John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN
Sir David Frost: How do you feel about the recent moves in US foreign policy, particularly the moves regarding North Korea and Iran and Syria. What is your reaction to that?

John Bolton: Well I think the circumstances are somewhat different but I'd say in the case of North Korea the deal that was recently announced from Beijing is not a good deal. I think it lets North Korea out of the corner it was in. After its test of nuclear weapons I don't think North Korea will ever voluntarily give up its nuclear arsenal, and I think it helps legitimate the regime by accommodating them in the way that we have. 

In terms of Iran and Syria, I think that's a very different circumstance. This conference that will be held shortly, deals with the internal situation in Iraq, as was requested by the Iraqis some six or eight months ago and is really intended to be an analogue to the very successful meetings on Afghanistan that were held in Bonn, Germany several years ago, where obviously you bring in all of the regional players in an effort to find ways to get more investment and trade in Iraq, and thereby hopefully improve the economy and stabilise the political situation.

So in that sense for those objectives I really don't see that we have any objection to it. We've been prepared to talk to Iran on that basis for some time and obviously we have diplomatic relations with Syria, so we talk to them anyway. I see the situations differently in short.

So when people say we're talking to Syria and Iran, we're not so much carrying on the war on terror as surrendering to terrorism.

I think when you deal with efforts to stabilise Iraq. The government of Iraq itself feels that it has an interest as a country bordering Syria and Iran, to carry on relations with them in a way I think we can be supportive.

I don't think there's any point in the United States talking to Iran or Syria about Iran's nuclear programme or either of their support for terrorism. I think in that sense it's a different circumstance.

The issue is not talking for the sake of talking. The issue is talking about what, with what possible objective, and I do think the analogy between the situation in Iraq and the earlier situation in Afghanistan is potentially instructive which is why I'm prepared to see this conference to play itself out and to see what happens.

Coming back to the one that you found different – separate – North Korea. What policy would you pursue with North Korea? Someone said we're accepting the will of a liar and that will never happen – but what would you do with North Korea, having put it very definitely into a separate category?

Well I think North Korea will never voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons, and I say that because I think the possession of nuclear weapons is integral to regime survival there. So there's no doubt North Korea would be happy to talk about giving up its nuclear weapons, it would be happy to commit to give up its nuclear weapons, its done it several times before. But when it gets right down to it, it will never give them up voluntarily, so I think the only solution there is to dramatically increase pressure and isolation.

I think China by cutting off North Korea's energy supply could stop its nuclear programme. If North Korea is not going to respond, or if China's not going to apply that pressure then I do think the only long term solution to the threat posed by North Korea is the fall of that regime and the reintegration, the merger of the two Koreas into one hopefully free and democratic Korean government.

Because at the moment people say that the US is rewarding a state like North Korea just for observing the good behaviour they should have observed in the first place.

Well that's certainly my view, I think North Korea was in a corner after the nuclear test. China was very, very upset with them. It really was a slap in the face of China for North Korea to conduct that test. We had pressure on them through the financial sanctions we had imposed, even South Korea had cut off its assistance to the north.

To let them out of the corner to provide potentially tangible economic rewards, props up the regime. Providing heavy fuel oil to North Korea doesn't go to heat the homes of the starving people, there's no power bred in North Korea. Heavy fuel oil goes to support the military and industrial complex and the regime of Kim Jong-il, and I don't see any reason to perpetuate that regime and power.

Switching for a moment to Iran. You have said that the US could do a lot to create conditions to overthrow the regime in Iran. What do you have in mind?

There is currently a lot of dissatisfaction inside Iran with the current government. Iran has a very educated, very sophisticated population. They're quite aware of the life they could have, as [is] being led by many other people in their region and in the broader world. The government in Tehran is seeing the squeeze. With falling oil prices and less domestic production [it] has had less economic resources to spread around, to put down the discontent.

There's a very strong Iranian [diaspora] out in the wider world, but particularly [a] strong Iranian American community, very well aware of conditions inside Iran and distressed about how their family members are living. I think this regime, this theocratic government is more vulnerable than people might think. Not tomorrow to be sure but in a shorter time frame than might otherwise be apparent. And I think that making it clear that there's assistance that could be had encouraging the democratic resistance, at pointing out the deficiencies that rule under the current regime in Tehran, could go a long way towards spreading discontent.

We already see some signs of that. I don't want to overstate it. I don't think this would be easy but I do think the greatest possibility for Iran to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons would come in the context of a change in the regime, as has occurred in other countries like South Africa when the apartheid regime fell, and they gave up the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

You said in 1970 "I confess I have no desire to die in a South East Asian rice paddy; I considered the war in Vietnam already lost". Do you consider the war in Iraq already lost?

Actually I said that in 1995 on my 25th reunion from graduating from Yale, and it was a reflection as many of us did at that time [of] what we had gone through in connection with our own personal evaluation of Vietnam.

I do not think that Iraq is Vietnam, and I think part of the debate we're having in the United States is people of my generation, the baby boom generation reliving the Vietnam debate.

It's a false analogy here, there's no military force in Iraq today sufficient to defeat the United States and the coalition. There is a cluster of terrorist activities and internal sectarian violence that in my judgement amounts to civil war. Part of it is score settling by Shiites against Sunnis, part of it is Sunnis trying to gain back the power they had under the decades of Baath party rule. And the real issue in Iraq is not who's going to win a military victory, the real issue is whether the different sectarian factions in Iraq want to have one country in some form or fashion, or whether there are going to be three Iraqs.

That's really fundamentally up to the people of Iraq to decide. It was never a question the United States could impose on them and frankly never one that we had an interest in imposing on them.  Our strategic objective in Iraq now is making sure that no part of that country becomes a base for terrorism. The shape of the country whether it's one Iraq, one Iraq under a federal system of three Iraqs, is really not a question for us, it's a question for the Iraqis. 

Do you think that the United Nations is effective?

Yes I think the United Nations can serve a useful purpose. I think it can be an instrument of American foreign policy but it's only one of several instruments. Its got some severe defects. I don't think the US voice is heard as much as it should be, and I think there's still a number of changes that can be made. But it's an important institution, it's one the United States has worked hard in, where we achieved, if I may say so, a few successes during my tenure. But [it is] an institution that remains seriously flawed, no doubt about it.

What's the most serious flaw that's preventing it from being in order to make it effective?

Well I think that the current system of financing of the UN is badly misguided. All of the efforts at reform that we tried to undertake, including many that were supported or indeed proposed by the former secretary general, Kofi Annan, came up ultimately against a wall of resistance by many countries that find the status quo perfectly acceptable by them. 

I think the one reform that we need to make that could change all that, and change not only management structures but government procedures as well, would be to shift from a system of assessed contributions, mandatory contributions, to assist in a voluntary contributions. 

I think it would be a hard struggle to get to that point, I acknowledge, but I think it's something the US should pursue. The objective being that we pay for what we want and are entitled to insist that we get what we pay for. I think that one change alone to move from assessed to voluntary contributions would have a huge positive impact on the UN.

Vice president Cheney said that he was saddened by the Scooter Libby conviction. Were you?

Yes I did, I think that the system that created this entire prosecution was badly misguided. You know right after Watergate, congress passed a statute creating what we call the independent prosecutors to look into essentially allegations of wrong doing by prominent political figures. After about 20 years of the independent council law on a bipartisan basis, we concluded that the system was out of control.

The independent council idea lived on in the form of justice department independent councils of which the current prosecution was one. But just as this was a prosecution with no adult supervision, no resource constraints, no perspective really, just as the independent council investigation of Clinton was the same kind. 

Inherently these are unfair and I think this result was unfair. Nobody was indicted for an underlying crime and yet Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. I'm not commenting on the specifics of his case. I'm saying the way this entire thing was structured was fundamentally flawed.

Theodore Wells, his defence lawyer, has said "We have every confidence that ultimately Mr Libby will be vindicated". Obviously the case is not over yet.

Right, there will be I'm sure a motion for a new trial and many appeals, but that's expensive. It is expensive for Libby. He has probably spent millions of dollars already in legal fees and [will]potentially spend millions more. He's not a man of means, and so he has been put under a microscope that I'm not sure very many people in Washington could endure if they were put under the same level of scrutiny.

Do you say that in fact President Bush should consider a pardon in this case?

I think a pardon is warranted as I say because I think the entire prosecutorial structure was inherently unfair. What the president will do I don't know. He's granted fewer pardons during his tenure so far than any comparable president with a comparable ten year in office in a long, long time. So he's been stingy with pardons and I don't know how he will approach this.

Some papers indicate that this is going to continue, roll forward and not end here – there'll be more name-calling, there'll be more investigations etc.

Well I think that politics will go on because that's Washington. I think the investigation, the legal side of this is over other than for Scooter Libby. His case will go on. I don't see any new cases coming up and I think frankly most Americans view this as another inside the belt way story without many political ramifications in the country as a whole.

Overall, looking at foreign policy closely, do you think we're at a time when there is a major mood change, a major direction change in the administration with the fact that you're no longer there, and with these cases and with the fact that vice president Cheney is less prominent. Do you think that there is a major mood change in foreign policy in America? Or not at all?

Well I don't see it. I mean personnel changes in administration during the seventh year of a two term president - I think the broad directions are set. I think certainly there have been some areas that I personally have had a disagreement with in the past couple of months, but I had plenty of disagreements when I was inside the government too.

The difference for me now is that I'm a free man on the outside and I can express my opinion, and that's right. When you're inside, you're loyal to the policy whether you agree with it or not. When you're on the outside you can take advantage of the first amendment.

Coming back to the UN, the wall street journal said it was like one man pushing a tsunami of mud. Did it feel that way?

I thought that was a pretty good description actually. 

Source: Al Jazeera