As the only nation with the power to blunt the nuclearization of Iran and North Korea, the United States must act decisively to defuse the threat from those two countries, former Bush administration diplomat John Bolton ’70 LAW ’74 said at the Law School on Thursday.
The mustachioed former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — whose nomination to the post in 2006 provoked fierce resistance from senators because of past statements he had made that criticized the international body — spoke about nuclear non-proliferation and international cooperation before a crowd of about 100 during a lunch event at the Law School. The program was sponsored by the Yale Federalist Society, an organization of conservative and libertarian law students.
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“There’s only one country that’s going to stop nuclear proliferation and the threats presented by Iran and North Korea, and that’s the United States,” he concluded. “And that’s the cold, hard truth about international organizations.”
Bolton served as U.N. ambassador under a recess appointment beginning in August 2005. His nomination to the post in 2006 was never approved by the Senate.
Bolton described what he sees as the current challenges in American non-proliferation policy and discussed the United States’ best options in addressing nuclear threats — hardly bothering to veil his disdain for international law and institutions.
“When I was here, I didn’t take any courses at all on international law,” he said, “and frankly I don’t think I missed a thing.”
The paradigm for stemming proliferation, Bolton said, is Libya’s voluntary disarmament in 2003 under American and British pressure — without the help of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency.
In this triumph for American and British intelligence and diplomacy, Bolton asserted, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi gave up his nuclear-weapons program rather than expose his regime to American intervention.
“He did so in a cold-blooded calculation that — the United States, having just led a coalition to overthrow Saddam Hussein — he might be next,” Bolton said. Allowing “a thuggish regime to stay in power … was pretty hard to swallow, but getting rid of the nuclear capability was worth it.”
After Qaddafi’s announcement, Bolton said, the IAEA’s director was miffed that his organization was left out of the process.
“He thought that we had been dissing him and his agency, as if his agency could have done a thing about a program they knew nothing about,” he said. “Had we left it to the IAEA, [Libya’s weapons] might well still be there.”
The IAEA was similarly ineffective in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bolton told the audience. IAEA inspectors ignored what Bolton considered the top concern about Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities: his cadre of scientists with nuclear knowledge and his inability to produce any evidence of having destroyed the “enormous quantities” of chemical weapons he had declared after the first Gulf War, Bolton said.
Bolton said this judgment, and the resulting decision to go to war that it motivated, was not an intelligence failure but a “defect in our decision-making process for not calling into question the very assumption that his declaration was accurate,” since Hussein may have lied about ever having had those weapons.
Bolton rejected the idea that this “defect” in the decision to invade Iraq should prevent policy makers from taking dramatic steps to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
Last December’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iranian nuclear ambitions was widely misread and misreported, Bolton said. The report, which said that Iran suspended its nuclear program in 2003, adopted the Iranian definition of a nuclear-weapons program as weapons design and weaponization, which are the final steps in production of a nuclear bomb, Bolton said.
Although the rest of the report mostly echoed the 2005 estimate and admitted the U.S. government had poor knowledge of the state of Iran’s more broadly defined nuclear program, the report’s impact was “to shred the Bush administration’s policy,” Bolton said.
Iran cannot be made to give up its nuclear program by the U.N., since the Iranians have repeatedly lied to and hidden evidence from the IAEA, Bolton said, and since China and Russia, who have commercial interests in Iran, will veto any tough Security Council sanctions.
While the Iranian threat is mostly confined to the Middle East, Bolton said, the world’s other major nuclear threat, North Korea, is more than regional — the North Koreans would sell weapons to anyone who will pay.
“If al-Qaida had the requisite amount of hard currency, North Korea would have no hesitation whatsoever to supply them technology or even a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Furthermore, Bolton said, North Korea has repeatedly broken its pledges to halt its nuclear program and dismantle its existing arsenal.
Bolton also warned that other countries with nuclear aspirations are watching how the United States deals with Iran and North Korea, and allowing those two nations to attain nuclear weapons could create a domino effect, he said.
While Bolton’s speech focused on national-level threats, he said in an interview with the News after his remarks that international institutions have proven even less effective in addressing threats from non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations. The U.N. Security Council has yet to even settle on a definition of terrorism, he said.
“If they can’t even define what terrorism is, it’s not surprising that they can’t come up with a strategy to combat it,” he said.
Students in the audience interviewed said they valued Bolton’s perspective on international power dynamics but were struck by his dismissal of multilaterism.
“I appreciated his critique of the international system, but his disrespect for international law is pretty apparent,” Karen Kudelko LAW ’10 said. “I saw his appointment [as U.N. ambassador] as a slap in the face in many ways to the international law movement.”
Others said Bolton’s hour-long speech was a welcome contrast to the prevailing academic ideas of international law.
“It was a breath of fresh air in terms of what you get in the liberal international political science, which is what you get at Yale,” Alexander Besant GRD ’08 said.
While Bolton allowed his cynicism toward international institutions to show through, he was not as provocative as some in the audience had expected.
“By the standards of what John Bolton talks, it was quite tame,” Johannes Thimm GRD ’08 said.
Bolton last visited campus in December. He also addressed the Yale Political Union in October 2005.