Lily’s Room

April-15-2018 John R. Bolton (3)

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TAI: It’s certainly noble to argue for unpopular positions before higher authorities have made a decision. But I’m not sure everyone would agree that you always exactly followed instructions after they made a decision. Some staffers claim that as UN Ambassador you slow-rolled instructions, or argued back with them. On the other hand, the UN ambassadorship is an odd position because, although the ambassador’s immediate superior is the secretary of state, he or she is nominated by and is the president’s personal representative in New York. That suggests the occasional existence of some slight bit of blue sky between the White House and the seventh floor of the State Department. Is there sometimes ambiguity, or tension, or flexibility in the UN ambassador’s interpretation of instructions?

John Bolton: There is some built-in flexibility in those instructions and, just as important, in the very nature of a negotiating environment, which is what I was in. There were some cases where I had no flexibility at all. Secretary Rice would say, “I want X” and that’s what I went after. But Secretary Rice wasn’t always directly engaged in every less-than-major issue I dealt with, of course. And one of the problems with the State Department bureaucracy is that it’s a very inefficiently structured bureaucracy in the sense that areas of responsibility are not clearly defined—unlike, say, the Justice Department, where areas of responsibility are clearly defined. The Tax Division litigates tax cases. The Lands and Natural Resources Division litigates those cases. But the State Department has both regional and functional bureaus, and any issue can easily generate a situation in which five, six or seven bureaus have equities in a particular matter. That’s an inherently unsatisfying situation for the UN ambassador, who then gets pinged by half a dozen assistant secretaries to do mutually contradictory things at the same time. Now, the UN ambassador has the luxury of having a job that covers almost the whole world. It’s a luxury because it allows an integrated approach to policy. The downside to the job is also that it covers almost the whole world, because it invites—almost guarantees, really—bureaucratic friction.

TAI: So you’re going to piss someone off no matter what you do.

John Bolton: Every day, yes.

TAI: One more thing you’ve been accused of—and this is the last accusation I’m going to throw back into your face—is of being a neoconservative. It happens often, but it has always puzzled me. What’s your definition of a neoconservative and, according to that definition, are you in or out?

John Bolton: I am not now, nor have I ever been (general laughter) a neoconservative.I am not now, nor have I ever been (general laughter) a neoconservative. I remember the original definition of a neoconservative in the early Reagan days was that of a “liberal being mugged by reality.”

TAI: And you were never a liberal to begin with.

John Bolton: I was never a liberal. As I said, my first campaign involvement was for Barry Goldwater, back at a time when many future neoconservatives were debating the fine points of Marxism and socialism. I describe myself not as a neoconservative but as a national-interest conservative, if I can use that phrase.

TAI: You can use that phrase as long as you don’t italicize it (general laughter).

John Bolton: I look to define and defend American interests, and to protect and expand them. I think the whole foreign policy discussion these days has gotten lost in a war of bumper-sticker-length phrases that obscure much more than they elucidate. Self-described neoconservatives can fend for themselves. I’ve always considered myself a realist, but I also consider myself very profoundly anti-communist. American interests and values in equal measure were and remain implicated in my anti-communism, and in my anti-totalitarianism more broadly construed, and I don’t see any inconsistency there.

TAI: Let me push a little more here. What neoconservatism has come to mean over the past five or six years is a kind of armed Wilsonianism, a form of idealism that wishes to remake other societies in our own image. This is not just an abstraction: We have the President’s “Freedom Agenda”, we have U.S. Middle East policy defined by the President’s November 2003 National Endowment for Democracy speech, and we have the globalization of that concept in President Bush’s Second Inaugural. I have several friends in the Administration who, my instincts tell me, are skeptical of this secular messianism, and cringe privately before the crusading kind of language that goes with it. Of course, while you’re serving the President in an official capacity, you’re not going to go tell everybody how skeptical you may be of ideas like that. But now you can.

John Bolton: The use of armed force on behalf of American interests doesn’t bother me, but, yes, the Wilsonian part does.The use of armed force on behalf of American interests doesn’t bother me, but, yes, the Wilsonian part does. I’ve never slipped into Wilsonianism of any kind—at least I hope I haven’t. But I think, in a way, that the President is being mislabeled here. If you look at the range of his speeches, he’s not talking about what the old or new Wilsonians were talking about—the spread of democracy. He’s talking about liberty. And that’s very different.

I identify with the liberty interest from my days as an anti-communist, because that was for me the value side of wanting the collapse of communism: People within the communist empire would be free to choose, not that they would necessarily choose Wilsonian democracy. Freedom to choose and what is chosen are two different things, and I think that’s what mattered to them, as well. So I’m not so sure the President is as neoconservative as people say he is.

TAI: Interesting. Let’s talk a bit about Korea, which engaged you in the State Department quite a bit during the first term. One day the story of what happened between July 2002 and the year beyond will come out in memoirs, the FRUS [Foreign Relations of the United States] will be declassified, and the public will eventually get some sense of what went on. In the meantime, however, all sorts of stories have arisen. Many people outside and some inside the Administration have argued that the U.S. government did not handle that period very well—but they make different cases arguing different errors for different reasons.

One argument goes something like this: The United States should not have made a big deal in public about our new intelligence on North Korea’s secret uranium enrichment program, and should never have walked away from the 1994 Agreed Framework, because we didn’t have a way to limit the problem and stark public rhetoric risked making it worse. Those plutonium rods sitting in those pools, it is argued, would never have been reprocessed if we had taken a more low-key approach. On the other hand, some Administration figures deeply involved in this policy—including those who differed with you from time to time—don’t credit this argument. They deny that the Administration had much choice about whether or not to “out” the North Koreans on their violations, because our fuel shipments to North Korea were predicated on the Administration’s certifying to Congress that the North Koreans were in compliance with the Agreed Framework. Beyond that, however, there were other disagreements over how to handle the problem. Tell us how you saw it.

John Bolton: Well, the range of tactical disagreement was quite large. What was clear to everyone inside the Administration was that the Agreed Framework had failed, that the North Koreans had violated it, and that there was no way to keep things together anymore on that basis. Those outside the Administration who focus on what the North Koreans did with the spent fuel and the plutonium route to nuclear weapons, which was the principal focus of the 1994 Agreed Framework, have consistently, to this very day, failed to grasp the significance of North Korea’s enriched uranium effort, which the North Koreans, as best as we can tell, started on very soon after they signed the Agreed Framework.

Inside the Administration, the real issue was how thoroughly to sever our ties with the Agreed Framework and how effective the policy path we have chosen—the Six-Party Talks—would be. I’m sitting here today in January 2007 and the Six-Party Talks have not succeeded: North Korea continues to pursue both routes to nuclear weapons—plutonium separation and uranium enrichment—and continues to pursue an active program to develop a ballistic missile capacity to deliver those weapons. The idea that we could put all this back in the box, that the Six-Party Talks could come up with Agreed Framework II, is unworkable.

(To be continued.)

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