Seven Questions: The World According to John Bolton

John Bolton offers some advice for those confronted with a dangerous world.

Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, February 24, 2017.  / AFP / Mike Theiler        (Photo credit should read MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, February 24, 2017. / AFP / Mike Theiler (Photo credit should read MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images)

FOREIGN POLICY: Its been a tense week on the nuclear front, with Syria accusing Israel of invading its airspace, and then North Korea blasting Israel for doing so. Youve been one of the only people who have spoken openly about the likelihood that Israel bombed nuclear facilities in Syria. If that were the case, why do you think Israel wouldnt announce it had done so?

John Bolton: Well, I dont think we really know what the target of the Israeli raid was. There seems to be a lot of indication that there was a North Korean-Syrian project in the nuclear field, although obviously the details of that are not known. And what that suggests is that we need very clear answers from the North Koreans in the context of the six-party talks [as to] whether indeed they are proliferating nuclear technology, whether theyre outsourcing their programor just exactly what it is theyre doing.

Now, what the Israeli raid actually hit, I dont think people know. I was certainly reacting against the notion that it was an attack on a shipment of missiles bound from Iran to Hezbollah, because I dont think the Israelis would take the risks inherent in an attack on Syrian territory against a target like that. To me, it suggests that it was a higher-value target, and a nuclear facility of some kind would definitely qualify. But what exactly the target is, I dont know myself, and Im not sure that theres anything but speculation out there at this point. There has been at least some public acknowledgment through official U.S. sources that there are concerns about not just North Korean ballistic-missile cooperation with Syria, which weve known about for some time, but the possibility that theres cooperation on the nuclear front as well.

FP: Youre obviously aware that the six-party talks have been indefinitely postponed. How do you respond to criticism that characterizes Bush administration hard-liners as happy to see these talks scuttled? Do you think thats considered progress?

JB: Well, Im not in the administration, so it doesnt apply to me in any event.

I dont think North Korea is ever going to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons. I dont think you can chat Kim Jong Il out of what he sees as his trump card against Japan, the United States, South Korea, and others. So, in a sense, the entire six-party talks are a way of subsidizing Kim Jong Il with tangible economic and political benefits, relegitimizing him after his ballistic missile and nuclear weapons test of last year, and propping up a regime whose two main objectives are staying in power and keeping its nuclear weapons. So from that point of view, I dont think the six-party talks can solve the North Korean nuclear problem. I think theyre perpetuating it.

FP: So could you not imagine a scenario wherein Kim Jong Il knows hes better off without nuclear weapons than with them?

JB: I dont think he can imagine such a scenario. He has repeatedly promised to give up nuclear weapons, or the regime has [via] the North-South Joint Denuclearization Declaration and the Agreed Framework. There have been any number of statements during the course of the six-party talks, not just the February 13 [2007] agreement or the September 2005 agreement, but earlier during the first Bush term. The difference is that in February of this year, Kim Jong Il was feeling the effects of the credit squeeze because of [the Banco Delta Asia issue] and keeping the North Koreans out of international financial markets. I think he was feeling the squeeze and the isolation as a consequence of his October nuclear test, and he needed to get himself out of the corner he had painted himself into. Once hes out of that corner, I think hell simply revert to past practices.

FP: Switching gears to Iran, the Iranians are showing little sign of slowing down their nuclear program. If the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refuses to enforce its mandate and Iran crosses uranium red lines once again, what should the United States do?

JB: Well, I think more than four years of diplomacy has given the Iranians the one asset they otherwise couldnt purchase for any price, and thats time. And during that long, unsuccessful period of negotiations, they have nowby the IAEAs own informationperfected all of the critical steps to achieve indigenous mastery over the nuclear fuel cycle. And so by allowing diplomacy to proceed as long as we did, we have dramatically limited our options. Im afraid now were past the point where even strong Security Council sanctions could dissuade Iran from continuing to follow the strategic decision to acquire nuclear weapons. What that means unfortunately is that our options may be down to regime change or the use of force against the nuclear program.

FP: What then? Assuming the United States pursues some kind of regime-change option in Iran, for example, how would the United States be able to sustain that, given the current situation in Iraq and elsewhere?

JB: Once upon a time, we knew how to do clandestine regime change. We need to reacquire that capability. I dont think overt support for Iranian dissidents is necessarily very helpful, and it may well impose a political cost on the dissidents themselves. But I think theres enormous dissatisfaction with the Iranian regime, for economic reasons, for religious and political reasons, for ethnic reasons. I dont think that regime is as stable or as secure as you might think from the outside. By the same token, I dont think that necessarily means it can be brought down quickly, and were in a race against time here with the nuclear program. But certainly as a preference to military force, I would hope that regime change could succeed.

FP: Do you see any parallels between the reporting on Irans nuclear facilities today and Iraqs weapons of mass destruction in 200203?

JB: Much of what we know about Iran today is public information thats come from the IAEA. In any case, I dont think that the concerns that the United States and almost everybody else had about Iraqs chemical weapons program in particular was the result of distorted or incorrect intelligence. It stemmed from Iraqs own 1991 declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles. So the people who are saying that this is just Iraq redux are ignoring the critical differences between the two cases.

FP: As the presidential campaign is heating up, youre likely going to be listening as closely as anyone for any bold pronouncements about U.S. foreign policy and the United States role in the world. What do you want to hear from a candidate this year about U.S. foreign policy?

JB: They need to be concerned to articulate what Americas core interests are. [They need] to identify the threats they see, from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; to the possible reversion of Russia to an aggressive, negative policy; to how to handle the rise of China, whose future is very uncertainissues like that. Not feel-good rhetoric, but concrete proposals on how to respond to these challenges.

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