Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton ’70 LAW ’74 said he began writing his recently released 450-page book immediately upon leaving his appointed position in January — and finished it in June.
As a result, perhaps, “Surrender is Not an Option” carries the same cadence and tone as his in-person interview with the News last Wednesday: firm and direct.
Sitting in the Calhoun College Dining Hall, Bolton alternates between tremendous detail and short quips, whether at the expense of a Democratic senator or a “high minded” U.N. official — a term he uses to refer to diplomats who he said hold the interests of foreign nations above their own.
“The combined lesson is to take it all with skepticism,” Bolton said. “I don’t base my intelligence concern on the flavor of the day.”
Since leaving the United Nations in January, Bolton has used the new-found freedom that comes with no longer working for the government to publish a memoir critiquing American foreign policy. The book will likely draw approval from political allies and further antagonize his critics.
But in the interview, Bolton said he wrote the book in order to offer allies and critics alike a peek into the inner workings of foreign policy-making. Bolton drew parallels in the interview between what he called timid negotiations with Iran and the recent release of the National Intelligence Estimate that highlighted Iran’s halt of military nuclear-weapons programs in 2003, which he called misleading.
“I felt it was important to be candid about what happens inside government,” Bolton said. “Unless you’ve been in government at senior levels, its very hard to understand how decisions are made, whether you like the decisions or not. And one thing I intended to do … was to give a very detailed picture of how things happen, so that people could understand it and draw their own conclusions.”
Critics of Bolton said American foreign interests need not come into conflict with international cooperation. Yale professor Patrick Cohrs, whose research focuses on the “Pax Americana” and the growth of a legitimate international political system after the Second World War, said he had heard from international diplomats that Bolton’s lack of interest in finding common ground had made it difficult for negotiations to proceed on Iran and North Korea.
“[In the past], the United States has found ways not just to pursue a narrow conception of national interests,” Cohrs said.
In the memoir, Bolton discusses his Senate confirmation hearings — during which he pushed for his own recess appointment to circumvent a Democratic filibuster — before coming around to his suggestions for reforming the United Nations, principally voluntary contributions instead of regular, mandated payments. Bolton said in his book that he thinks the most effective U.N. bodies are those that rely on donations, such as UNICEF.
Bolton said the memoir’s in-depth look at foreign policy is especially relevant given the upcoming presidential election.
“The 2008 election is going to be very consequential for the United States from a national-security perspective,” he said. “The next president will make decisions … that will affect us for years to come.”
Bolton flipped through his book during the interview, finding evidence that the recent NIE report ignored past intelligence findings. He said the document inexplicably failed to highlight the continued operation of supposedly civilian enrichment programs, instead focusing on the fact that Iran stopped its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 — in complete disregard of the fact, he said, pointing to a page in his book, that ABC News broke the story of Iran’s continued work on detonation devices in 2004.
Bolton said instead that the analysis behind the document, over which he noted there was internal disagreement, was a case of “generals fighting the last war.” He said U.S. intelligence officials are being overly cautious because they are afraid they misjudged intelligence on Iraq prior to 2003.
Although Bolton said the decision to invade was based primarily on Iraq’s lack of proof that it had destroyed the chemical-weapons stockpile it declared following the 1991 cease-fire, he said the officials are now watering down their current intelligence.
As a result, he said, they were playing into the hands of people who wanted to take a less aggressive approach with Iran.
“One of the ironies is that many of the people who were most critical of the intelligence community for its judgements on Iraq’s WMDs are now going to hail this judgement as received wisdom,” Bolton said.
He said that even though no chemical weapons were found in Iraq after the invasion — he speculated in the interview that they might never have existed or could have been moved out of the country — it was an example of how foreign policy was rife with uncertainty and inherent risk.
He recounted an anecdote in which President Dwight Eisenhower wrote a note prior to D-Day, which he planned to release if the invasion failed.
“It said at some point, ‘The decision to launch the invasion was based of the best information available,’” Bolton said. “That’s all you can ever ask for. There’s nothing else you can base your decision on.”
Bolton denied that the intelligence on Iraq was in any way altered to create a better case for the 2003 invasion.
Scholars familiar with the NIE report on Iran said Bolton was right to be skeptical of the report, which they said was influenced as much by politics as intelligence, but they said it was unlikely that anyone was trying to compensate for Iraq.
Yale diplomat-in-residence and lecturer Charles Hill said that internal politics within the different intelligence agencies were likely responsible for the surprising report.
“[The NIE report] was unique, not by what was in it, but by the way it came out,” Hill said. “[The presentation] makes it appear to be an attempt by the CIA to influence policy, more than a flat, objective assessment. … It reads like the attempt to take away the option of further sanctions on Iran and take away possible military options against nuclear facilities.”
Some professors said the report served to prevent any continued suggestions of military action against Iran, especially following President George W. Bush’s comment in October that a nuclear Iran could lead to “World War III.”
Still, Yale Political Science professor David Cameron said Iran and its potential for nuclear weapons would be a “serious problem” for whomever the next president is.
Middle East scholar and Yale History lecturer Michael Oren said Bolton’s time out of government has given him an opportunity to be more vociferous in his criticisms — expanding his often contentious but short public statements into a “manifesto.” But he said Bolton might be drawn back into politics. Oren said he might especially be an asset to Republican candidates such as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Hill — who is Giuliani’s chief foreign-policy adviser, but spoke to the News in his personal capacity — also said Bolton would be a valuable voice in a conservative administration, but he said he has more faith in diplomacy than Bolton does.
“It’s possible to conduct diplomacy with [countries such as Iran and North Korea] if you trust your diplomats to be tough enough,” Hill said. “I think they are. I think [Bolton] thinks they are not.”
Bolton said that while he has spoken with four of the top Republican presidential candidates, he has yet to pick a particular candidate to support, noting that his busy book promotion schedule tends to interfere with the equally crammed presidential campaign.
For now, he said, he is satisfied with his current job — to “keep firing,” as he puts it at the end of his book.
“There are very few jobs in the government I want anymore,” he said.
And the United Nations?
“Been there, done that.”