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Ambassador John Bolton On All Things National Security

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Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton joined me today:




HH: Joined now by former Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Ambassador Bolton, good morning to you, thank you for joining me.

JB: Glad to be with you.

HH: Let’s start with this military budget and the fact that Mick Mulvaney went out yesterday and said look, we’ve got $21 billion dollars in new spending for the budget. We broke the one for one Democratic insistence on a dollar for domestic spending for every dollar on military spending. As you look at the omnibus, which is a collection of appropriations bills, what was your reaction to it?

JB: Well, it’s obviously a mixed bag. I do think that it’s correct to say that breaking the linkage between military spending increases and domestic spending increases is very important. And I think it’s a reminder that the whole budget negotiation that led to the sequester and everything that flowed from that is not something conservatives should ever embrace. You don’t solve fundamental problems by budget trickery. And we were kidding ourselves if we thought that was going to bring the Obama administration under control. So I think the defeat of the last vestige of that deal is a plus. But let’s be clear. Aggregate military spending is still much too low. And you know, the numbers get thrown around. I’m sure listeners are completely confused. Even people experienced in Washington are confused, or you’re looking at an increase over the last Obama projection, or after the law is changed, and so on and so forth. So the increase, I think, is welcome, but still inadequate.

HH: Now Mr. Ambassador, you know messaging wins the day in the media, and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi spent Sunday and Monday saying we won the budget deal. And so we’re playing catch up again on Tuesday and Wednesday. It seems to me like we did not get the X-ing out of NPR and NEH and NEA, but that there is no new abortion money. There is a lot of Defense money that wasn’t there. There is fence money, and I like the fence. You know, they don’t use the word wall, so they trot that out. Why do Republicans lose the messaging game every time?

JB: I don’t know the answer to that, but can I just respond again on the budget point, because I think this is important. What we’re talking about here is the remainder of the current fiscal year we’re in, that is to say the year ending September 30th. It now being May, we’re really more than halfway through that fiscal year anyway, so it was a mistake for anybody to think we were going to get major changes in this continuing resolution that takes us through September the 30th. I’ve always felt a new administration should take what it can get in fixing the outgoing president’s budget, and that’s what Trump is doing. He’s fixing problems in Obama’s budget, and concentrate on his own first budget, which takes effect October 1 of this year.

HH: All right, Mr. Ambassador, I want to turn to North Korea, the Philippines and a number of other things, but first, personnel. Secretary of State Tillerson has taken his time standing up State. He’s got exactly, I think, one appointment over there. And yesterday, I confirmed that Kay Bailey Hutchison met with the President on Friday. She’s going to NATO, not your old spokesperson, Rick Grenell. That’s the second time Grenell has gotten passed over. What’s that all about?

JB: You know, I’m mystified by that. I thought the NATO assignment was a done deal. And I don’t really understand what the dynamic is. But I do think that what we’ve seen is the predictable influence of the bureaucracy at the State Department when there aren’t adequate political nominees in place. So I certainly hope the pace picks up, and I hope Rick gets justice out of this. As I say, I don’t fully understand it. It took me completely by surprise.

HH: And to conservatives who worry, you know, he’s LGBT, and I always tell people he’s one of the hardline people I know on Russia and on every other issue. Would you explain to him, he is one of us. He is a hawk.

JB: Yeah, I don’t, you know, I think this is, it’s just inexplicable to me that that could be a concern to anybody. Whether it was to Secretary Tillerson in his decision, obviously, I don’t know. But as with many gay and lesbian people, and transgendered and the rest, a lot of them are good conservatives. And we should welcome that.

HH: Let’s turn to foreign affairs. The President receiving an enormous amount of criticism for talking with the new Philippine president, I pointed out yesterday Nixon used to always talk to whomever he would talk to, a lot of strongmen – Marcos, etc. And Duterte is an elected leader of a democracy. What do you make of his conversation with President Trump?

JB: Well, I think Trump did the right thing. I mean, I don’t think there’s a universal rule on who you talk to. I think the question always is, is it in the best interest of the United States. Looking at the Philippines and the absolutely critical role that they play in the South China Sea, and the move that Duterte has made toward China, we have got to reel the Philippines back in. I understand that he probably couldn’t get a membership in the American Civil Liberties Union if he wanted to. That doesn’t bother me. But I think his tilt toward China is very dangerous for the United States. So I think Trump did exactly the right thing. I think the critics are just finding things to pick at, and the bottom line, which he said during the campaign, was his paradigm for foreign policy is, is it in the best interest of the United States. Here, clearly, it is.

HH: Now in addition to that, I was on MSNBC this weekend with my friend, Jonathan Alter, a man of the left, but a good historian. He says that there’s a democracy deficit that President Trump is not paying attention by having Duterte come, but also by having Sisi come to the White House, that we are sending the wrong signal. I think having Sisi to the White House is terrific. What does John Bolton think?

JB: Absolutely, that was another very positive early move. Maybe al-Sisi, like his predecessor once removed, Hosni Mubarak, is not a Jeffersonian democrat, either. But given the circumstances in Egypt, he’s clearly a leader that’s going to do a lot better than Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. I mean, I think people need to wake up. Democracy is not simply who gets the most votes in the ballot box on election day. Democracy is a culture, a system of values, a way of life. We are blessed with it. Other countries are not. This is not a knock on the Middle East or the third world. Europe didn’t exactly cover itself with glory in the 20th Century when it comes to democracy. Take a look at Russia. It emerged from authoritarianism into democracy in the 1990s. It’s moving right back toward authoritarianism. It has nothing to do with race, ethnicity or religion. It’s a fact of human life. And again, where America’s best interests lie in dealing with an working with an al-Sisi who upholds the Camp David agreement with Israel, and is with us, I hope, on a number of other things, including how to deal with ISIS and Iraq and Syria, of course, we bring him to the United States. Of course, we treat him as an ally for those purposes where it’s in our interest.

HH: Now Mr. Ambassador, Hamas is trying a makeover in anticipation of a power struggle following the passing of the scene of Mahmoud Abbas. What do you make of Hamas attempt to get to the table and be treated like just another nation-state player? It seems to me the days of Ben Rhodes making that kind of mistake are over.

JB: Well, I certainly hope so. Look, we’ve been through this before. I remember well back in, I think it was 1989, the PLO, according to Yasser Arafat, looked at its charter, and said well, you know here where it says we want to eliminate the state of Israel? He said that phrase, that is caduque, which is a French word for basically overruled or outdated. Now the PLO never took that out of their charter, but that was supposed to be good enough for us. I hope we’ve learned our lesson certainly in this administration. Hamas is a terrorist organization. When they abandon their terrorist objectives, when they give up their weapons, when they accept all the prior agreements dealing with Israel, and when they commit to purely peaceful, political activity and they demonstrate it over a sustained period of time, then maybe we’ll talk to them. But the idea that cosmetic changes and oath swearing somehow legitimizes them, I just think is fundamentally flawed.

HH: Helene Cooper, who’s a pretty good reporter at the New York Times this morning, Ambassador John Bolton, has a story, Trump’s Turn Towards China Curtails Navy Patrols in Disputed Zones. The first paragraph reads, “Six weeks ago, the United States Pacific Command requested permission from senior American officials for United States warships to sail within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef in the South China Sea that is claimed by Philippines and China. The Navy had good reason to think their request would be granted. During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump labeled President Obama as weak in defending international waters. However, this instead, Pacific Command’s request and two others by the Navy in February, turned down by top Pentagon officials before it even made it to President Trump’s desk.” What’s your view of that?

JB: Well, the only, I found it very disturbing. The only solace I took from that article, which I’m glad I read before I called you this morning, is that a little bit further down, it says the request never made it to the White House.

HH: Right.

JB: In other words, if this is accurate, the request were denied within the Pentagon. So I guess my short answer would be I’d like to know more about it, but I hope that it was simply the Pentagon bureaucracy, maybe the civilian bureaucracy in the office of the Secretary of Defense on autopilot, as often happens. Maybe they consulted with the bureaucracy at the State Department at that time, also on autopilot, and they gave the response to deny the Navy’s request. I think we should be very assertive in freedom of navigation operations, as they’re called, in the South China Sea, the East China Sea. I think we’ve got to make it clear to China that their ambition to make the South China Sea a Chinese province, you know, they already have a provincial capital, pretty audacious move. It isn’t going to happen. It is not going to happen.

HH: The article went on to say, “It remained unclear on Tuesday whether it was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, General Joseph Dunford, Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or one of their deputies who turned down the three requests. Defense officials said the White House was not involved. In fact, it might not have been any of them, as you point out. But there is a problem at the Pentagon. It’s the same one at State, which is we have not stood the national security team up with the advice and consent appointees or nominees. What is going on there, John Bolton? I know you give the President pretty high marks for a sea change in America’s foreign policy, in Syria, with the MOAB, with North Korea. But what about staffing these places?

JB: Look, I think it’s very important. I’m told that there are a number of positions that are going to be announced soon. I do think that’s important. And this is what I would stress to your listeners. The bureaucracies in Washington all have cultures. Some of them are kind of pro-Republican. I’d say the law enforcement culture at the Justice Department’s pretty good. I’d say the free market culture at the Treasury Department’s pretty good. But there’s some departments that have cultures that are, that lean to the left. The State Department culture leans to the left. The intelligence community, at least at the CIA, leans to the left. And unbelievable though it may be, there are large parts of the bureaucracy at the Defense Department that lean in that direction. So that’s why you need political appointees down to the assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary level. They are literally the hands of the president in making sure that these departments carry out his wishes. And the President is hard-pressed to do that when those people are not at their desks.

HH: You think the national security team, we’ve got 30 seconds, has gotten stood up, yet, over at the White House at the NSC?

JB: Well, I think they’re making progress along the line all the way, but given the obstructionism we saw in the Senate on just the cabinet nominations, given the clearance process, delays that are almost inevitable, even if they announce nominations now, it would still be four to six months before a lot of these people got in place, and that could be a problem.

HH: Ambassador John Bolton, always a pleasure, thanks for the clarity as always.

End of interview.


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