President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton joined me this morning to discuss his recent trip to Israel and Turkey:
HH: I’m joined now by United States National Security Advisor, Ambassador John Bolton, with whom I just traveled to Israel and Turkey. Mr. Ambassador, welcome back, and on behalf of myself and the six other journalists you let travel with you, thank you.
JB: Well, thanks. Glad to be with you, glad you could come along. I hope it was a chance to see how things are moving in the Middle East in a very complicated, dangerous environment for the United States.
HH: Indeed, it was. And in your extensive conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu and your counterparts in Israel as well as the security services there, did you discuss Israel strikes at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard emplacements and weapons in Syria, and whether President Trump supported Israel’s right to conduct those strikes?
JB: Yes, we had extensive discussions on that, really, continuing the conversations we’ve had for a long time. President Trump is a very strong supporter of Israel’s right to self-defense. We’ve supported them right across the board as Iran has tried to arm elements of the Syrian regime and the Hezbollah terrorists with increasingly sophisticated missiles that can hit targets all over Israel and put the very existence of the Israeli state in jeopardy. So this is obviously an existential question for the Israelis, and one that we regard with utmost seriousness.
HH: You’re a former U.N. ambassador and now the National Security Advisor. Have you discussed with President Trump and/or Prime Minister Netanyahu Israel’s right under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter to strike at the source of those soldiers or the IRGC and the weapons they are sending to Hezbollah?
JB: Sure. You know, Prime Minister Netanyahu and I are both members of the union of former U.N. ambassadors. We have a lot of connection on that score. And for your listeners, of course, Article 51 in the U.N. Charter embodies what the text of the charter calls the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense. And that’s something we have stressed over and over again for Israel. You know, I know you’re familiar with the saying people often call Israel the canary in the mineshaft when it comes to the United States, that people would like to criticize Israel or constrain Israel’s options both for its own sake and because they know ultimately it’s the same argument to limit America’s ability to defend itself. So we’re very interested in maintaining the unfettered right Israel has of, and as the U.N. Charter itself calls it the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense.
HH: You said in your joint appearance with Prime Minister Netanyahu at his home in Jerusalem that Iran’s strategic goal of acquiring nuclear weapons capable of being delivered has not changed. Did you and he discuss how to deter that strategy or destroy the ability to make it happen?
JB: Well, you know, we had very extensive discussions on that, because I think Prime Minister Netanyahu feels that that threat from Iran is really the most serious threat that Israel faces. So a lot of things I can’t talk about, obviously, in public, but President Trump, I think, has made it clear publicly on any number of occasions how concerned he is about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, whether it’s North Korea, Iran, or anybody else, and he’s a strong believer in taking steps with Israel and others in the region who are like-minded to make sure Iran never gets to that point.
HH: Is President Trump open to a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran again begins to creep close to a nuclear breakout?
JB: Well, I wouldn’t want to get into specifics as you might imagine. I think the President looks at all his options constantly. As I say, on a subject of this seriousness, this is something we coordinate very closely with Israel on, but for reasons I’m sure you can understand, we have to keep our cards close to the vest.
HH: Your trip to the Western Wall with Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, and American Ambassador Friedman to Israel, it was quite remarkable. And then you went deep into the tunnel archaeological excavation. What was the visit and the tour intended to communicate from the President to the world?
JB: Well, you know, I’m a huge student of history. I think there’s so much we learn from it. And to be able to go literally as we descended layers down close to the part of the Temple wall that you can’t see because it’s been obscured by building over the millennia, not only are you going down in elevation, you’re going down through hundreds, even thousands of years of human history. And it shows the deep connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. But it was really, it was, I thought, a very nice gesture by the Israeli government. I didn’t intend any political statement by it. And it just shows how hard it is to make progress in the Middle East where even doing a little tourism causes some people to object politically.
HH: There was a possibility that on Monday, you were going to meet with Turkey’s President Erdogan. That did not happen. Is it because he’d already gotten the message from your remarks in Israel, or that he didn’t want to hear President Trump’s message?
JB: Well, you know, we, through the embassy, had asked for a meeting. And indeed, in the conversation between President Trump and President Erdogan on December 23rd, it was President Erdogan himself who invited me to come to Turkey. But I delivered the message that the President wanted delivered to my counterpart, in effect, the Turkish National Security Advisor. We had a large delegation of military, State Department personnel. The discussions continued at a military to military level after I left. So you know, politics takes place all around the world, and your listeners might be interested to know that there are nationwide and local elections in Turkey on March 31st. And as I was told by the Turks, that’s sort of the equivalent of the U.S. midterm Congressional elections. So I wouldn’t be surprised there is a little display of politics there.
HH: Neither would I. What has been the President’s message to Turkey about our allies, the Kurds, in Northern Syria?
JB: Well, in precisely that December 23rd call that I just mentioned, the President, President Trump, asked President Erdogan to be sure not to harm the Kurds who had fought with us against ISIS. And as both Secretary Mike Pompeo and I have said publicly, we understood President Erdogan to have made that commitment. Now this is a very complex military environment out there, and so what we wanted, what we’re still pursuing in these military to military conversations are assurances and protocols and procedures so that everybody feels comfortable with how this is going to happen. And we’re hoping those discussions, which will continue next week, will produce results that are acceptable on both sides. You know, what we did was to give the Turks a piece of paper, a non-paper, that’s a fancy diplomatic term for just being a set of ideas, but expressing what the U.S. position was fully agreed upon by the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, so that the Turks knew we were all speaking with one voice despite the media commentary that would have you believe otherwise.
HH: Yesterday, CNBC reported that Turkey will go ahead with its planned offensive against Kurdish militias in Northeastern Syria whether or not the U.S. withdraws its troops, according to its foreign minister. If Turkey unintentionally or intentionally fired on and wounded or killed American troops, what would be the consequences, Ambassador Bolton?
JB: Well, you know. It’s exactly this concern that American servicemembers not be put in jeopardy, especially by a NATO ally, that was principally on President Trump’s mind. The first duty of the President is to protect Americans. And in implementing his decision to withdraw from Northern Syria, Northeastern Syria, he didn’t want the Turks or anybody else to take any action that would put them in jeopardy. So I think that’s why we’ve all been saying publicly that, and it was part of the presentation we made in Turkey, that the Turks should not take any military action that’s not fully coordinated through military to military channels with us.
HH: In the last hour, Admiral Stavridis, former NATO allied supreme commander, told me that if the Turks fired on and hit any Americans, that would trigger Article 5 for other NATO members, and they’d have to act. Do you agree with that assessment?
JB: Well, I think it depends on the circumstances. I don’t want to speculate. I assume that the Turkish military will try and comply with what President Erdogan committed to President Trump. As I say, these discussions are continuing and hopefully we can elaborate on it. But it’s just critically important that we not allow the situation to deteriorate. We’re also quite concerned, let’s be clear, it’s not just concern about the Turks. It’s concern about the Assad regime. It’s concern about the Iranians in Syria backing the Assad regime, and the Russians who might want to take over Northeast Syria as well.
HH: To turn to domestic politics, is there daylight between the President and Secretary of State Pompeo and/or you, Mr. Ambassador?
JB: No, there’s not. You know, when I was out in Israel and Turkey, I think I spoke to the President four or five times by phone. I spoke to Secretary Pompeo about the same number of times. General Dunford was with us in Turkey. And as I mentioned a moment ago, the position we presented to the government of Turkey was one that we had cleared through all the normal diplomatic and bureaucratic processes precisely so that the U.S. spoke with one voice. You know, the media loves to find splits in the administration. It’s sort of a hobby of theirs. And I think the media also have a problem, you know, when they don’t know the full story because they don’t get to sit behind me at my desk or behind Mike Pompeo, they learn of something and they think well, my goodness, we’ve just learned about this, this must be new or different or conflicting, when in fact it’s just part of an unfolding plan.
HH: Will there be a repeat in any way, shape or form of President Obama’s bugging out on Iraq in 2011?
JB: You know, the President, the short answer to that is no. The President in Iraq the day after Christmas met with our commanders in the field. I think he was very impressed by their devotion, their dedication to duty. He was impressed by the facilities at the al-Assad Airbase, impressed by the possibility of what remaining there and in other places in Iraq can do to prevent the resurgence of ISIS in Syria or Iraq, which the President’s very committed to, what it could to do help us thwart the malign activities of the Iranian regime throughout the region. So again, Secretary Pompeo was just in Iraq talking about maintaining those bases. I think that’s progressing very well. So I feel comfortable on that point.
HH: Two last questions, Mr. Ambassador. From headlines this morning, the first in the New York Times, “Trump and Pompeo embrace autocrats and disparage opponents at home.” Your response?
JB: Oh, for God’s sakes, you know, what I think Mike Pompeo was doing was telling audiences in the Middle East that Barack Obama’s strategy of always blame America first, the famous apology tour he undertook, that’s gone. You’ve got a different president with a different view who believes America is a force for good in the world.
HH: And the last headline comes from the Jerusalem Post. “Russia says U.S. Syria Pullout Spurs Need For Kurds and Damascus To Talk”. Again, a response, Mr. Ambassador?
JB: Well, sure, the Russians would love that. You know, the Kurds are in a very difficult position, and the President, as he spoke with President Erdogan, thinks that we, they were loyal to us, and we must make sure that they’re not harmed. That’s what we’re talking to the Turks about. We’d talk to the Russians about it, too, if need be.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, again, thank you. I appreciate your time this morning, and for the many opportunities you afforded the press to talk to you on background and off the record when we were abroad.
JB: Well, it was my pleasure. I hope we can do it again, Hugh.
HH: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.
End of interview.