INTERVIEW: Former top Bush ally John Bolton on Iran, Israel and Obama's MidEast failures

Obama's MidEast policy is in disarray, says John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN in the Bush administration

John Bolton, outspoken as ever
Edoardo Ferrazzani
On 21 February 2012 08:32

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the UN in the Bush administration and one of America’s most outspoken political commentators is interviewed here on the sidelines of the Conservative CPAC conference in Washington D.C which took place earlier in February. He is asked about Syria, Iran, Israel and the failures of the Obama administration in the Middle East.

This is an abridged version of the original which first appeared in Italian by our media partners in Rome:  

Question: Syria is in a state of civil war. Now the so-called international community, the US government with it, seems unable to find a solution. Do you think US policy on the Assad regime and on Syria in general is adequate? 

Answer: I think US policy on Syria is in disarray. I think they were surprised by the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council, even though the draft resolution had been watered down into something completely anodyne.

They nonetheless expected that Russia and China would support it so they could say: “That’s what our policy is”. [On 16th February, China and Russia again refused to condemn Syria, this time voting against a non-binding resolution of the UN General Assembly.] Now, with that resolution vetoed, they are completely at sea. And I think it has left everybody at sea, in the West and in the Arab world too.

Question: Pressuring Assad to step down would also deprive the Iranians of their last big ally in the Arab world. Why is the Obama administration so timid toward the Syrian dictator?

Answer: First of all, I don’t think Syria is the last ally of Iran in the region. In fact, I worry they have an arc of allies: Al-Maliki in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza strip.

Just recently, the leader of Hamas in the strip, Ismail Haniya, fled to Teheran for talks with the regime. That shows the nature of this conflict. Personally, I have been in favour of regime change in Syria and Iran for many years. But one reason I worry about the Obama administration is that its reluctance to deal effectively with the Assad regime in Syria is because they don’t want to cut off the chances of negotiating with Iran about the nuclear weapons programme.

Now, I think that negotiating with Iran about its nuclear weapon program is a complete waste of time. But in the current US administration’s logic, they fear – probably correctly – that if they move against Assad they would indeed cut off any chance of negotiating with the mullahs.

Question: So what you’re saying is that the US administration is “protecting” Syria, while blocking Israel from attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities, all that for a new roundtable of negotiations with Teheran? Am I correct?

Answer: Absolutely. They have pressured Israel for three years not to take military action against the Iranian nuclear weapons programme. That pressure is now public and not just private.

Israel is going to make its own decision whether it will allow this existential threat so near to them or not. But the Obama administration, at this point, fears an Israeli strike more than they fear an Iranian nuclear weapon. I think it is completely backward but, again, that’s their logic.

Question: It’s election year. Is that their ”logic”?

Answer: Before being a political calculation, I think there is an ideological problem. The Obama administration, they think they can deal with Iran through negotiations. And that turns out to be false.

And with it, a lot of their conceptual basis for their entire foreign policy turns out to be false.

Question: Do you think Israel has the military capabilities to go for a military strike against Iran alone?

Answer: I think it’s right at the edge of their capabilities to go after the nuclear facilities we now know about. But I think the military option is a declining option, because Iran is hardening and deeply burying its facilities.

They are finding ways to defeat a military strike and there is a lot we don’t know about their activities inside Iran. So, the US could do it a lot better.

If they acted now, Israel could do something about the [Iranian facilities] we know about. But I don’t think they have so much time. I don’t know what their decision will be, but I don’t think they have long to make it.     

Question: What’s Iran's own strategy at the moment?

Answer: Their strategy is to buy time. They used negotiations in the past. They are on the verge of using negotiations with [the EU’s] Catherine Ashton and with the Permanent 5 + 1 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany], to give them time to overcome the obstacles on what is a very difficult scientific and technological path to acquiring nuclear weapons.

They did it successfully five or six years ago, and they are on the verge of doing it again.  

Question: Is there a part European countries can play in helping Israel deal with Iran?

Answer: I think, primarily, what the Europeans need to do to help themselves, and the West as a whole, is increase their military expenditures, in coordination with NATO, and in a coherent strategy.

But, over time, declining European defence expenditures have left Europe as a whole much weaker in the world. This has left NATO weaker, and it has left the United States weaker.

Edoardo Ferrazzani is a researcher on foreign policy at the Magna Cartafoundation , a conservative Italian think-tank in Rome. He also writes for L', The Commentator's Italian media partner

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