Ambassador John Bolton is the rare diplomat who champions honesty in diplomacy. A lawyer known for his blunt views during his years in public service, Bolton served in several Republican administrations, including as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2001-2005 and as assistant secretary for international organization affairs from 1989-93. He is probably best remembered for his role as U.S. ambassador to the UN under President George W. Bush from 2005-06.
After contemplating his own run for presidency in 2012, Bolton served as foreign policy adviser to Republican nominee Mitt Romney. He is now chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel commentator, and a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Weekly Standard, and other media outlets.
The Jewish Press spoke with him last week.
The Jewish Press: How would you advise Israel to proceed in the current conflict in Gaza?
Bolton:I think Israel is fully justified in doing what is necessary to eliminate the Hamas threat. Over a sustained period of time Hamas has committed uncounted numbers of aggression against Israel – terrorism, kidnappings, murders. At a certain point, and we’ve long passed it, Israel is entitled to defend itself against the threat itself.
I think Israel has to make a decision based on what it thinks the military necessities are in Gaza. And I think the military necessities go well beyond stopping the constant Hamas rocket attacks and the use of the terror tunnels. There’s a strategic issue here. The real threat from Hamas is not the small rockets on a daily basis or the acts of murder and kidnapping. It’s the longer range, more accurate and powerful missiles that come from Iran and that are intended to preclude Israel from protecting itself against Iranian nuclear weapons.
Obviously the daily acts of terror are barbaric and unacceptable but we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger threat, which is combining Hamas and Hizbullah’s rocket capabilities. This is Iran’s effort to deter Israel from taking action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program by unambiguously threatening Israel’s civilian population.
With Hamas seemingly winning the PR war, do you think Israel will be able to forge ahead despite world criticism?
When United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor nobody said you can only destroy a number of Japanese planes and ships. That’s ridiculous. It was a direct attack on the country. Hamas has made it clear, as everybody knows, that it wants the elimination of the state of Israel itself.
Whatever the level of pressure is from public opinion around the world, Israel just has to try to resist this. What Israel is doing is fighting a surrogate struggle against Iran that’s very much in America’s interest, not just in Israel’s.
Netanyahu said he was determined to destroy the tunnels. Even if Israel succeeds, do you think it’s possible to ensure the tunnels won’t be rebuilt without keeping an Israeli presence in Gaza?
I think it’s an insoluble problem at this point. As long as Hamas continues to exist as a functioning terror organization it will find ways to go after Israel, whether it’s rebuilding the tunnels or getting new missiles from Iran. The real issue is not the physical infrastructure. It’s Hamas the organization and the support it has from people in the Gaza strip.
As long as Hamas lives as an organization with any kind of effective leadership structure it’s going to continue to be a threat. I think that needs to be Israel’s real objective, which is harder than physically destroying the tunnels. We saw this with the war with Hizbullah in 2006. Despite Israel’s inflicting very severe damage on Hizbullah they’re back and better armed than they were in 2006.
Do you see any merit in Secretary of State Kerry’s initial frantic efforts to achieve a cease-fire?
How do you negotiate a cease-fire with a terrorist organization? I understand how two governments can negotiate a ceasefire, but terrorists by definition are not playing by the same rules as you are.
I think the honest answer is that Obama and Kerry understand that as a matter of mastering American politics they have to say that of course we support Israel’s right to self-defense, and then comes the “but,” comma, and what in effect is the repudiation of that statement. So I don’t think anyone should have any illusions of what’s going on here. If Kerry and the UN [get] a cease-fire it will simply allow Hamas to regroup.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he’s “worried” the “facts on the ground” in Israel were “beginning to make a two-state solution impossible.” Do you agree the two-state solution is dead?
I’ve said for years that the two-state solution is dead and I think the rocket attacks that resulted in the closure of Ben Gurion Airport helped prove that. There’s not going to be a two-state solution as long as there are terrorists still committed to destroying Israel. It’s not a question of where you draw the lines. It’s a question of the nature of the regime in the other state.
My suggestion has been what I call the three-state solution, which is you give Gaza to Egypt, particularly now with the military government back in control, and figure out how to divide up the West Bank and give whatever parts Israel doesn’t keep back to Jordan.
I understand the enormous difficulties with that because there’s no guarantee that Jordan and Egypt can snuff out terrorism in Gaza and the West Bank and because no one wants the Palestinians. This reflects the terrible tragedy of the Palestinian people who are used as the tip of the spear by radicals of the Arab world. The people of Gaza are being held hostage by Hamas. They are not just being used as human shields; their existence is a human shield.
What policy would you advocate toward the PA/Hamas unity government?
I don’t think there’s any doubt what the policy should be. When Arafat was still alive, I remember President Bush at one point was asked who else America would talk to besides Arafat. Bush said, “Well, maybe we don’t talk to anybody but we’re not talking to that guy.” And that’s the answer.
Abbas is not capable of making hard decisions and of carrying out whatever commitments he makes. So what’s the point of negotiating? And now that they’ve decided they would rather have Hamas as a partner rather than Israel, what other proof do people need?
How concerned are you about the BDS movement and the Palestinian approach to unilateral statehood in the UN?
I went through this in 1989 with the first Bush administration. At the end of 1988 the PLO changed its name card at the UN from PLO to Palestine to act more like a state. And they began a membership campaign in the UN system beginning with the World Health Organization. I was actually still assistant attorney general when I went to Geneva to try and stop this. And I persuaded Jim Baker to issue a statement recommending to the president to cut off all U.S.-assessed and voluntary contributions to any UN agency that changed the status of the PLO. That stopped them dead in their tracks. And then Congress put in legislation. It was a hard line to take and very unpopular with our European allies but it worked. It stopped all talk of using the UN to create facts on the ground.
But when the Obama administration came in the PA said we’ll apply for UNESCO and elsewhere, and the administration started to wring its hands and say that UNESCO members will try to get a waiver from Congress so that we can still make contributions. The Palestinians and the Europeans saw a weakness. Now Palestine is a member of UNESCO, after twenty-five years of being held off by strong policy. The PA did it because they saw they could do it and succeed.
I think it’s exactly the same approach with BDS. This administration has given every signal that it understands the BDS movement. When Kerry said that if Israel doesn’t make very substantial concessions, “who would be surprised if the BDS movement continues to gather momentum?” it means they fully appreciate or accept the premises of the whole approach. So if you want to create facts on the ground that way, then Israel should feel justified in going ahead and doing what it needs to do.
As a former assistant secretary of state, you played a role in 1991during the first Bush presidency in getting the UN to repeal the Zionism is Racism resolution. George H.W. Bush and James Baker weren’t exactly thought of in positive terms by large segments of the pro-Israel community; do you think they deserve more credit in terms of U.S.-Israel relations?
Absolutely. I didn’t do this by myself. If I hadn’t convinced Baker, and if in turn Baker hadn’t convinced Bush, it wouldn’t have happened. I know they’re not widely popular in some circles. Baker is outspoken and has said some controversial things. He certainly held strong views on the Arab-Israeli issue, but he was also the one who took the hard line with the PLO and the World Health Organization, and if he hadn’t done that they would have been members of the UN twenty years ago. So you have to weigh that into the equation of how Baker performed.
There is an open disagreement between Senator Rand Paul and Governor Rick Perry over an isolationist versus a more neoconservative approach to American foreign policy. What’s your view?
I take the view that the United States has to be an active presence in the world to protect its own interests and its friends and allies. I don’t think that’s neoconservatism because in order to be a neoconservative you had to have been a liberal once and I was never a liberal. I just think it’s the main strain of American foreign policy. It’s Reagan’s view of maintaining peace through strength and the traditional view of the Republican Party.
I think Perry, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are well within that mainstream. It’s Rand Paul who’s the outlier, reflecting the strain of isolationism that we haven’t seen in the party really since the 1930s. And that was not a happy experience. I think it’s a mistake.
Given the gains made by ISIS in Iraq as well as the lack of any discovered WMD there, would you agree, in retrospect, that the Iraq invasion was a mistake?
No, not at all. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Saddam Hussein had gotten loose from UN sanctions and had gotten UN weapons inspectors out, he would have returned to pursue weapons of mass destruction. He had over 1000 nuclear scientists and technicians. Were they spinning centrifuges and enriching uranium? Almost certainly not. But did they retain the intellectual capability to recreate a nuclear weapons program? Yes. And Saddam would have done that.
I think that historically we’re looking back at what happened in 2003 as a continuation of what we failed to do in 1991. With 20/20 hindsight we should have finished Saddam’s regime in 1991. I don’t disagree that mistakes were made, but knowing everything we know today it was still in America’s interest to overthrow him in 2003, which we did with amazing speed and skill.
Looking back at your experiences in the political arena, what stands out as the most significant and memorable?
We were not so successful in stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Sadly, by the end of the Bush administration its policy was not that different from the policy we’ve seen under the Obama administration. To me that’s the most important struggle because the threat posed by a nuclear Iran is the threat of a nuclear holocaust.
However, the struggle in 1989-91 to stop the PLO and repeal Zionism is Racism was a long battle and we were successful at both of them. So in terms of accomplishment that is what I’m proudest of.