Breakfast with Bolton

This morning, John Bolton spoke at a breakfast gathering hosted by The American Spectator. Ambassador Bolton is the author of Surrender Is Not An Option: Defending America at the United Nations. He was also Scott’s selection (with no dissents from John or me) as Man of the Year in 2006.
Ambassador Bolton gave no prepared remarks, but instead took questions on a broad range of topics. Here are some highlights:
North Korea. The administration has moved in the wrong direction. The agreement it has reached is too much like the Clinton administration’s Agreed Framework. The North Koreans are experts at commiting to give up their nuclear program without actually giving it up. The benefits they receive in exchange for the commitment prop up the regime. This time, they have promised to disable a reactor that’s beyond its useful life anyway. Moreover, disabling isn’t the same thing as dismantling. And the agreement does not include real verification. Nor does it effectively addresss North Korean nuclear cooperation with other rogue states. It appears, for example, that the North Koreans have cooperated with Syria in this respect, an indication that North Korea is “outsourcing” its nuclear program.
Iran. Our policy has been, let the Europeans handle it. Europe’s policy has been “speak softly and carry a big carrrot.” This dynamic has caused us to waste four years. Finally, we have Sarkozy and perhaps Merkel on board, and we’ve been able to implement some decent sanctions. But they are too little too late. The only question now is when (not whether) Iran will get nukes. And given the price of oil, the answer is probably sooner rather than later. Our options, then, are regime change and the use of military force. There’s some chance of regime change because the regime is fragile. Failing that, as a last resort the U.S. or Israel should strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, this is a risky strategy because Iran may have facilites we don’t know about. In that case, you get the adverse consequences of the stirke without the benefit. Bolton doubts that Iran would withhold oil because the revenue is too important to the regime. Iran would likely retaliate by supporting terrorism, but Iran’s support of terrorism is already substantial.
Pakistan. Our interests and our values are not fully consistent when it comes to Pakistan now. Our overriding interest (even more important than attacking al Qaeda and the Taliban) is to make sure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, or parts thereof, don’t fall into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Mursharraf represents our best hope of preventing that result, so we should support him in the near term. It’s a mistake, moreover, to see the clash between Musharraf and Bhutto as “white hats vs. black hats.” Bhutto is suspect as a force for democracy. Her title within her party is “chairperson for life.”
Israel/Palestine. This is a very odd time to be pushing for a peace agreement. The Israeli government is weak and not really in a position to make concessions. It’s possible we can force a few concessions out of them, but that’s not a proper approach to brokering a meaningful peace. On the Palestinian side, it’s not clear that there is a defined Palestinian side. The Palestinian Authority is broken, so it’s unlikely that it could keep any agreement it made. Instead of focusing on Palestine under these circumstances, we should instead be working to prop up the democracy in Lebanon.
Iraq. We were right to overthrow Saddam because, regardless of what WMD he did or didn’t have when we invaded, he had the capacity to build a nuclear and a chemical weapons program. In “20-20 hindsight,” our mistake was not to turn things back to the Iraqis at an early date. Had we done so, they’d be “much further along” [towards what, one wonders – ed]. It turns out that Republicans aren’t any better at nation building than Democrats, so nation building probably isn’t a good idea. The fear now is that the post-invasion problems will make it more difficult to take military action to protect our interests, even though the initial military action in Iraq was justified and effective.
The United Nations. Marginal, incremental reform won’t improve the U.N. The best hope for improvement lies with making contributions voluntary. Those parts of the U.N. that rely on voluntary contributions work much better than those that don’t because they are under financial pressure to perform. The U.N. recognizes this and so it’s trying to develop independent sources of funding through what amounts to taxes (The Law of the Sea Treaty represents one example). Trying to form a new organization made up of democratic states won’t work because the Europeans won’t join us. It’s a better idea to expand existing organizations. For example, we might be able to expand NATO membership beyond Europe.
The State Department. It needs a revolution that will produce a culture of advocacy for U.S. interests, rather than a culture of accommodation under which we take our cues from other governments. The bureaucracy perpertuates the accommodation culture by persuading weak Secretaries of State to focus on “the big picture” while leaving “administration” to the bureaucrats. Only a strong Secretary can turn things around, and it won’t happen in just one administration.
Bolton added that his book is devoted not to just asserting the problems with the State Department bureaucracy, but with demonstrating them fact-by-fact in specific instances.
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