John Bolton Weighs In On 'This American Moment'

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Talk of the Nation continues its series on the significance of this moment in the nation's history. John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, shares his thoughts on the 2008 presidential election.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're broadcasting today from the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Now, on this third day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul we continue our series of conversations about This American Moment. Starting last week we've taken a step back each day to put this election and this campaign season in context. Every day we're asking different guests to tell us what they think is at stake, what this election means to them. In just a moment, John Bolton, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, will join us. Tell us what you think is at stake during This American moment, the United States' role in the world. Our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Ambassador Bolton joins us now from Radio Row at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. He's currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. And Ambassador Bolton, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And I understand Radio Row has become a familiar stopping off point for you.

Mr. BOLTON: It certainly has in the past two days.

CONAN: Thirty-one interviews I was told yesterday.

Mr. BOLTON: I couldn't even begin to tell you if that's accurate, but it sounds about right.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you about...

Mr. BOLTON: If you had said a million, I would have said the same thing.

CONAN: And probably been underestimating even that. I wanted to ask you a question about foreign policy. Since 9/11, the Bush administration has made the war on terrorism the organizing principle, if you will, of American foreign and military policy. What do you think the next administration should make its organizing principle?

Mr. BOLTON: Well, I think this is one of the most consequential elections from a national security point of view that we've had in a long time, and an election where the difference in world view of the two candidates is as broad as it's been in any election I can remember. So, I think this is going to be a critical election looking forward. I think the next president has to be cognizant of the threats and challenges that the United States faces. Being sanguine about the state of the world and the absence of challenges may be a way to put a happy face on things, but it is not a foreign policy.

CONAN: And what again - what should the organizing principle be? Should it be the war on terror?

Mr. BOLTON: Well, I think that's one of the themes I believed and have believed for sometime that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and chemical and biological is the grievous threat that we face, and we see that threat whether coming from rogues states like Iran and North Korea, or of such weapons coming into the hands of terrorist groups. So, I think you have to look at it through a number of perspectives. I think this is also a time when the next president is going to have to look at questions like the re-emergence of Russia, given international oil prices, the issue of how to deal with China, what direction China will take in the future, the rise of India, and the decline of Europe.

CONAN: The Obama campaign has made diplomacy a central part of its foreign policy platform. Senator McCain has not emphasized that so much, though he has talked about cooperation with allies. Is that part of that big world view difference you see?

Mr. BOLTON: Well, with all due respect to you and Senator Obama, look, the issue - the debate here is between two categories of people. One group of people says that diplomacy is the solution to 99 and 44/100 percent of the world's problems. You know, the old Ivory Snow in 99 and 44/100 percent pure. That's the group I belong to and I think that's the persuasion that Senator McCain has. That's distinguished from those who viewed diplomacy as a solution to 100 percent of the world's problems. That's the view I think that's both, not just naive, but dangerous because there are some issues that, sad to say, but viewing the world realistically are not subject to satisfactory diplomatic resolution. And the essence of judgment in a president is being able to determine where diplomacy can succeed for the United States and where it can't.

CONAN: The Bush administration has worked hard to try to get North Korea to come along, to abandon it's nuclear weapons program, and indeed, they started to dismantle it. Then word today from South Korea that indeed the North Korea has started to put that back together again. Is that one of the problem areas you're talking about?

Ambassador BOLTON: Right. Well, as the French would say, quelle surprise, is that the North Koreans have reversed course again. I mean the fact is that North Korea is never voluntarily going to give up its nuclear weapons program, and this latest tactical shift is simply evidence of when it gets down to the real demonstration of a commitment by North Korea - a tangible commitment truly to give up its nuclear weapons - it's not going to follow through on it. I think this is an opportunity for the Bush administration to change the course it's been following for the past several years. I don't expect that they will do it. My real hope is that they don't make anymore concessions, that the state department doesn't follow its usual course and when North Korea says, having bargained for this once, we decided to bargain for it again and maybe two or three more times, that the State Department gets nervous and starts making further concessions. I hope that doesn't happen. My best hope is that we simply don't change the circumstance with North Korea much for the rest of the administration. We get a new administration and has a more realistic view.

CONAN: Their point of view is that the United States' part of that bargain was to take it off the list of states sponsoring terrorism which the Bush administration has declined to do.

Ambassador BOLTON: Yeah. Look, the Bush administration has made a very, very bad bargain. It has made concession after concession after concession. The last vestige of a coherent American position was the insistence that North Korea agreed to a comprehensive scheme of verification before they get taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea has stiffed the United States in those negotiations. And indeed, in my view they will never agree to a truly comprehensive and intrusive system of verification. What they're hoping is that the administration is now so desperate for a success in its waning days that they'll get off the list of state sponsors of terrorism without agreeing to any kind of meaningful verification system. This is another real test for the Bush administration. As I say, my fondest hope is that they simply don't give in.

CONAN: Our guest today on This American Moment is a former Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute with us from the Xcel Energy Center, the site of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Let's get a question from the audience here at the Newseum.

ABRAHAM LEWIN(ph) (Caller, Bethesda, Maryland): Yes, it's Abraham Lewin from Bethesda, Maryland. Thinking of who would become president, whether it's McCain or Obama, my question is what could or should America do with regards to the constant threats of Iran's Ahmad Dinejad to eliminate the state of Israel.

CONAN: Ambassador Bolton.

Ambassador BOLTON: Yes. I think that's a very important question. I think the sad fact is that Iran is now essentially unimpeded in its some 20-year course of trying to achieve a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. I think this is a good example of a case where diplomacy has been tried and failed and where Senator Obama's suggestion that we resort to more diplomacy would simply benefit Iran. Look, diplomacy is like any human activity. It has costs and it has benefits, and the example of Iran shows where diplomacy does have costs. Our European friends have spent five years negotiating with the Iranians to try and get them to give up their nuclear weapons program. And the only result of five years of negotiations is that Iran is five years closer to achieving that deliverable nuclear weapons capability. So when Senator Obama says, as if it's a new idea, well why don't we negotiate with Iran? We have. And it's failed, and that's why I think our options are very limited. I think now the next point to watch is whether the government of Israel, seeing an Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat to the state of Israel, decides to use targeted military force against the Iranian nuclear program before this administration is over. I think that is very much on the horizon and something that I think we should have a debate about during the course of this presidential election.

CONAN: The Israelis could not possibly do that without American acquiescence. They would have cross Iraqi territory to get them.

Ambassador BOLTON: No they wouldn't. No, they wouldn't. And let me tell you something. In flying across other airspace, I think that in the Arab world, although certainly you wouldn't hear this publicly, that there would not be any great amount of sadness if Israel, in fact, did destroy a significant part of Iran's nuclear weapons program. We can see from the reaction in the Arab world when Israel just last year in September destroyed the North Korean Reactor being built on the banks of Euphrates River in Syria, that the pubic reaction was silence. And with the private reaction was that they were quite happy that Israel had taken that action. And here's a case where if you ever expected an Arab reaction, that would be it - Israel attacking a brother Arab state. And the reason that the other Arabs reacted the way they did is that they fear that what was really going on was that this reactor was another example of Iranian penetration of Syrian sovereignty and a cooperative venture with the Iranians. So I think it's - look, the military option against Iran's program is deeply unattractive. It's risky. It's fraught with danger, and it's deeply unattractive. But much more unattractive is an Iran with nuclear weapons, and that's why you have to have the military option available.

CONAN: We're talking with Ambassador John Bolton who is at the St. Paul site, where the Republican National Convention is being held, the Xcel Center. If you'd like to join the conversation, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. We're talking about This American Moment about America and the world and you are listening to Talk Of The Nation from NPR News. And let's get a caller on the line. This is Moe, and Moe is with from Chicago, Illinois.

MOE SHANFIELD (Caller, Green Party, Illinois): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Moe. Go ahead please.

SHANFIELD: I am Moe Shanfield, Green Party candidate for Congress in the 9th district. And I think that a year ago I thought the war was the top issue, and now I think it's subordinate to the economy on thin ice with the collapse of financial institutions, the decline of the dollar, and the increase in oil prices will resume as the demand increases and the supply decreases. And I think the only possible solution is the total conversion of the nation to sustainable energy, eliminating not only our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which is what Obama said, but our dependence on Nigeria and Norwegian oil and all the rest of it and not doing it in ten years, doing it in three or four years just as they did in equivalent in the war production in World War II.

CONAN: John Bolton may not agree with most solutions, but a lot of people do see energy as a major national security issue as well as an environmental issue.

Ambassador BOLTON: Well, I think it is a national security issue, but maybe I could ask the caller a question. He started off by saying a year ago, he thought the war - I presume he means the war in Iraq. He thought the war would be the big issue, why doesn't he think it's a big issue anymore?

SHANFIELD: Because by itself, the war does not threaten the total collapse of our economy.

Ambassador BOLTON: Therefore what? It didn't threaten the total collapse of our economy a year ago either. Why is it not the big issue it was then?

SHANFIELD: Well, because the total collapse of our economy - I apologize for being laggered in my prophetical abilities. Last year, I didn't see the threat to the economy was overwhelming and the collapse of Bear Sterns, the decline of the dollar, etc., have awakened me, and of course the war contributes because we're extending not only blood but oil and dollars in the war, and that doesn't help the economy either.

Ambassador BOLTON: I'll tell you really why the war is not the big issue. It's because the president's surge policy which was originally recommended by Senator McCain is succeeding. And therefore, it's not appropriate, it's not helpful to those who want to try and lump Senator McCain in with the Bush administration and critique them to talk about the war. And this I think is, again, a graphic example of Senator Obama's naive take. He rode to the Democratic nomination on the strength of opposition to the war inside Iraq, to the point where he wouldn't acknowledge that the surge had had a substantial measure of success. And that's all changed now, so of course, he doesn't want to talk about the war in Iraq. I'd like to have more discussion of the war as an issue because I think it's important for Americans to understand the nature of the fight that's going on inside Iraq. The issues that are at stake, the assets that the United States has there, and how it affects American interest. So I'd have to say, this is an interesting paradox where people thought that the war was going to be such an issue when it appeared to be going against the interest of the United States. But when the interest of the United States now appeared to be advancing, those opponents of the war don't want to talk about it anymore.

SHANFIELD: Ideally (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Moe, I wanted to give somebody else a chance to get in on the conversation. Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go now to Mike. And Mike's with us from Ann Arbor in Michigan.

MIKE (Caller, Ann Arbor, Michigan): Yes, my comment was that I think that if you look at the history of the United States' relationship in the world, and you compare with the situation we're in right now to the situation we were in eight years ago, it seems that we have taken a step back from a leadership position in world stage, whereas we become this unilateralist cowboy country, does what it wants, and we're destroying the alliances that made this country great that won the Cold War, and that could conceivably win the war on terrorism. I mean, when go it alone in a country like Iraq, of course we can strain our military with a surge and pacify the country temporarily. But at the same time, we are not doing anything to bring Bin Laden to justice. We are not doing anything to bring about any kind of real change in the world stage. All we're doing is undermining NATO. If you look at Putin's actions recently, it's because he doesn't fear us. We have no cache in the world anymore.

CONAN: And Mike, I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to give John Bolton a chance in the limited time available to respond.

MIKE: Of course.

Ambassador BOLTON: How is it possible for the caller to say we've acted as a unilateralist cowboy when we had 26 other nations with us in the coalition inside Iraq. Twenty-six is more than one, isn't it?

MIKE: Where is France? Where is Germany? I mean where are these countries that we built NATO around?

Ambassador BOLTON: Well, do you think our foreign policy should be dictated by France and Germany? We had 26 countries. You said we were acting unilaterally. I define unilaterally as acting on your own, not with 26 allies.

MIKE: Again, 26 allies of relatively minor ...

CONAN: Mike, Mike ...

Ambassador BOLTON: The United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands? Minor countries?

CONAN: I am afraid we're going to have to leave it there. But Mike, thank you very much for the call. And Ambassador Bolton, sorry to be the million and first interview for you on radio row this week.

Ambassador BOLTON: I enjoyed it. I wish we could go longer.

CONAN: John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. And we'll conclude our series 'This American Moment' tomorrow. This is Talk Of The Nation from NPR News. I am Neal Conan at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

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