it for a long time.iF: Ambassador Bolton, on behalf of the readers of
iF: Let me say “Thank you,” for an important and insightful interview.