FLEITZ: The Truth About John Bolton, the Iraq War and WMD Diplomacy


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You’re probably heard the criticism of Ambassador John Bolton by the left that he would not be a good choice to be the next Secretary of State because Bolton was an architect of the Iraq War and a hawk who has little use for diplomacy.

This is completely false. The truth is that Bolton was frozen out of Iraq War planning. This criticism also ignores Bolton’s successful diplomacy as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security to pressure rogue states to comply with WMD treaties and his work as UN ambassador to take strong and meaningful action in the UN Security Council against WMD proliferation and terrorism.

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The record shows John Bolton had little to do with promoting the Iraq war or war planning. Check out the State Department’s archive page of Bolton’s speeches, op-eds in 2002 and early 2003. You won’t find anything calling for military action against Iraq.


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Bolton was not involved in any decision-making or planning for the Iraq War because Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage froze him out. As Bolton’s chief of staff, I witnessed this first hand. I remember well how State Department offices were told by Powell’s and Armitage’s staffs not to share any information with Bolton and his staff about Iraq war planning.

Looking back on this, Bolton believes Powell did him a favor. He says on pages 165-166 of his 2007 book Surrender is Not an Option:

I played no significant decision-making role on Iraq policy, because Powell and Armitage largely excluded me from these issues, no doubt fearing that my views would be similar to Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s and not their own.  It was the greatest favor Powell ever did for me, utterly unintentionally, to be sure, and my Iraq-related activities were only at the margins of the central decisions.

I believe Bolton’s liberal critics are falsely portraying Bolton as an architect of the Iraq War for two reasons.

First, they want to obscure his successful diplomatic efforts to address cheating on WMD treaties by rogue states. Bolton did this by calling out major violators of treaties to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention.

Bolton also negotiated the creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a global effort now composed of 103 countries to stop and interdict shipments of WMD technology to rogue states. PSI’s most important success occurred in September 2003 when it led to the inspection of a ship transporting nuclear technology to Libya. This interdiction was a major reason why Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi decided to give up his WMD programs.

And second, after holding three confirmed foreign policy positions and a reputation for toughness, John Bolton is the last person the foreign policy establishment wants to see leading the State Department. They know he has an intimate knowledge of the State bureaucracy and will exercise the leadership to ensure it implements the president’s policies. The foreign policy establishment is only too aware that no one is better qualified to drain the swamp at State than John Bolton.

In short, the Iraq War architect argument that Bolton’s opponents are using against him is a ruse intended to play on Mr. Trump’s opposition to the Iraq War. I am confident that as President-elect Donald Trump and his team look at John Bolton’s entire record, they will see a man committed to making America safe again with a sophisticated understanding of national security who knows how to be tough and how to use diplomacy.  They also will find someone who will work hard and loyally to bring the Trump revolution to the State Department and the world.

Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He is a former CIA analyst who served as Chief of Staff to Under Secretary Bolton from 2001-2005. Twitter @fredfleitz.

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