Gold Institute Senior Fellow Nahro Zagros Discusses the Middle East with Former National Security Advisor Amb. John Bolton
Dr. Nahro Zagros: Joe Biden went to the Middle East after 18 months in power, do you think his visit was successful?
Amb. John Bolton: I don't think the trip was successful. I don't I don't think he demonstrated the kind of leadership, the kind of grasp of the many issues that face the region. You know, there's a theory in the United States that says that China is the big threat of the 21st century and we can forget about the Middle East, forget about Europe, and only concentrate on China. It's a big mistake. America and its allies have interests all over the world and the Middle East remains a central focus for friends of the United States and for the US. And it requires leadership, requires doing things that help bridge differences among our friends. It means taking a tough stance against our adversaries, and you can't shirk that responsibility.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: Well, the meeting was devoid of any drama or excitement, but knowing that, you know what Biden said in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to say that America is not leaving the place and leave a vacuum for the Russians and Chinese to come over. That's a powerful statement, right?
Amb. John Bolton:: Well, the statement was good now. Now the question is what he does about it, the principal threat in the Middle East today, as it has been for many years, comes from Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support of terrorism in the region and around the world. Its aspirations for hegemony. There are many other sources of tension as well. Erdogan and Turkey has Neo-Ottoman aspirations. And there are terrorist groups, the threat and many of our friends there. So this is something that for long term peace and security in the region and around the world, the United States does not participate actively. It only makes the day much further away when we can expect….peace
Dr. Nahro Zagros: So the previous administration, the Trump administration, and the Biden administration, it seems that they have something in common. They both wanted to get out of the Middle East and yet Biden came back. Like we said, less than two weeks ago. Do you think the visit was mainly to counter Iranian threat there or it's related to the Russia Ukraine war? Or perhaps America doesn't want to leave their friends behind in the Middle East?
Amb. John Bolton:: I think the President doesn't fully understand the impact in the region and more broadly, of the American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. I think it was a strategic mistake by the United States to do it. And I think it left all of our friends around the world worried about our staying power, and there was not much from President Biden's trip to the Middle East that changed that impression.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: So you think it was nothing to do about foreign policy about countering Iran about American leaving difference behind in the Middle East it was mainly about the price of oil and gasoline?
Amb. John Bolton: I think I think he wanted more production. Out of the Gulf Arab countries. They had agreed the month before and OPEC to a modest increase, but they didn't agree to anything more. But of course, being in the region. President had to visit Israel and he had to say something about the American role, but I just think it reflects a lack of attention. And surprisingly, for Biden, who's spent so much of his career in the Senate on foreign policy, he's made really little difference in international affairs. The events have gotten beyond his control, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: What about the JCPOA? This administration promised that they will get the JCPOA back on the table. So do you think this is going to happen on the Biden administration?
Amb. John Bolton: I hope not because I thought it was a bad deal and 2015 and I think the concessions that Biden has made over the past year to the Ayatollah have made it worse. Iran has shown no strategic decision not to pursue nuclear weapons. Do they want relief from economic sanctions? Yes, they do. Are they willing to give up the pursuit of no nuclear weapons? I don't think so. So I think they represent really a huge threat not just because of the nuclear program, but because of their support for terrorism, and it requires much more of a stronger position by the United States.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: You advised Donald Trump about the JCPOA and you advised him to leave the pact. So he did. Do you think it was successful because it doesn't feel that he has achieved anything?
Amb. John Bolton: I don't think we went far enough. I think it was the right thing to do to withdraw to impose US sanctions on Iran to try for what we call maximum pressure. But, the problem will not be solved until there's a new government in Iran, a government that represents the people of Iran, not the Ayatollahs … that didn't happen. We didn't pursue regime change, but we should have.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: Well, he did advocate for preemptive strike on North Korea and Iran and regime change in the latter. But do you think it was lack of understanding from the perspective, from Trump perspective., that he didn't go far enough with a plan?
Amb. John Bolton: Well, I didn't think he really understood what the implications were he was against the JCPOA because Obama had negotiated but not really appreciating that the regime in Tehran wanted nuclear weapons, and would have been prepared to negotiate at great length. If they could get free from the economic sanctions. It was the leverage the pressure that we put on the regime that caused them to want to negotiate but while they were willing to say they'd give up nuclear weapons, they never did anything to accomplish it.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: In your book, you mentioned that Trump wanted to delete Iraq, and yet at the same time, he was criticizing Barack Obama for leaving Iraq in 2011, who created a vacuum for ISIS to come for. So, what was the narrative that we don't understand? On the one hand, Trump is against staying in Iraq, on the other hand criticizing Obama for leaving Iraq in 2011?
Amb. John Bolton:: Well, I didn't understand the narrative either. It's not that Americans really want to have our troops deployed all over the world. That's the really the farthest thing from their mind, but it's better to take care of threats and dangers to the US and its allies, where the threats originate not in the streets or the skies of America. So, the presence in Iraq, which Obama should not have abandoned was a way to see if Iraq could succeed as a nation, and to keep troublesome outsiders like Iran, like Syria, like Turkey, at a distance while we tried to solve that problem.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: You are one of the architects of the Iraq war, or the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Do you think it was a success story?
Amb. John Bolton: Well, I think there are different parts of the saga. It was certainly a success in that it removes Saddam Hussein from power and he was a threat to international peace and security. He was a threat to his own people in particular, the Kurds. I remember after the first Persian Gulf War, in 1991, going with Jim Baker from the north of Turkey, just into Iraq and seeing 10s of 1000s (tens of thousands) of Kurds who had fled fearing Saddam Hussein's wrath after the first war, they were without shelter. They were without food. It was a potential for a great humanitarian tragedy. Saddam didn't care about that at all. So removing Saddam was an important thing to do. Did we accomplish the next step of building a new Iraq? No, I don't, I don't think we succeeded. I'm not sure we should have tried the way we did. I think ultimately it was going to be the peoples of Iraq who would decide whether there would be a new Iraq and how it would succeed. It wasn't anything that we were going to impose. We could draw a ring around them, to give them the chance. And I think that's all that we should have done.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: So in other words, it's America won the war, but what's the peace in Iraq?
Amb. John Bolton: Yeah, that's why I say there are different phases to this. The war was a success. What came after was not a success, not because of bad faith by the United States. But because in large measure, we became another political party in Iraq. And that was not the path to success, also because of the intervention of Iran, and its effort to impose their kind of theocratic rule in Iraq as well.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: So what led to the downfall of the plan and for the flat plan not to succeed because in five years, America lost 5450 service members as well. As 3793 military contractors only between 2003-2018.. So, what went wrong? Exactly?
Amb. John Bolton: Well, there were a lot of other things that were happening, not the least of which was the renewal of al Qaeda terrorism and a different kind of form a lot of developments that really were extraneous to the effort in post Saddam Iraq. I'm not going to tell a Kurdish audience how complicated the politics of Iraq are, but to have succeeded as a state to these three disparate provinces of the Ottoman Empire was going to require political compromises among ethnic groups and confessional groups. It's possible it could have been done. But there was not good faith on the part of all of the players. There were external powers that were interfering in it. And there were not the circumstances where trust could be built up, especially after the United States withdrew in 2011. Our presence could not guarantee success. But our withdrawal, I think, hastened the failure [11:05]. And I think there had to come a point where reasonable people could say, this creation of post-World War One, European dealmaking wasn't going to succeed, and we had to look at what the successor structures would be one of those would have been an independent Kurdistan and acknowledges the reality on the ground to say we tried to form a viable Iraq and for reasons not having anything to do with the Kurds. It wasn't going to succeed. So there has to be an effective government for the people. And that's what leads you to the conclusion that if Iraq can't succeed as a country, you have to look at alternatives.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: I'll come back to this. Talk about Kurdish independence. But first. Iraq is an important country in the region. One of the reasons America went there, it's to get rid of Saddam Hussein and all the threats that his regime was posing, but also at the same time to counter Iran. And yet, Iraq is run by Iranians, thanks to the invasion, it's in the hands of Iranians. So from that perspective, it's a complete fiasco, right?
Amb. John Bolton: Well, I think as it worked out because of Iranian interference, you know, in the balance between the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs, the influence of Iran, even within the Shia community to build an Iraq that looked like Iran was quite small. And yet we were not able in the parties were not able to find a way to compromise so that you could have not a secular population but a secular government that could accommodate different interests. And I don't think we gave the kind of support we could have, recognizing the threat from Iran. So that I would say the one of the reasons for failure was the American failure to see the threat that Iran poses, not just because of the nuclear program, not just because its support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen, but their interference and their desire not to have a success at creating an effective Iraqi government.
13:30 (KURDS MIDDLE EAST)
Dr. Nahro Zagros: Okay, I'll move to another subject about the Kurds in the Middle East. In your book, you mentioned that Trump said he doesn't like Kurds, and reading what you wrote. that made you furious. Right, because you have this people in the Middle East who are the most reliable American friends in the region and yet the President of the United States is saying he doesn't like them. So, was it lack of understanding or, or something else?
Amb. John Bolton: Well, he disparaged the Kurds. I think he heard from people who said they're great when they have American airpower. They're not so great when they don't. We tried to explain to him that the Kurds had fought valiantly for many years for their own independence and had been critical for decades against Saddam Hussein, who had resisted against all odds, who were helping us critically and against the Assad regime and against the Iranian and Hezbollah interference in Syria. And it was just one of these things that you couldn't reason with him on what the facts were and it obviously made coming up with a sensible and fair policy for the Kurds. (it was) very, very difficult.
Dr. Nahro Zagros: But during the campaign, Donald Trump, just before becoming President, when he was touring around the states, he was advocating for independent Kurdistan. And yet when he was the president, he disagreed with it. The reason I'm saying that it reminds me of something else, then that's Joe Biden. When the invasion of Iraq happened, he wrote an article and he advocated for a three-state solution for Iraq. So now he's the president, but he's doing nothing for that reminds me of Trump, on one hand, saying he supports Kurdish independence. On the other hand, he saying he doesn't like Kurds. So, do you think this administration can protect the Kurds in the Middle East?
Amb. John Bolton: I guess the lesson is that American politicians campaigning for office say a lot of things they may not fully understand. To be fair to them, or they just say things because they think that's what their audience wants to hear. And so, everybody is well advised as Americans have learned painfully that the politicians' promises don't always come true. I'm very worried at the moment about the Biden administration because it remains convinced that if it can either revive the JCPOA or find some kind of accommodation with Iran, that that it can it can