Time To Base American Naval Vessels on Taiwan, Ambassador Bolton Tells the Sun

In a wide-ranging interview, he expresses hopes for regime change in Iran and expanding NATO beyond Europe.

AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, file
John Bolton at the Center for Strategic and International Studies September 30, 2019. AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, file

John Bolton has not given up his hopes for regime change in Iran. That will likely come as no surprise for those who know the man, a foreign policy veteran who is a former national security advisor and ambassador to the UN.

My first question when we spoke by phone — what was the biggest story missed by the press — was answered without hesitation: Iran. The scale of the recent protests there, he argues, are being overlooked. His answer was similarly unequivocal when I asked what U.S. policy should be as a result.

“The only answer to Iran,” he argues, “is regime change. He adds that “it’s not a question of trying to do more to change their behavior. This is an ideological struggle, and they’re not going to change.”

Ambassador Bolton also takes issue with President Biden’s policy toward Iran’s greatest rival, Saudi Arabia. He calls threats to cut off arms sales to the Saudis “a disastrous mistake” and argues that what is happening with oil production cuts is “exactly what you’d expect.” 

The Biden administration, Mr. Bolton says, told the Saudis that they are “a pariah state in an evil business” — oil — and tried to make peace with and empower their “most existential enemy,” Iran. So naturally, he notes, the Saudis “are hedging their bets, hedging with China, hedging with Russia.”

“It’s also why,” Mr. Bolton says, the Saudis are “making peace with Israel, because they see that Israel has a clearer policy and a policy more in line with the Gulf Arabs than the United States does at the moment.”

It is also Mr. Bolton’s view that the OPEC production decision was “primarily … economically driven,” based “on complex algorithms that track trade and oil and natural gas,” to maintain “their optimum level of revenue.”

Mr. Bolton’s “advice to the Saudis” during this tricky period in their relationship with America is to wait out Mr. Biden. “We are gonna have another presidential election,” he says. “Just try and look past Biden saying, ‘I’m gonna shut your entire economy down because you produce oil.’”

We also discussed the consequences of President Putin losing in Ukraine and whether Mr. Bolton is concerned about how this ends — whether, say, he thinks the Russians need to be given a face-saving win of sorts to avoid nuclear war, or civil war.  Ambassador Bolton points to the answer recently given by the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin.

In a viral clip, Mr. Bolton says, Ms. Marin is asked, “‘What’s the off ramp here?’ And she says, ‘The way this ends is when the Russian troops leave Ukraine. That’s how this ends.’”

“That’s the answer,” Mr. Bolton says defiantly. 

The ambassador concedes that “a complete collapse of the Russian Army” would make him “worry about the Kremlin using a tactical nuclear weapon, because at that point, I think Putin’s domestic political situation would be in real peril … and I think it would come from inside the siloviki, as they call it, the men of power.”

“But,” Ambassador Bolton says firmly, “that doesn’t mean you don’t seek to achieve the objective. It means that if you get close to it, you have to figure out how to manage the risk that’s inherent in actually winning.”

Don’t forget the big picture, he warns. “If you’re not prepared to accept [a Russian defeat], then what’s your alternative?” he asks. “What do you say to the folks in Taiwan and all around China’s Indo-Pacific periphery … if we won’t stand against aggression [in Europe], what do you think we’re gonna do in East Asia?”

“The real answer,” he argues, “is what will it take to convince not just Putin and the Russians, but the Chinese in particular, that unprovoked aggression does not go without a complete American response.”

I pressed him on what he thinks risk mitigation actually looks like. “You have to make it clear,” he says, “that we don’t have aspirations inside Russia. We should make it clear to military commanders or intelligence forces that might seek to overthrow Putin that we’re not gonna interfere … we’re not gonna take advantage of it. We’re not threatening them. We’re not gonna put troops in ourselves.”

For the record, Ambassador Bolton doesn’t “really see” nuclear as a “threat at this point.” He says he thinks that “Putin has been bluffing,” because “the times he has raised it, we’ve not seen, according to the open testimony of our intelligence officials, any change in the status of Russia’s nuclear forces at any point in the last eight months.”

Ambassador Bolton has, insofar as I could detect, no sympathy for  Russians, or others, who argue that NATO expansion is, in part or in whole, to blame for the war in Ukraine. To the contrary, Mr. Bolton is enthusiastic about Sweden and Finland joining the alliance, calling it “a plus plus all around.” He argues that we should expand NATO into a “global alliance” along the lines of the proposal 15 years ago of the prime minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar. 

“I know that the Europeans will swallow hard when they hear that,” Ambassador Bolton says, “but the Europeans also need to wake up to the Chinese threat. I think the Europeans have learned a pretty hard lesson about the Russians, and I think they should not want to learn the same hard lessons about China.”

I asked Mr. Bolton about what can be done to prevent an alliance between China and Russia. When I worked for Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs called that our no. 1 objective. Ambassador Bolton strikes a pessimistic tone. 

Mr. Bolton says he has made the argument repeatedly to the Russians that the relationship is “gonna end up bad for you by the end of this century. You’ve got a country that’s essentially hugely underpopulated with enormous natural resources bordering on a country that’s overpopulated with very few natural resources. How do you think that’s gonna turn out?” 

Unfortunately, he admits, he’s gotten “nowhere with the Russians,” who believe that “the relationship” is in their “interest” and that they can “manage it.” He does have one idea to drive Russia and China apart, though, and it involves India. 

“The Indians, certainly on the military side,” he says, “recognize that China is the major threat they face.” We should “convince them they’ve either got to disentangle themselves from their reliance on the Russians” or “pull the Russians away from China,” because if they can’t, they’ll “find themselves vulnerable to Chinese pressure via Moscow.”

We also discussed Taiwan. Ambassador Bolton says he believes that “abandoning the concept of strategic ambiguity in the case of Taiwan is clearly correct.” It “served its purpose,” he says, but “it’s a difficult concept to manage,” and “there’s no strategic ambiguity coming out of Beijing.” 

Ambassador Bolton thinks “China is deterable on Taiwan.” He says, “I don’t think they wanna inherit a heap of smoking rubble” and “want the full productive capacity of the island.” He adds: “I think they’ve seen what happened to the Russians in Ukraine.

The ambassador does, though, predict that China’s next move will be to test “whether we lack the political will to come to Taiwan’s side,” by creating “a pretext of a crisis, throwing a blockade around Taiwan and see what we do.”

“If we back down” at that point, he says, everyone will assume that “ultimately” the Chinese “are going to get control” of Taiwan “and probably won’t have to fight for it.” That, he says, means America has got to “show that we are prepared to fight.” 

How? Ambassador Bolton recommends “home porting some American naval vessels at the southern tip of Taiwan.” He also recommends “providing a lot more weapons and other kinds of assistance,” which, he argues, would “give ample justification to have Americans on the ground training and assisting the Taiwanese.” 

Mr. Bolton also thinks that “we can get the Japanese and the Australians involved” and maybe even South Korea, who, he says, should be added to what is known as the “Quad” — Australia, India, America, and Japan — “making it a Quint.” 

More broadly, Mr. Bolton argues, we need to pursue a strategy to “enmesh Taiwan in regional security structures.” For decades, he says, Americans have been talking about how “we’ve got to get past the hub and spoke series of bilateral alliances.”

The time is now, because “if we face 50 years of China versus Taiwan, as the only issue, Taiwan’s in trouble.” If, though, “it’s China versus a whole bunch of the rest of us and Taiwan, that’s very different,” he says. 

Ambassador Bolton is optimistic that this is possible. “I think the mood is there,” he says, giving “Biden credit for having the first head of state meeting of the Quad.” 

“There’s plenty more we can do there,” he adds. “The people along China’s periphery, East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, all want a more visible U.S. presence. They don’t necessarily want a Nato kind of alliance, but they’re not lining up to become subordinates of China. And if they thought we were in for the long term, I think you’d see a lot of cooperation from them across the board.” 

Ambassador Bolton is also lobbying for “a very substantial increase” in defense spending. “We have to plan,” he says, “for multiple contingencies on a worldwide basis. It wasn’t so long ago,” he notes, “that our objective was to be able to fight two medium-size wars simultaneously.  

“Honestly,” he adds, “right now, we’d have trouble fighting one medium-sized war. We’re not looking for any medium-sized wars, but we’ve gotta be better prepared than we are now. We shouldn’t kid ourselves.”


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