Voice of America Contributor Greta Van Susteren interviewed US National Security Advisor, Amb. John Bolton at the White House. Bolton discussed foreign policy, the Iran deal, North Korea and some other issues.
VOA: Can you tell me, compare and contrast the foreign policy of President Bush, President Obama and President Trump?
John Bolton: I think President Trump in his Campaign said his objective was to put American national interest first and I think that’s been the hallmark of his first year plus in office. He has inherited a lot of problems. Iran, North Korea, the Middle East. That really were either not addressed or were addressed incorrectly in the Obama administration and that’s a big part of his responsibility. The Bush administration by contrast came in with this idea that the world’s problems have been solved, the cold war was over, economic growth was the only issue and then we hit 9/11. So really his presidency was very different but I think President Trump’s got a series of problems to resolve and he’s systematically working his way through him.
VOA: What’s sort of interesting is if you look back historically, like North Korea for instance back in the beginning President Clinton tried to do something and successive presidents did and even moving the embassy in Israel which has been a promise by the US Congress in 1995. President George W Bush said he was going to do it, President Obama said he was going to do it and now apparently it is going to be done.
John Bolton: This goes to the credibility of the United States and particularly the President of the United States. So when President Trump says like every other former successful presidential candidate I plan to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and then he does it. That’s not simply something that has an effect on the conditions in Israel but it says to world leaders all around the world when he says he’s going to do something he does and I think likewise his recent decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which he talked about all the time during the campaign and made clear even after he became president he thought was a terrible deal by his withdraw he simply carried through on what he’s been saying consistently for two years.
VOA: What do you expect? Do you expect Iran to come back to the table to negotiate or is this a standoff between the United States and Iran?
John Bolton: Oh I don’t think it’ll be standoff. I think inevitably as US sanctions kick in it’ll have an effect on Europe. I think their trade investments with Iran will drop as well and I think Iran then faces a very difficult choice they’d love to keep the deal going because of the economic benefits which all pointed in their direction. Those benefits are about to be cut off, the economy is in much more difficult shape even after the release of the sanctions we saw demonstrations all around the country at the end of last year. So I think it’s going to be very difficult for Iran to sustain this.
VOA: What’s the position about regime change in Iran?
John Bolton: Well that’s not the objective of the administration. The objective is to prevent them from coming anywhere close to nuclear weapons and I think as the economic benefits that Obama conferred on Iran and the deal disappear, that’s the point where they say as the North Korean’s may well have said, we just can’t bear this where the cost of the nuclear weapons in affect is much too great.
VOA: What is the reason that the president got out of the Iran deal? I mean the IAEA said that Iran was in compliance. There was a discussion about whether or not the money from the unfreezed assets, the money that belonged to Iran that was returned during the Obama administration. That that provided a lot of money and that money has been distributed and a lot of complaints that has been distributed to Hezbollah and in Yemen and in Syria to fight Israel. Is that the reason why he got out of the deal?”
John Bolton: Well it’s certainly the case the way Obama negotiated the deal that front end benefits went to Iran and that was one of the fundamental mistakes of it. But at its core the deal was simply not in America’s strategic interests. It did not effectively restrain Iran from continuing to pursue deliverable nuclear weapons. It did not have effective verification mechanisms. We entered the deal without knowing anything other than what our own intelligence had given us on Iran’s military program. And the IAEA simply didn’t have adequate provisions for inspections so we know that at the core of the deal was a lie about Iran’s military aspirations and the recent information revealed by Israel only underscores that.
VOA: But isn’t a deal a deal number one and I realize if there was a lie underlined in it that’s what Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence came up with, but isn’t a deal a deal and doesn’t that somehow inhibit the United States in making a deal with Kim Jong Un in North Korea?
John Bolton: Well I don’t think any deal that’s based on fraud is valid, and so I think that undercuts it to begin with, but it’s also the case the president has to look at the strategic interest of the United States. So when George W Bush withdrew from the anti-ballistic missiles treaty, it wasn’t because Russia was violating it, although it probably was, it was because the world had changed. And I think in the case of the Iran deal it was never in America’s interest and it wasn’t getting any better with age and I actually think it increases the chances of a deal with North Korea. Because North Korea will say to itself we’re obviously not going to get a deal so favorable to us as Iran and if we want any deal at all it’s going to have to be much more on the US terms.
VOA: What’s the hint that North Korea actually wants to deal?
John Bolton: Well the fact that they’ve most recently again in the Panmunjom Declaration, the document that came out of the North-South Korean summit at the end of April commits North Korea to complete denuclearization. And that means that is they’re serious, if they’ve made a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons they’ve got a chance to demonstrate it to President Trump directly in Singapore on June the 12th. And if they haven’t made that strategic decision I don’t think he’s going to be misled.
VOA: One of the things that’s been pointed out is that North Korea’s made an announcement they’re going to freeze their testing. There are also reports that where they did their testing last September that mountain that has collapsed and that it can be an ecological disaster and the whole area can be contaminated. Do you have any information as to whether they’ve announced they’re freezing their testing because there doing this part of good faith gesture to the United States and to the discussions or is it because they got trouble?
John Bolton: Possible it’s part of a good faith gesture. It’s entirely possible that’s what they’re doing. It’s also possible as we’ve seen in cases like Iran and North Korea itself, they’ve run into difficulties so they’re making a virtue out of necessity. I hope it’s the former, but one of the reasons that the short period of time between the agreement to meet the two leaders and the actual meeting is important is North Korea is not going to get a lot of benefit here out of a lengthy negotiation. This is going to be very quick. I think the two sides will size each other up and President Trump will have a chance to look Kim in the eye and decide whether he really is serious.
VOA: Is this serious? And on June 12th, is this going to be- are you willing to give up the nuclear weapons totals? That could be the questions put on the table.
John Bolton: Look, denuclearization has a history here. In 1992, the North Koreans agreed, not only to give up nuclear weapons, but to give up the front end uranium enrichment and the back end plutonium reprocessing. So, we’re not really asking them on the nuclear side to do more than what they agreed to before. We’re also going to talk about chemical and biological weapons, we’re going to talk about their missiles, we’re going to talk about their abduction of Japanese and South Korean citizens – we’ve got our three American hostages out, so that’s good news – so I think it’s all right there. And if the North Korean regime made the critical strategic decision to get out of the weapons of mass destruction business, then we have a chance for progress.
They want a peace treaty, they want an end to the hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, the South Koreans want the same thing- look we all want peace on the Korean Peninsula after all these years – and we can get to that. But to get to that there has to be complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. That is absolutely clear.
VOA: What about our troops in South Korea is that on the table?
John Bolton: No, they’re not a bargaining chip here. Look, if one day the two Koreas reunited you’d have a different strategic situation. That’s nowhere close to where we are now.
VOA: Let’s assume that President Trump decides that Kim Jong-un didn’t come with good heart and good mind to talk about doing this and he has no intention. Then what?
John Bolton: Well, you know, you don’t want to predict the worst result coming out of it, but the president himself has said if he doesn’t think it’s serious, he’s prepared with respect to get up and walk away. We’ll see.
VOA: Walk away and do what though? Because, I mean – because their nuclear weapons program has been progressing and the clock is running.
John Bolton: And and the economic pressure has been progressing too, that why I think the president is hopeful that maybe there really is a change in behavior, we’ve never been at this point before.
VOA: What has Secretary Pompeo said about – he’s now been there twice.
John Bolton: He’s had very successful meetings and I think a lot of the progress can be attributed to his diplomacy. And he can see how the potential here for really historic change coming just six weeks after he took office – the president clearly understands this. It’s a big challenge for all of us, there’s a lot of work to do between now and June 12th.
VOA: Let me switch to the other part of the world to Afghanistan, is there any indication the United States will go into direct talks with the Taliban?
John Bolton: Well, you know, I think there’s a lot more to do in terms of strengthening our ability to prevent the terrorists from taking over again and from carrying out terrorist attacks in the United States. We’ve been around a lot of iterations on this since September 11th, and I think that the commitment to making sure that we’ve got adequate resources there to prevent terrorist attacks here remains top of mind for us.
VOA: But does that mean we’ll negotiate with the Taliban?
John Bolton: Well I think what we want is the Afghan government to take the lead in this, and we’ll see there if the Taliban and all the various other factions that are involved in threatening the Afghan government are really interested in a negotiation that could lead to peace.
VOA: Now, if you Iran does get started again on its missile program in earnest, what’s going to happen to Saudi Arabia? Are they going to get into an arms race? Do they want to get into this with them?
John Bolton: Look, I think one of the consequences of the Iran nuclear deal was to help facilitate an arms race in the Middle East. It’s not only the case that Israel doesn’t want Iran to have deliverable nuclear weapons, neither do any of the other countries, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf countries. And one of the fears I think that we have is that the failings of the Iran deal – the ability of Iran to continue to pursue nuclear weapons simply incentivizes other countries to create their indigenous nuclear capabilities. So, unless this deal were eliminated you would have laid the ground work for a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region.
VOA: Where’s Putin been in all these discussions? He’s been relatively silent in Russia. And whether it’s the Iran deal, you haven’t seen a lot of him, and even North Korea.
John Bolton: Well, I think, Russia’s in a difficult position, in a lot of respects. The President has put in a lot of very tough sanctions on Russia. I don’t think he gets adequate credit for that. There’s a lot of politics involved here in this country. The President’s actions against Russia have been very strong, and I think the Russians have felt that. Now they’ve also been out trying to extend their influence in Ukraine, in other places in Central and Eastern Europe, in Syria and the Middle East, so there’s a lot on the agenda with Russia. And I think some of the steps we’ve taken, they have not expected either. I think President Trump has demonstrated he’s obviously not Barack Obama, but he’s not others of his predecessors either.
VOA: You know, it’s so interesting to watch the world. We are, the United States is hoping to get help with North Korea from China, yet at the same time China is developing a bigger footprint in Africa, is, as we have more trouble with Pakistan, they’re getting more involved with Pakistan. It seems like in some instances, that we’d have, that they’re encroaching in different parts of the world.
John Bolton: Look, China is definitely using the benefits of 30 years of economic growth. They’ve taken advantage of what happens when you move away from a Marxist economic system. They’ve put a lot of money into their military. They’re trying to expand their influence all around China’s periphery, in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, in India with the so-called “One Belt, One Road” project all over Central Asia, they maritime silk road. They’re pressing out in a lot of ways, and I think the world’s looking to see how the United States reacts to it, frankly until this administration we’ve barely reacted to it at all. And I think that’s changing now.
VOA: What about the South Sea? The China seems to be expanding the South Sea. They’re creating these islands, and appear to be military bases. And you’ve got the Philippines very distressed by it, you’ve got Japan. And I meant that’s where so much shipment, so much sea transport goes through that area, and it seems that China is moving into there pretty heavily.
John Bolton: This is clearly something we’re going to have to deal with, this expansion, this militarization of the South China Sea. We also have enormous trade issues with China, and that’s on the table now. In ways that even some of the President’s opponents have recognized that he’s taken a very strong line. Tom Freedman and others in the New York Times, really interesting to watch. But that means you have to have a comprehensive strategy to deal with China, and that’s something the, I think we’re seeing in this administration we haven’t seen before.
VOA: What about our neighbor, Venezuela?
John Bolton: Well, look. It’s a tragedy what’s happening there under Chavez and Maduro, the economy is collapsed, people are really in difficult shape, the influence of Cuba has grown. In Latin America, they sometimes call the problem ‘Cubazuela’ because of the Cuban influence there. I think, as we just saw in the recent Summit of the Americas, Vice President Pence represented the United States, Latin American countries see this as a real problem, not just for the United States but for the entire hemisphere. If you could have a real free and fair election in Venezuela, Maduro would be out the door. But he’s created, after Chavez, a really repressive system and it’s a deep problem.
VOA: So what is it, the United States’ position to just sit and watch, or what is our strategic program?
John Bolton: Well, I think what we’ve indicated is that increasing the pressure and the exposure about what’s actually happening in Venezuela is something that hopefully the other Latin American countries will come together on. Also ties into what the President did in Cuba, where he essentially substantially reversed what the Obama administration did because of the continued abuses of human rights there. So it’s, this is a still in the works, but it is not something we should find acceptable to see these kinds of authoritarian regimes in the Western Hemisphere.
VOA: But it doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media. I don’t read much about Venezuela, and it’s so close to the United States.
John Bolton: Yeah, and it’s really the devastating impact on the lives of the people in Venezuela isn’t much appreciated here either. And that’s something that we tried to highlight at the Summit of the Americas. As I say, I think around Latin America, it’s pretty hard to find anybody who’s willing to defend Maduro and his regime.
VOA: So how’s the job?
John Bolton: It’s great. I must say, it’s even better than being a Fox News contributor.
VOA: How about being an ambassador?
John Bolton: No, look, it’s an honor to serve the country, an honor to give the President advice. I’m very clear what my role is. I’m the National Security Advisor, I’m not the National Security Decision Maker, and you get a chance to present your views. My job is really to make sure that everybody who’s got a stake in an issue, gets to present their views and then the President decides.
VOA: Is it a lot different on the inside than the outside? I mean, as we sit on the outside and try to watch and see what’s going on in this administration or a administration, do you, do you on the inside think if you only knew?
John Bolton: Well, I think it’s even more acute in this administration the difference between the way you read about the administration in the press and sort of my experience in the West Wing every day. It’s not only not like the television West Wing, it’s not like what you read in the newspapers or see on the news. It’s a completely different atmosphere. I think it’s much more constructive, we’re getting a lot done, and I wish people would focus on the substance of the policy instead of the imaginary politics.
VOA: How do we bridge that gap, though? Because, the media needs to get information and, how do we bridge the gap with the administration?
John Bolton: Well, I think the bias of the press here is much more pronounced than in prior administrations. I’ve been in only Republican administrations where I think the bias of the press has been pretty clear, but it’s worse in this administration. I think it’s very hard a fair treatment. If we could do interviews and get coverage that focused on policy, people can have different views on policy, but that’s what’s going on. It’s not a Game of Thrones where you sort of count who’s up and who’s down on a given day.