One on One: 'With no likelihood of US use of force, that leaves Israel'

Former US envoy to the UN John Bolton says time is running out on Iran.

john bolton 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
john bolton 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
John Bolton makes no bones about his bleak forecasts. Rather than leaving his listener in a state of despair, however, his straight talk is surprisingly comforting, especially under the circumstances. On the heels of a war likely to be resumed any minute now, and on the last stretch of an election campaign that has been heavier on slogans than on substance, having someone in the know "tell it like it is" is refreshing, to put it mildly. Not everyone feels this way about the former US ambassador to the UN and current senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in Israel this week to attend the ninth annual Herzliya Conference. In fact, his unflinching assessments of where the world is headed in general, and what Iran is up to in particular, have some seeing him as an alarmist and others bracing for inevitable doom and gloom. But the 60-year-old Bolton, a lawyer with a long list of public service positions under his belt (prior to his 16-month stint as US permanent representative to the UN, he served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, senior vice president of AEI, assistant secretary for international organization affairs at the State Department, assistant attorney-general at the Justice Department and assistant administrator for program and policy coordination and general counsel at the US Agency for International Development), sounds as calm about his convictions as he is undeterred by his critics. During an hour-long interview before leaving Herzliya's Daniel Hotel and heading to the first panel-packed day at the campus of the Interdisciplinary Center, Bolton gave his take on Gaza, Iran, Turkey and, of course, on the outgoing and incoming American administrations. Operation Cast Lead was timed to end immediately before US President Barack Obama's inauguration. Since then, rockets have continued to be fired on Israel from Gaza, with limited retaliation, and preparations for a possible second round. Had Israel not pulled out, would that have put an automatic strain on Jerusalem-Washington relations? I do think the Obama administration will be less friendly to Israel than the Bush administration. And I understand why the leadership in Israel might have wanted the operation finished by January 20. There may have been other reasons to stop, as well, although with the renewed launching of rockets, those reasons are less apparent. Military operations like Cast Lead should be carried through to their own logical conclusions, and I think Israel has to calibrate its military actions based on its own self-interest. Trying to judge what it should do based on American politics is a perilous venture. But doesn't Israel rely on the US? Can Israel "go it alone," without American approval? Well, it has done so in the past. For example, it undertook the very important operation, in September 2007, to destroy the North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria. That was done, if not over US opposition, certainly without US approval. Personally, I think that US policy was wrong. I think Israel's destroying of that nuclear facility was beneficial to international peace and security. You're saying the US was actually against that operation? Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice wanted very much to avoid that strike. In fact, when Israel came to the US and first proposed it in the spring of 2007, she urged that it be postponed indefinitely. The Israeli response was, "We'll postpone it, but not past the end of the summer." And that's exactly what happened. Speaking of Rice, she seemed to have shifted to the left over the course of the Bush administration, particularly in its second term, when she became secretary of state. Does it really make a difference, then, whether it's Bush running the show or Obama? Sadly from my perspective, there will be a lot of continuity between the Obama and Bush administrations where Middle East policy is concerned - generally on Iran, and specifically on a range of other issues. That doesn't warm my heart. It shows that mistakes were being made, especially during the second term of the Bush administration, many of which were made at secretary Rice's behest. Was this because Bush came to rely on her so heavily, or did he actually hold with her views? He did trust and rely on her very extensively in the second term, when a number of major voices of the first term left the government in one way or another and others, like vice president Cheney, had a much lower profile. I believe historians will judge that Rice was the dominant - in fact, nearly exclusive - voice advising the president on foreign policy in his second term. Was he personally under her spell in some way, or did he change his mind about his own doctrine? I can't explain it, quite frankly. It was a big disappointment to see the changes that were made in a variety of policy areas. It was one reason for my not seeking another appointment at the UN, and I thought it appropriate to leave in December 2006, because the administration had shifted on too many important foreign policy issues. At last year's Herzliya Conference, you responded cynically to the suggestion that Bush might bomb Iran before the end of his presidency. Why, at the time, were you so certain he wouldn't do it? Well, I had changed my view on that subject. I originally thought that president Bush was prepared to use military force. He had said repeatedly during his first term that an Iran with nuclear weapons was unacceptable. And, being a man of his word, I thought that his use of the word "unacceptable" meant it was not acceptable, and therefore if diplomacy failed - which I was sure it would - that left the robust response as the only option. I think what happened was that the president was persuaded by secretary Rice that a military answer to the Iranian nuclear threat would have provoked Iran to respond in Iraq, by increasing its destabilizing activities. I happen to think that analysis is incorrect - that Iran, if it retaliated at all, would retaliate by having Hizbullah launch attacks on Israel. But I think that secretary Rice persuaded the president that his biggest legacy in Iraq could be threatened and undermined if Iran stepped up its destabilizing activities. From what you know of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, do you think she will take a similar view, or is it possible that she, ironically, might take a more hard-line position on Iran? Bill and Hillary were a year ahead of me at Yale law school. I've known them for a long time - not that we were close buddies. And my recollection of Hillary was that she was one of the most radical leftists among the students there. She has gone through a lot of changes since then, among them in her political awareness, but I think fundamentally her views have not changed. I would worry that she will fit right in to an Obama administration, whose views are very European when it comes to a wide variety of foreign policy issues. The danger of a nuclear Iran is an issue around which there is consensus across the Israeli political spectrum. In the event that it becomes necessary, would it be legitimate for Israel to take military action alone, if doing so were technically feasible? Absolutely. With the end of the Bush administration, the possibility of US use of military force against Iran's nuclear program has dropped essentially to zero. The diplomatic effort failed years ago, and I don't think any renewed American effort is fundamentally going to make any difference. Iran has all the scientific and technological knowledge it needs right now to create a nuclear weapon. We can tell from publicly available information from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has enough low-enriched uranium which, if enriched to weapons-grade levels, would allow it one nuclear weapon now, and possibly another one or two this year. Let me stress here: That's what we know publicly from the IAEA - no James Bond involved in that calculation - and there may well be additional activities we don't know about, which would make Iran's capability even more substantial. So, if the diplomatic option has failed, that leaves only regime change or the use of force. And with no likelihood of American use of force, that leaves Israel. Of course, the military option is a very unattractive one. It's risky. You could end up with the worst of both worlds: taking action without breaking Iran's control over the nuclear fuel cycles, and yet incurring the disapproval of governments all over the world. But you have to have the military option front and center, because the alternative is far more unattractive. Now, there are people who will say that Israel can't do it without American approval, or that it's not possible technically. I don't believe any of that is accurate, though I don't mean to downplay the risk involved. But there's another thing that you have to keep in mind: The military option is declining over time. This is because Iran will undoubtedly take steps to disperse and harden its facilities even further. It will increase its air defense capabilities by purchases from Russia. It will do many things to make it even more difficult for the US or Israel to take military action in the future. So there's a very narrow window. If it closes, then you have to contemplate what to do with a nuclear Iran. I've tried to stay away from theorizing about how you deal with a nuclear Iran, because once you start theorizing about it, in a way you're accepting it. But if the reality is that Iran is now unimpeded - except for the possibility of a military strike - then you have to start thinking about it. That's why regime change starts coming back into the picture. The only long-range way to deal with this problem is regime change. You can't contain a regime of religious fanatics. Their calculus on the value of human life is very different from ours. If you prize life in the hereafter more than life on earth, the deterrent value of retaliation isn't very persuasive. Look at the people who carried out 9/11. What threat of retaliation would have deterred them from the suicide attack? The answer is none. So, we're at a very grave point here. There's not much time left to deal with Iran if you want to keep in non-nuclear. And once it becomes nuclear, the entire balance of power in the region shifts - not just for Israel, but for the Arab states in the Persian Gulf as a whole. It will be a dramatically different region, because of the substantial increase of influence that nuclear capability will give the Iranians. What good can changing this or that specific radical regime do, when the forces of jihad are global and exceed borders? By regime change in Iran, I don't mean switching a few figures at the top; I mean the elimination of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The few cases of countries' having given up their nuclear weapons programs have come at a time of regime change. For example, when South Africa moved away from apartheid toward a true democracy, that's when it gave up its nuclear weapons program. When the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus gave Russia back the nuclear weapons that had been left on their territory, because they wanted a non-nuclear future. There's no guarantee that regime change in Iran would achieve the same objective, but if there's any chance for that to happen, it's when a new government says it doesn't want nuclear weapons, and does want peace and stability. If that doesn't work, then the options are even more unattractive. That's why this is such a critical point, without much time remaining before we find out what happens when Iran does get nuclear weapons. It has been said that Iran's nuclear program is being set back by the global financial crisis and sanctions. Is that not true? The fall in the price of oil globally has had a dramatic impact on Iran. There's little doubt about that. And Iran's economy is in very bad shape. There's little doubt about that, as well. But neither of these two factors has anything to do with sanctions. Iran's economy is in trouble because of nearly 30 years of misrule since the Islamic Revolution. The lesson is: Don't put religious leaders in charge of an economy. They have misinvested in Iran's oil infrastructure. They have subsidized fuel prices to the point where they're now dependant on importing refined petroleum products. You can see evidence of economic dissatisfaction all around the country. But, again, that's not because of the sanctions that have been imposed by the US or the Security Council. Those sanctions have had a very limited impact. The fall in the price of oil has made it difficult to keep up the popularity of the Ahmadinejad government, and at the same time, keep up the military programs. But it's not Ahmadinejad who is really calling the shots anyway. It's the top clerics and the Revolutionary Guards. And those elements will still be in power, no matter what happens in the elections. Voting him out of office would not constitute regime change. Furthermore, the reason many Iranians are unhappy with Ahmadinejad is not because of what he is saying about wiping Israel or America off the face of the earth. They don't disagree with him; they just think he shouldn't say it publicly. Much better to think and act on it privately than draw attention to it. Their disagreement with him, then, is tactical, not philosophical. Can the US hesitation about using military force against Iran be attributed to the negative perception of the Iraq endeavor? Iraq was a strategic success the moment Saddam Hussein was overthrown, because it eliminated a regime which itself was a threat to international security. And let's not forget the collateral benefit of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi deciding he was prepared to give up his nuclear weapons program in order to stay in power and, in turn, the unraveling of the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network. The controversy over Iraq - I believe historians will say - was not over the decision to overthrow Saddam, because that decision has been vindicated. The controversy is over what happened after that, and obviously it was unhappy for a substantial period of time. But better late than never, the surge policy has proven successful. Al-Qaida in Iraq has been all but eliminated. And now, with the most recent example of the provincial elections, we can see that nationalist forces in Iraq have begun to emerge, even in the Shi'ite areas, to begin to counterbalance some of the Iranian influence. This is a story whose final chapter has not been written, but by and large - at a great cost, I concede - it is moving in the right direction. The issue about using military force in Iran is very different from the considerations that led to the use of military force to overthrow Saddam. We're talking about a very limited operation, targeting only Iran's nuclear program, not the Iranian people or even the government. Nor is it an operation that would necessarily involve ground forces, but rather special operations forces and air strikes, that should be accompanied by an information campaign to lay the basis for regime change. Because the military option really only changes the calculus, and puts time on our side, rather than on Iran's. Time is normally to the benefit of the would-be proliferators. The advantage of a military strike would be breaking Iran's hold over the nuclear fuel cycle, and giving us two, three, five years to find another - hopefully more permanent - resolution to the threat Iran poses. The point is that it's a very different situation from that of Iraq. You don't have to destroy all of Iran's nuclear-related facilities. You have to break its ability to go from uranium in the ground to highly enriched uranium in nuclear weapons. And if you can break it in one or more key points, then you create the time-out that gives you the possibility of looking for other, more durable, solutions. If, as you claim, things are moving in the right direction in Iraq, and there is general agreement that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable - and since, until the very recent Wall Street crash, Americans were prospering financially - how do you explain the mass hysteria surrounding Obama? Well, I don't think there really is mass hysteria in the US, though there may be in Europe and other parts of the world. He didn't win by an overwhelming majority. He won clearly and unmistakably, but it was not a landslide. And you can already see some dimming of Obama-mania. We have a very complex political system, and a very complex set of beliefs on the part of the people. Former senator Paul Laxalt, Ronald Reagan's best friend, used to talk about what he called the "fickle factor" in American politics which, every eight years, lets somebody else in. Americans, as they often do, said, "OK, we've had enough of this crew; let's see what the others can do." When you add that to the impact of the financial crisis, it was essentially impossible for Senator John McCain to win this election. Let's talk about Turkey. Always spoken of as a Muslim democracy, it nevertheless keeps exhibiting anti-Western behavior. Is Turkey moving closer to the Islamist world? One of the first indications of difficulty was the failure of the Turkish parliament to grant access for the US Army's 4th Infantry Division through Turkey into northern Iraq at the time of the 2003 attack on Saddam Hussein. And, yes, I think there's clear evidence of political Islam gaining support in Turkey. It's a kind of paradox, because the institution that most embodies the Kemalist secularist state ideal is the army. So, for those who value democratic government and civil rights, the idea that the army would be the guarantor is almost a contradiction in terms. And yet, in fact, it's the army that has carried through Kemal Ataturk's legacy from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the establishment of the modern Turkish state. It's a dilemma, and Turkish voters are going to have to make up their minds whether to continue the pattern of the secular state, which I certainly hope they do, or whether they're prepared to give it up. Do you think that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's response to Operation Cast Lead is an indication of what's going on among the Turkish people? The rhetoric is certainly consistent with the idea that he sees this as being a politically advantageous direction for him to go in. As the saying goes: "There go my people, I'd better follow them." If that's true, it's bad news for the future of a secular Turkey. Speaking of bad news, does the UN - which has been anti-Western in general and anti-Israel in particular - have any legitimate reason for existing altogether, let alone housed comfortably in New York City? [Former US ambassador to the UN] Jeane Kirkpatrick was once asked whether the US should withdraw from the UN. She paused for a moment and said, "No, I don't think it would be worth the trouble." The UN is a vast organization parts of which do good and legitimate work. The World Food Program, for example, and the High Commissioner for Refugees, or some of the specialized agencies that don't get a lot of attention, because they just do their job, rather than get into politics. The main problem with the UN is its political decision-making structure - the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and so on - that over the years have become less and less able to make clear political choices, and when they do, they tend to be anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israel. That obviously means they're not conducive to effectively implementing some of the ideals that are written into the UN Charter or into their own foundational documents. But, for many American allies, the UN is important. Many of the troops that have remained in Iraq for years did so on the basis of Security Council authorization. Those from Japan and Denmark, for example. So, we have allies who see more political benefit in the UN than perhaps we do, and that's something that we have to take into account. Still, there is a huge range of things we could and should do to improve the UN, starting with the way in which it is financed. We should move from a system of mandatory or assessed contributions and more toward voluntary contributions. The agencies in the UN system now that are most effective, most transparent and most responsive are those that are funded by voluntary contributions: UNICEF, for example. What about UNRWA? UNRWA is an example of an organization that should have ceased to exist long ago, because its functions were transformed over time from humanitarian to largely political. The idea that refugee status can pass down through the generations is contrary to the principles of international humanitarian law that the High Commissioner for Refugees operates on elsewhere. And it shows why single-purpose organizations like this often are self-defeating. Apropos the passing down of refugee status through the generations, if Hamas and Hizbullah are proxies of Iran, how can Israel eliminate the threats they pose with this or that territorial compromise, or this or that military operation? It is a mistake to think that you can deal with the problem of Hamas, Hizbullah or even the regime in Syria separately from the problem of Iran. And neither of those three is disconnected from the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. Nor am I sure that you can deal with all at once, without regime change in Teheran. This is not to say that you have to have a macro solution to everything before you can have a micro solution to anything. It is to say that as you approach these threats and problems, you have to understand the linkages between them. This is why I think - and just wrote recently in The Washington Post ["The three-state option," January 5] - why I think the two-state solution in dealing with the Palestinians is dead. And why, due to the Iranian funding of Hamas, that there's any possibility of a Palestinian state that would be acceptable to Israel or the US. So, keeping security and the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people in mind, I think it would be better to turn Gaza back over to Egyptian control, and - in some configuration to be negotiated - for the Palestinians in the West Bank to have a relationship with Jordan. How could Egypt and Jordan possibly agree to this, when both King Abdullah II and President Hosni Mubarak have their own regimes threatened from within, particularly the latter, who has the Muslim Brotherhood to contend with? This is the irony. Nobody wants the Palestinian problem, and so it's left to Israel, that tries to ensure its own safety and gets criticized for it. But the best way to control the Hamas-Muslim Brotherhood threat - which emanates from Iran - and to police the tunnels, is for Egypt to have control on both sides of the border. According to polls Binyamin Netanyahu - like you, a former ambassador to the UN - is going to win Tuesday's election. Is it true, as his opponents have been claiming, that Obama will not be able to relate to him or his worldview? I don't want to put myself in the middle of an Israeli election, but it's a mistake to think that Obama won't deal with whomever becomes prime minister of Israel, as he would deal with the leader of any country, from whatever side of the political spectrum. I do think, however, that how Israel should deal with the Obama administration is to appoint a counterpart to George Mitchell as the Israeli "special envoy" handling the Middle East peace process. I think it's a mistake for the prime minister to deal directly with Mitchell. He or she should deal with President Obama; the next foreign minister should deal with Secretary of State Clinton; and Mr. or Ms. X should deal with George Mitchell. Mitchell has said that all conflicts can be solved, pointing to Northern Ireland as his prime example. What can Israel expect from his efforts on this front? The Good Friday Agreement did not solve the Northern Ireland conflict, which, after all, in one form or another, had been going on for 500 years. It was solved by the British army thrashing the IRA. What was negotiated in the Good Friday Agreement were the terms of surrender. That hasn't happened in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, which in any case is a very different environment. As for what to expect, well, this is probably the last major assignment of Mitchell's career, so he has a strong incentive to reach a deal and do it quickly. This means that its substance will be less important than the deal itself, and that if reaching it drags out too long, it will be seen as a failure on his part. This should be of particular concern to Israel.