In an age of constant outrage and hyperbole, it can be difficult to get people to sit up and notice when something genuinely horrifying happens. But as The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan argues in the second episode of his new podcast “Deconstructed,” that is exactly what we need to be doing this week in response to the news that John Bolton will be Trump’s next national security adviser. Sure, you’ve heard about Bolton’s bluster, his warmongering, his disregard for international law. What you probably haven’t heard is the story of how, in the run-up to the Iraq War, Bolton went to visit José Bustani, the former Brazilian diplomat who was then serving as head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and made implicit threats against him and his children. Bustani’s negotiations with the Iraqis over weapons inspections threatened to rob the Bush administration of its rationale for war, and that didn’t sit well with Mr. Bolton.
On this week’s show, Mehdi talks to Bustani about that experience with Bolton 16 years ago. He also talks to Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, who served with Bolton at the State Department and worries that we’re now a step closer to war with both North Korea and Iran.
Thomas Countryman: It was early in the morning. I was getting ready to go to breakfast; I glanced at my phone and I saw a message from a former colleague that began with an epithet and then said, “It’s Bolton.”
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed, a new show from The Intercept. I’m a journalist, author, TV host, and yes, now, a podcaster, too. It’s great to be with you all on the show, chewing the political fat, getting past the media spin, deconstructing the headlines and giving a platform to people you really need to hear from and listen to. It’s week 2: Let’s talk John Bolton.
Do you remember where you were last week when you heard the news that Donald Trump had decided to appoint a new national security advisor?
Newscaster: There’s major breaking news that’s unfolding right now.
Newscaster: President Trump is announcing that General H.R. McMaster will be out, and is going to be replaced with John Bolton.
MH: I remember where I was when I heard the dreaded name, those chilling words, “John Bolton.” I was eating fried chicken, with my kids actually, and my instant response was: “We’re all dead.” In fact, I tweeted that: “We’re all dead.”
Now look, I know, I get it — you hear stuff all the time about how bad the Trump Administration is, how bad Donald Trump’s decisions and appointments are. In this car crash, this clown car, this shit-show of a presidency, with scandals every week, every day, every hour, it’s hard to keep getting outraged. But you know what? Appointing John Bolton as national security advisor is really, really bad. This is a really big deal.
Yes, John Bolton, the man with the white, walrus mustache, the super-hawk, the super villain who served as undersecretary of arms control and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, who was one of the key architects of the invasion of Iraq is now about to start work next month in the White House as national security advisor to the president of the United States. National security advisor. Who’d have thought that we would miss General Michael Flynn, who held that role for all of 23days at the start of the Trump Administration? Come back, General Flynn! All is forgiven. Because John Bolton is really, really dangerous.
This is not a drill, people. This is red alert. This is time to panic. Because, look, it’s not just the fact that John Bolton’s never met a country he didn’t want to bomb, invade and/or occupy, or that he wrote a book literally called, “Surrender Is Not An Option.” It’s not just a fact that he’s written op-eds saying he wants to preemptively strike North Korea and Iran, that he wants to militarily topple the governments of both those countries.
National Security Advisor John Bolton: — to provide more pressure. There’s a lot we can do, and we should do it. Our goal should be regime change in Iran.
MH: It’s not just the fact that he’s given paid speeches for an Iranian terrorist group, the MEK, that until a few years ago was actually banned by the U.S. State Department, yet Bolton had no problems working with this cult, this terror group, MEK, if it meant he could get another war and another regime change.
JB: And that’s why before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran. Thank you very much. [Audience cheers and applauds.]
MH: It’s not just the fact that he continues to defend the catastrophic and illegal invasion of Iraq, that he did so much to bring about in the first place.
JB: First question of whether it was right to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and the answer to that still seems to be unquestionably yes.
MH: It’s not just a fact he doesn’t recognize the authority of international law at all, or the United Nations.
JB: There is no United Nations. The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
MH: It’s not just the fact that he chairs The Gatestone Institute, which puts out ludicrous anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, or that he wrote the forward to a book by two of America’s leading Islamophobes, or that he once made a joke about Barack Obama being a secret Muslim.
JB: King Abdullah of Jordan, who is not simply the Muslim king of a Muslim country, unlike our president. [Audience laughs.]
MH: It’s not just all of that, which is bad enough, but it’s the fact the Bolton is an awful, awful person. He’s a douche of a human being. He’s a proud, unrepentant bully who seems to enjoy intimidating and threatening people who disagree with him, as much as he enjoys tearing up international treaties and starting new wars — wars, incidentally, that he personally avoids serving in.
Bolton, lest we forget, is a chicken hawk. Listen to what he wrote in his Yale University 25th reunion book about why he avoided serving in Vietnam: “I confess, I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” Did you John? Did you really? How convenient.
So are we all dead in this new age of chickenhawkry, this new age of John Bolton, who’s now the most influential and crazy advisor to the most powerful and ignorant man on earth? On today’s show, I’ll be asking that question of José Bustani, former director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, who Bolton helped oust from his job in the run-up to the Iraq war and allegedly threatened in the most outrageous way, and from Thomas Countryman, a former career U.S. diplomat, who also served in the Bolton role of undersecretary of state for arms control, but left the State Department within a week of Donald Trump’s inauguration last year.
Before I talk to them, though, I do have a question for some on the anti-war far left and for some in the Muslim community who I met in my travels across America in 2016. It’s a question that’s been bothering me since I heard the Bolton news. The question I have, for some on the left and some in the Muslim community is, do you feel at all bad, do you regret spending so much of 2015 and 2016 saying Hillary Clinton would start more wars, would be more hawkish, would be a bigger warmonger than Donald Trump?
The actress, the activist Susan Sarandon summed up this line of thinking in the summer of 2016.
Susan Sarandon: You know, I believe in a way she’s more dangerous. I mean she did not learn from Iraq, and she is an interventionist and she’s done horrible things.
MH: Thank you, Susan Sarandon, and others, for that piece of wisdom. Remember the headline in Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times in May 2016: “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk.” An absurd piece at the time, even more absurd now.
Look, Hillary Clinton is a hawk, she’s always been a hawk and would have been a hawkish president. But there’s no comparison between the kind of people Hillary Clinton was planning on appointing to her administration, and Donald Trump appointing John Bolton as national security advisor. There is a difference between being hawkish and being unhinged. And it’s not as if Donald Trump hid from us during the campaign that he was a fan of John Bolton.
Here he is on Meet the Press in 2015:
President Donald J. Trump: Yeah, I mean, I like Bolton. I think he’s, you know, tough cookie, knows what he’s talking about.
MH: Yeah, sure, Trump also pretended to be a noninterventionist. He claimed to be against intervention, claimed to be against neo-conservatism, claimed to be against nation building. But it’s not as if he hid from us during the campaign that he was also going to be a raging, angry hawk.
DJT: I am the most military-based, and the most militaristic person on your ship.
DJT: I’m good at war. Have had a lot of wars of my own. I’m good at war. I love war in a certain way.
DJT: I would bomb the shit out of them.
DJT: I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.
DJT: You have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.
MH: So a Donald Trump presidency with John Bolton as national security advisor could get us all killed, or at the very minimum, embroil us in two new and very nuclear wars with North Korea and Iran. Think I’m exaggerating? Think I’m overreacting?
Well, this week, my guests are two very senior people, one of whom had to deal directly with John Bolton during the Bush years, was threatened by Bolton, and the other who served alongside him in the State Department.
First, José Bustani, who was director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, before the Iraq war, a veteran Brazilian diplomat who has a story to tell about how far John Bolton’s willing to go to get his own way.
MH: José Bustani, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed. You were director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, in March 2002, when John Bolton, then-U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, a member of the Bush administration, came to see you in your office in The Hague. Why? What was he there for?
José Bustani: Oh, he was there for, after three years of negotiations with the Iraqis and the Libyans, I had convinced them Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi, to join in the organization, which meant that inspections should take place 30 days after their cities are at the convention.
When I announced this to the Americans and others, the Americans were a little bit upset — not a little bit, they were really upset because I believe by the time they had plans to invade Iraq.
MH: Just to be clear for our listeners, you as head of the OPCW, you’d been in the position I think for five years up to that point, from 1997 onward.
José Bustani: Yes.
MH: You had overseen the destruction of something like two million chemical weapons and two-thirds of the world’s chemical weapons facilities.
José Bustani: Yes.
MH: And you were now on the verge of persuading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya of joining the OPCW. That’s a cause for congratulation and celebration, is it not?
José Bustani: Absolutely! That’s what I thought. Because my mandate, according to the convention, was to do bring as many countries as possible to the convention, and having Libya and Iraq into the fold would mean an enormous impact on the rest of the Middle East countries. So I thought it was a victory.
MH: But then John Bolton, who is this big hawk in the Bush administration, one of the keenest members of the administration, who wants to go to war in Iraq, a year before the invasion, March ’02, he turns up in your office, and what does he say to you?
José Bustani: Well, first he called me from Washington, and said that he was very upset with that decision of mine that was beyond my mandate, and I said it’s not beyond mandate. This is part of my mandate.
But then he showed up in The Hague, and he came to my office, and he said, “Cheney wants you out. You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with the decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you.”
MH: Retaliate. What did he mean by that? Did he say?
José Bustani: I didn’t ask! And I said, “Well, I’m not ready to do that. I have no reason to do that. Secretary of State Colin Powell has written me a letter praising my mandate so far, so I cannot understand why is it that I have to leave the organization?” And he said, “You have to be ready to face the consequences, because we know where your kids live.” In fact, I had two sons in New York.
MH: So hold on. John Bolton, who is a senior U.S. State Department official at that moment, comes to you on behalf of the U.S. government in person and tells you, a leading international official, that if you don’t quit your job in 24 hours there will be consequences, they will retaliate against you and “We know where your kids live.” That is a threat, is it not?
José Bustani: Absolutely. And that’s what happened, and I said, “OK, don’t worry, they are ready to face the consequences.” And they were, because I told my kids in New York and my daughter in London what was going on, and they said, “Dad, go ahead, go ahead, don’t worry.”
MH: So, given what you went through there in March ’02, forward the clock now, 16 years to March 2018. What was your response when you heard the news that John Bolton is now going to be the national security advisor to the president of the United States?
José Bustani: Disarray. I’m appalled. I’m appalled that Bolton has still, will have a say in the president’s administration, and I think this is terrible. He’s very brutal in the way he deals with things.
MH: And not only is he brutal, to use your word, and not accepting of dialogue, he’s actually one of these people who knows how to get things done in an administration where they failed to get things done so far. You have John Bolton, who is actually, he’s was actually very effective at ripping up treaties, he got his way in terms of invading Iraq. Even with you, a few weeks after that meeting, I believe, you were then removed in a special session of the OPCW, against all precedent and, later on, apparently it was deemed to be illegal. But you were removed from office.
José Bustani: Yes. The funny thing is that there was no mechanism to oust a director-general. There was a council meeting which took place, and I won against the Americans. And they were desperate, and so the Bolton and the Americans organized a general conference that’s not reviewed by the convention, it’s not according to the convention, it’s an illegal conference, in fact.
MH: But John Bolton is a man who doesn’t recognize international law, he says it himself.
José Bustani: Yes, and the conference took place and I was ousted, because my country, unfortunately, at that moment, betrayed me.
MH: The Brazilian government.
José Bustani: The Brazilian government then didn’t want to face the Americans, and they agreed with the Americans to oust me. So I lost support from my government and from the rest of Latin America, and the rest of Africa and the rest of the developing world.
MH: And a year later Iraq is invaded by a coalition led by the United States of America, and we discover, the world discovers what many of us suspected to be the case at the time, that Saddam Hussein had no WMD’s, something you and your inspectors could have discovered without war had Bolton let you do your job.
José Bustani: Exactly. As the director-general of an organization of this kind, you have information from the intelligence of different countries, that feeds you as director-general. And I knew that Iraq had nothing.
MH: But given John Bolton was able to sabotage your work and remove you from office and prevent a peaceful solution to the Iraqi WMD “crisis” at that time, and that was when he was a junior State Department official, he was undersecretary of state for arms control. Now as national security advisor to the president, the most influential advisor in the White House to the president the United States, surely he has far more power and opportunity to destroy the Iran nuclear deal and set the world on a path towards a new war with Iran this time. Is that what worries you? It definitely worries me.
José Bustani: It does worry me, of course, and that moment, and I think that the Iranian case in particular is a very dangerous one, and I think that the agreement that was reached in terms of Iran is a success story. And if you break this agreement, I believe that you can create a disastrous situation in the Middle East.
MH: Just in case John Bolton is a subscriber to Deconstructed and happens to be listening to this on his way into work, what’s your message to him, José Bustani, given the lessons of the last 16 years, the lessons of what happened between you two, and of course the Iraq war that came later, what’s your message to him?
José Bustani: My message to him would be: Let’s sit and talk. I still believe in dialogue. Because I believe the problems of the world have to be discussed by means of dialogue. I, myself, would be prepared to sit down with him again and discuss the problems, if he’s prepared to do so.
MH: José Bustani, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
José Bustani: Thank you. Take care.
MH: It isn’t just foreign officials who have their issues with John Bolton. His former State Department colleagues have lined up over the years to call him a bully, an abuser, an enemy of diplomacy. Thomas Countryman served in the U.S. State Department for 35 years, including in the role of undersecretary of state for arms control, a role previously held by John Bolton himself. Countryman left the Trump Administration a week after the inauguration, and currently serves as the chair of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. Tom Countryman, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
I remember where I was when I heard the news John Bolton was the new national security advisor. I was eating fried chicken with my kids, and it ruined the whole meal. I was distraught. What was your instant reaction when you heard the news last week that he’d got the top job?
TC: I was actually in Seoul, South Korea. And it was early in the morning, I was getting ready to go to breakfast, I glanced at my phone and I saw a message from a former colleague that began with an epithet and then said, “It’s Bolton.”
So, my instant reaction was that this brings us a step closer to conflict, not only with Iran but also to North Korea.
MH: Why is John Bolton so dangerous in your view? We hear all the time, it’s a widespread view on the left and even parts of the right, in your view as a former State Department official, now chair of the Arms Control Association, what makes Bolton scary?
TC: He would be scary enough if the only threat were all the incredibly extreme and provocative things that he says on Fox News, which apparently is what got him the job.
MH: Yes! The President watches him! Yeah.
TC: Well, it’s our president’s only source of information, so let me just take the area that was my area for about four months, the last four months of the Obama administration, I held the job that Bolton held from 2001 to 2005.
MH: Undersecretary of state for arms control, international security.
TC: Correct. In the four big challenges on the nuclear side, he failed.
First, Iraq he was, together with the vice president and the secretary of defense, the major voice in the State Department arguing that we must go to war with Iraq.
Secondly the case of Iran and nuclear weapons, by refusing to engage with Iran except under extreme preconditions. We went from a situation in which Iran, in 2003, had a few dozen centrifuges, up to the point where it had several thousand.
The same applies to North Korea. We had an agreed framework between the U.S. and other parties in Asia since 1994. In 2002, it became clear that North Korea was cheating, was violating the agreement. And rather than engage the North Koreans diplomatically and push them back into compliance, Bolton saw it as an opportunity to tear up an agreement that he never liked.
And finally, Russia, he contributed to the decision of President Bush to pull out of the U.S.-Russian ABM Treaty.
MH: Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
TC: Anti-Ballistic Missile —
MH: He hates all treaties.
TC: He hates all agreements that limit United States’ sovereignty in any way. He believes other states have an obligation to obey rules. He sees no rules that the United States is obligated to obey in the international sphere.
MH: So let’s come back to Iran and North Korea in a moment, those are the two big challenges that the Trump Administration faces right now. Just on Bolton the person, you’re a 35-year veteran of the State Department yourself, you left office just a week or so after the Trump inauguration, obviously your paths crossed with Mr. Bolton over the years, what is it about Bolton as a manager, as a leader of men and women, as a bureaucrat that is so problematic?
TC: Well, thankfully I never reported directly to him. I was never in his chain of command. I think one of my colleagues, Carl Ford, who testified against Bolton’s nomination to be UN ambassador in 2005 put it most succinctly: that Bolton is “a kiss-up, kick down kind of manager.” And that’s exactly true. He was abusive to his staff, perhaps not physically but certainly emotionally.
MH: It’s good to work for a guy who’s not emotionally abusive to his staff at all.
TC: That’s true. But, well, I think Bolton’s kiss-up style will appeal to this particular —
MH: But they’re both kick-down, is my point.
TC: Absolutely. But of even greater concern to me is the fact that the national security advisor’s job is to take the best information and the best policy recommendations from across the U.S. government, synthesize it, present it to the president with his own advice.
Bolton has proved himself, in the run-up to the Iraq war, as someone who conceals information from his bosses and does not pass on any views other than his own. So —
MH: Given that Trump has so few views of his own, especially on foreign policy, that gives him more influence than perhaps other national security advisors in the past.
TC: This president only wants to be surrounded by yes men. And, in these two individuals, he’s got hell-yes men. “You are absolutely right, sir. We’re going to do it your way.”
MH: How worried are you now about the prospect for actual military action, a conflict with either North Korea or with Iran or with both, and it doesn’t have to be deliberate conflict, does it? These things can happen by accident, simply by ratcheting up the rhetoric.
TC: I worry about both. First in the case of North Korea, I think Bolton’s approach will be essentially to sabotage the meeting between Kim Jong Il and the president and then Mr. Bolton will be exactly in the position he was in 2002, where he can say, “We tried diplomacy, it failed.” And that brings us a step closer to war.
MH: Iran is the other big potential crisis. What do you think John Bolton will do in regard to U.S. policy on Iran and the Iran deal?
TC: Well, both Bolton and Pompeo have been as harshly critical of the JCPOA, the Iran deal, as has the president. If the president pulls the U.S. out of the agreement in May, it not only makes it harder for the U.S. to reach an agreement with North Korea or with any other country, but it also could easily provoke Iran to pull out of the deal and resume enrichment.
That would be the kind of excuse that a person like Bolton looks for to create a military provocation or a direct attack upon Iran. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but the chances increase.
MH: And he’s, of course, a great believer in proponent of regime change. Is it weird to have a national security advisor in the White House who has taken money from the MEK, the Iranian group that was once on the State Department list of banned terrorist organizations?
TC: I think it’s beyond weird.
MH: Historically speaking, General Michael Flynn who was national security advisor for all of 23, 24 days last year, was considered by many in your world, in the foreign policy world of being perhaps the worst national security advisor ever appointed. Some now say that title should immediately be transferred to John Bolton. Should we be looking back at General Flynn, and saying, “Come back, General all is forgiven?”
TC: Sarah Sanders makes me nostalgic for the veracity of Sean Spicer. John Bolton makes nostalgic for the good judgment of Michael Flynn. And the president makes me nostalgic for the ethical standards of Richard Nixon, and Caligula.
MH: Tom Countryman, we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.
TC: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
MH: Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept and is distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Zach Young. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshore. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every Friday. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice.
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