BOLTON: ‘With no likelihood of American use of force, that leaves Israel’
RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ interviews JOHN BOLTON
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.
Former US ambassador to the…
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.