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20 years after the Iraq invasion, John Bolton says he'd do it all over again

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At the end of this week of remembering the war in Iraq, we hear John Bolton, who defends the decision to start it. The United States invaded 20 years ago. U.S. troops never found the weapons of mass destruction used to justify the war and instead triggered an insurgency. This week, we've heard American veterans, Iraqi civilians and a man the U.S. once imprisoned. We've also heard a former top U.S. military officer who says the war was a mistake. In 2003, John Bolton was a senior diplomat in President George W. Bush's administration. He has written in the National Review that the decision to invade was right, even if later decisions were wrong.

What's the distinction in your mind?

JOHN BOLTON: Well, I think it's a mistake to treat a 20-plus year period as a block of granite. You accept one piece of it, you accept all of it. I don't think that's right. So I think you have to look at a series of decisions - some of which were right in my view, some of which were wrong - and judge each of them on their own. And you have to do it on the basis of how decision makers face these questions when they're confronted with them. Hindsight, as the saying goes, is always 20/20.

INSKEEP: Wasn't it foreseeable that taking over a country of 27 million people are so probably would be very, very hard, very expensive, a very long process?

BOLTON: No, I don't think it was inevitable that that was going to happen in any event.

INSKEEP: Maybe not inevitable, but wasn't it foreseeable that that would be a very likely outcome?

BOLTON: It was a potential outcome. That's right. And I think there were decisions made after the invasion that were mistaken, but some things occurred that nobody foresaw, particularly the utter collapse of the Iraqi government.

INSKEEP: Bolton says it's important to recall the times after the 9/11 attacks when the United States didn't know what threats might lurk. At that time, some officials did fear the U.S. was setting unrealistic goals for reordering the world. We played one such voice for John Bolton - Republican Congressman Jim Leach, who spoke with me on NPR back in January of 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JIM LEACH: I've never known a time period where something called hubris is less appropriate. This is a time period to think and act with the greatest degree of caution.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, with the greatest respect, was there perhaps some hubris in the idea that the United States could get in quickly to that country and get out again?

BOLTON: Well, I don't know whether there was or not since we did get in quickly. The period of major combat operations lasted from March the 20 to May the 1.

INSKEEP: Sure.

BOLTON: And the military's performance was superb. And I don't know...

INSKEEP: But maybe the hubris was on the other side.

BOLTON: Let me - can I just finish, please?

INSKEEP: Please. Go ahead.

BOLTON: I don't know anybody who criticizes that. Now, in terms of, let's say, hubris versus prudence, the United States had been attacked on 9/11 to devastating effect. Terrorist groups were still around in the Middle East and worldwide. What's the most prudent thing to do? My view is, was then and is today, the most prudent thing to do, from the point of view of innocent civilians of the United States, is remove the threat.

INSKEEP: You write that no one lied about WMD, weapons of mass destruction. When I read that, I immediately recalled the 16 famous words from a speech by President Bush.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

INSKEEP: Every part of that statement turned out to be false. And it seems the writers of that speech knew that it was doubtful at best because they didn't source it to U.S. intelligence. They sourced it from something they'd supposedly heard from the British. Wasn't that awfully close to a lie?

BOLTON: Well, it depends on how you define a lie, because if you believe that's a lie, then a lot of what I hear on NPR on any given day is a lie. To me, a lie is a statement that's untrue, that's uttered deliberately knowing it's false. The administration didn't lie.

INSKEEP: I want to mention if you think you hear a lie on NPR, let me know - or even a false statement. We try to correct them when they come up.

BOLTON: I don't have the time to do that.

INSKEEP: We also asked Ambassador Bolton about going to war without the specific approval of the United Nations. Our talk was complicated. So here's some background. Before invading Iraq in 2003, the United States wanted the world's leading powers at the United Nations Security Council to approve. Speaking on this program back in 2003, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice made the case for confronting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: And what we're saying to the council is, don't let him play that game. Give him a very clear message that he needs to disarm; he needs to disarm now; and perhaps, just perhaps, we'll still have a chance to do this peacefully.

INSKEEP: Russia, China and a U.S. ally, France, all declined to go along.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLIN POWELL: Clearly, this is a test, in my judgment, that the Security Council did not meet.

INSKEEP: Which disappointed Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking there also in 2003. President Bush ordered the invasion anyway, which the United States said was legal under earlier resolutions on Iraq. The U.N. had passed them back in the 1990s, before and after a previous war. John Bolton contends they were enough for Bush to act in 2003. Here's how some of our discussion went.

BOLTON: Do you believe that he did not have Security Council authorization?

INSKEEP: You're telling me that he did. What was the legal basis...

BOLTON: Why don't you just answer the question? I have to answer your questions. Why don't you - it's a simple question. Yes or no - do you think he had authority?

INSKEEP: I don't think the Security Council voted to specifically authorize this invasion. I think you'll maybe tell me that there were earlier resolutions from the 1990s that did give authorization.

BOLTON: Oh, my goodness, there's that legal argument again that lawyers throw up. Well, it's a very important argument. George Bush had full authorization by prior Security Council resolutions to do exactly what he did. And any implication to the contrary is simply wrong.

INSKEEP: You're saying that he had authorization not only to say that Iraq was in violation, but to decide on his own, or with one or two other nations, a few other nations, that there should be an invasion without further permission.

BOLTON: Resolution 678 clearly indicated that countries cooperating with Kuwait to reestablish peace and security in the region were authorized to use all necessary means to do it. That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: John Bolton is right that there were old resolutions on Iraq. One did authorize the use of any means necessary if Iraq was making weapons of mass destruction, which, as U.N. inspectors were finding, Iraq was not. Long afterward, former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix rejected the idea that the old resolution was enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANS BLIX: And to say then that, yes, the action upheld the authority of a council that they knew was against it, I think, strikes me as going against common sense.

INSKEEP: Yet John Bolton contends 20 years later that the war was not only legal but worth it.

BOLTON: Knowing everything I know now, I would do exactly the same thing.

INSKEEP: Ambassador John Bolton. It's a pleasure, always, talking with you. Thank you so much.

BOLTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.