Diplomacy: Straight talk

Veteran diplomat, conservative lightning rod, possible Republican presidential hopeful John Bolton shares his views with the ‘Post.’

John Bolton 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
John Bolton 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
‘Straightforward” is how friends and supporters of veteran diplomat and possible presidential candidate John Bolton might describe him. “Blunt” is another adjective that comes to mind.
His critics, however, have used other words. “Undiplomatic” is one, though perhaps a bit understated. “Rude,” a term the Iranians threw at him. “Caustic,” a third.
But regardless of the appellations used to portray possibly the most controversial envoy Washington ever sent to the UN, one thing is clear: Bolton – currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Fox News commentator – minces no words.
He thinks US President Barack Obama is the worst president Israel has ever faced, and says it. He thinks Israel should already have attacked Iran, and says that as well.
During an hour-long session with The Jerusalem Post editorial board on Tuesday, Bolton – in the country along with former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar and Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble from Northern Ireland, as part of a delegation of international dignitaries involved in an organization called Friends of Israel Initiative – presented his frank appraisal of some of the key matters on the agenda: The Palestinian statehood bid at the UN in September, Iran and Obama.
The PA bid: Bolton is eminently equipped to talk about the Palestinian bid at the UN, since he has been there before. Most remember him from his high-profile days as ambassador to the international body in 2005-2006. But well before that, he was assistant secretary for International Organization Affairs at the State Department from 1989 to 1993, and at that time was involved both in efforts to keep a Palestinian declaration of statehood from gaining momentum at the UN, and in rescinding the 1975 “Zionism equals racism” resolution.
The man knows from the UN. And for that reason, it is telling that he says Israel should pay as much attention to the current Palestinian bid there “as the grass you tread beneath your feet.”
“Last year, when this idea of the Palestinians doing something at the UN came up, the first idea was that perhaps they were once again seeking UN membership – which under the UN charter requires affirmative recommendation by the Security Council, and a majority vote in the General Assembly,” he said. “A number of people, myself included, said that is ridiculous.
I think the Obama administration came under such enormous criticism that they made it clear that any effort to get such a resolution through the Security Council would be met by a US veto.”
As a result, Bolton said, the Palestinians shifted gears from the notion of UN membership toward a resolution at the General Assembly that would do something – though it was not clear exactly what – on the issue of statehood.
What this amounted to, he said, quoting Yogi Berra, was “déjà vu all over again.” In 1988, after the PLO declared a Palestinian state, the organization started a campaign to get accepted into different UN-affiliated specialized bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), hoping that this would lead eventually to full membership in the UN.
Bolton said it had become clear to him in early 1989 – when he was still working in the Justice Department, before he had even formally taken up his State Department job dealing with international organizations – that the PLO was likely to gain entry into the WHO, and that it was necessary to stop them because such a move would have a snowball effect on other UN agencies.
“We had to do something to stop them,” Bolton said, adding that he had made it clear to foreign diplomats that if the PLO were admitted into WHO, the US Congress would cut off funding. This was in 1989, during the early years of George H. W.
Bush’s administration, and when it appeared to him that no one was taking this seriously, he went to then-secretary of state James Baker.
“What we came up with was for Baker to issue a statement saying that if any UN agency enhanced the status of the PLO, he would recommend to the president to cut off all contributions to that organization,” he said. “Obviously everyone understood that Baker wouldn’t be saying he would make a recommendation to the president publicly without knowing the president would approve that recommendation.”
What this did, Bolton said, was transform the issue “from Congress threatening to cut off money, to the president threatening to cut off money. And let’s be clear, this was a threat to cut off money to the World Health Organization – which was a pretty daring thing to do.”
The move “got people’s attention” and paid off, he noted, and the PLO was defeated in WHO, and then at a similar bid in the World Tourism Organization, and then in UNESCO. The PLO, he said, “eventually gave up.”
Facing a “reprise of this whole exercise in the fall,” Bolton – who stated that it was “fore-ordained” that the resolution the PA presented in September would pass the General Assembly – said there needed to be two responses.
The first response, he said, was for Israel simply not to pay any attention to the move, and to consider it “just another meaningless act in New York.” The Palestinian step, he said, was “purely a political act, and it reflects a gross departure from everything people have said since the beginning of the Madrid process in 1991, and what we’ve known from time immemorial: that the only way there is going to be peace is when the parties agree to it. So you can pass all the UN resolutions you want, it is not going impact on Israeli policy. If you act like this means something, people are just going to squeeze concessions out of you, just like squeezing an orange.”
The second response that Bolton suggested – this one for Israel’s friends in the US – was “to encourage Congress to pass legislation to say that if this resolution declaring Palestine to be a state is adopted by the General Assembly, that the US will cut off all contributions to the UN – assessed or voluntary.
And at a time of great budget constraint in the US, I think there would be a lot of sympathy for something like this.”
Unlike in 1989, there is no chance the Obama administration would threaten to withhold funds to the UN, so the emphasis now should be on Congress doing so, he said.
Iran: Bolton’s knowledge and experience aren’t limited to the UN. From 2001 to 2005, he served as the Undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, a position that placed him at the forefront of US efforts to stop the North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programs.
His efforts didn’t endear him either to the Iranians or the North Koreans, with the Iranians saying he was “rude” and “undiplomatic,” and the North Koreans calling him “human scum” and a “bloodsucker.”
He said he was “absolutely confounded” by comments former Mossad head Meir Dagan made last month, when he warned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu against a military attack on Iran and said this would trigger a regional war and spur on the Iranian nuclear program.
In Bolton’s view, a military strike – which he said the US could do better than Israel, but of which Israel was capable – is critical to protecting the world from a nucleararmed Iran; something that he said would change the regional and global balance “forever, irreparably, badly.”
He likened Dagan’s comments to the US National Intelligence estimate in 2007, which said Iran was no longer pursuing a bomb, and said the comments were not only inaccurate, “but also destructive, and something that will take time to get over.”
“I am not a shrink; I don’t know what motivated him to do it,” Bolton said of Dagan, a man he said he respects. “But I think factually it is incorrect in a lot of respects.”
Not only should Israel strike Iran, Bolton said, but it should have done so three years ago, when the Iranian program was less advanced and Israel had a sympathetic friend like George W. Bush in the White House.
“The likely outcome right now of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is that in a very short time, Iran is going to have nuclear weapons. That is the near-certain outcome.
Diplomacy isn’t going to work, it hasn’t worked; sanctions aren’t going to work, and they haven’t worked. Computer viruses are wonderful things, but they are not going to work. The Iranians are very close and they have been for some time, and the only reason why they are not rushing is because they are not worried anybody is going to do anything. So they can build up their capacity almost at leisure.”
Bolton said that while it was entirely correct to say this was the world’s problem, not Israel’s alone, “the trouble is that nobody else is going to solve it.” The Obama administration, he charged, believes that a nuclear Iran could be contained and deterred, as was done with the Soviet Union. But even if that were the case – something he rejected out of hand – Iranian proliferation wouldn’t stop with Iran.
“Iran gets nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia does, Egypt does, Turkey does, perhaps others in the region, so that in a relatively short period of time – five or 10 years – you are going to have a nuclear Middle East with half a dozen nuclear weapons states, which is inherently unstable and dangerous for everyone concerned.”
Since Bolton took as a given that diplomacy and sanctions were not going to work, and that computer viruses – “nifty” as they were – would also not do the trick, that left two options: “One is preemptive military force used against key aspects of the Iranian program, and the other is that in as soon as 12 months Iran has nuclear weapons, and fairly soon after that a delivery capability with ballistic missiles,” he said. “The Obama administration certainly isn’t going to use force against the Iranian program, and Israel is obviously very reluctant to do it as well.”
To hear Bolton describe it, a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be relatively cut-and-dried.
“The way to stop the Iranian nuclear program for a considerable period of years is to break Iranian control of the nuclear fuel cycle, and to do that, you need to destroy their facilities at Isfahan, their uranium conversion facility; you need to destroy their uranium enrichment facilities, which are currently at Natanz; and you need to destroy their heavy water production facility, heavy water reactor, under construction at Arak,” he outlined.
“We know where all those facilities are,” he continued, “The IAEA has been to all of them, we know exactly where they are located, and how they are structured. They can all be destroyed.”
The risk with Iran is about what is not known, and “every day that goes on gives Iran the time to build more faculties that are more heavily secured and not subject to easy destruction.”
A military strike, Bolton said, would not entail “military action comparable to Iraq or even Afghanistan. This is an operation that requires destroying several critical facilities; it does not require infantry troops on the ground. You don’t need the fourth infantry division to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons program – at least as of now. It is a very different kind of operation.”
Regarding how Iran would react to an attack, Bolton said it was hard to say with great certainty, but that the likely alternative would be to unleash Hezbollah, and perhaps Hamas, for terror attacks against Israel. “The threat to innocent civilians would be acute,” he said.
“But for all the risks of a preemptive strike against Iran’s program – for all of the political risk, all of the military risk, all of the risks of Iranian retaliation – the comparison you are making is not between the world as it is today versus the world after a military strike on Iran; the real comparison is the world after a military strike on Iran, compared to Iran with nuclear weapons.
“If you judge an Iran with nuclear weapons not to be much of a problem, then it is a fairly easy choice. But if you worry about what an Iran with nuclear weapons would do, then I think there is no alternative but to look at the military possibilities.”
On Obama: Bolton, who has never run for elected office, said he would decide by Labor Day, September 5, whether to enter the Republican presidential race. One thing his candidacy might do is spark a debate on national security issues, something he believes is currently missing. Others say the real reason for a possible Bolton long-shot candidacy would be to stake a claim to the secretary of state’s job were the Republicans to recapture the White House.
Bolton characterized Obama as “the worst president Israel has ever dealt with,” and said he was “very vulnerable politically.”
“The American people in 2008 were reflecting dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, no question about that,” he said. “President Obama campaigned on a very upbeat, optimistic theme – hope and change. He was the first African American nominee, and many people saw the election of an African American president as another vindication of America’s founding ideals, and he was elected – with [only] 53 percent of the vote. Fifty-three percent.
“Now, after two and a half years, the unemployment rate is still 9.2%, the deficit is out of control, and there is not a lot of hope and change left. So he is very vulnerable.”
Bolton said the major thing standing in the way of defeating Obama “is nominating the Republican candidate, because you can’t beat somebody with nobody. But the circumstances are very clear to me that Obama could be a one-term president.”