Letter to the next president

Congratulations, Mr President-elect, on your victory. After the longest presidential campaign in our history, you now have 77 days to prepare to govern. While foreigners might see eleven weeks as an eternity, you know only too well that it is precious little time to select your top advisers and then subject them to our cumbersome FBI and ethics screening of their backgrounds, their finances, their potential conflicts of interest, and whatever skeletons are hanging in their closets.

Then, of course, they need to learn the intricacies of their respective responsibilities, and, for many, begin the Senate confirmation process, which may take months. Time is already growing short.

The current economic turmoil will consume a significant amount of your Transition Team’s time and effort, and properly so. But in the wider world, our adversaries and even our friends are actively considering how to advance their interests as your January 20 Inauguration approaches.

You will have four full years of foreign-policy issues and problems, such as the rise of China and India, the decline of the European Union, and the role of Russia, but I suggest the following as priorities in your first Hundred Days:

You are the decider.

Although President Bush tried to make this his mantra, his Administration was plagued in its first term by incoherence in national security decision making. Crisp decisions were not made, strong differences of opinion among Cabinet Secretaries were not resolved, and policy too often oscillated between conflicting options with no consistency or direction.

Ironically, the Bush Administration’s second term erred in the opposite direction, almost eliminating differences in advice to the President until there was really only one voice in his ear at critical points. You must avoid both pitfalls, and you must make that clear immediately. You must resolve disagreements among your advisers, and not allow drift, and you must insist on discipline once you make a decision.

If anyone disagrees with this approach, you may invite them to do the honourable thing and resign, or not sign on in the first place. Iran Tehran’s ruling mullahs have no intention of affording you a “honeymoon”. They will move quickly to test your resolve both on their rapidly progressing nuclear weapons program and on their massive support for international terrorism.

Nearly six years of European diplomacy has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear program. Five UN Security Council Resolutions demanding that Iran halt uranium enrichment (and imposing risibly weak sanctions) have had essentially no effect.

Russia in particular is using Iran as the sharp tip of the spear to disrupt our policy throughout the Middle East. Moscow will watch what you do just as intently as Tehran. Any new President will be advised to engage in at least some renewed diplomatic effort. But do not be fooled. Insist on three months of intense, good-faith negotiations, and we will soon find out if Iran is serious.

If not, which I believe to be demonstrably the case, suspend negotiations quickly. Then, ratchet up efforts on the only options, unattractive though they are, that have a chance of stopping Iran from acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons: regime change or the targeted use of military force against Iran’s nuclear program.

If you wait longer, you will surely have the worst of all worlds: Iran with nuclear weapons, and an even greater threat of nuclear proliferation as other Middle Eastern states draw the appropriate conclusions from its success at thwarting our non-proliferation efforts.

North Korea

We are kidding ourselves if we think North Korea will ever voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program. Even during the campaign, as the Bush Administration was squandering our negotiating leverage, North Korea continued to try to proliferate ballistic missile technology.

As with Iran, there is essentially no chance that Pyongyang will be talked out of its nuclear weapons. Moreover, with the world in near-complete ignorance about the state of Kim Jong-il’s health or plans for regime succession, even more uncertainty surrounds the intentions of this prison camp of a country. Expecting that the long-running Six-Party Talks will “solve” the North Korean problem is a delusion.

Instead, you must deal directly with China as the highest priority in our bilateral relationship, and insist that we act together to eliminate the current regime in Pyongyang and is nuclear program, and ultimately reunite the Korean Peninsula.

China needs to understand that leaving the North with nuclear weapons is not an option, and that their inaction will have an increasingly negative impact on our bilateral relationship. Beijing alone can change North Korea, and it needs to get started.

America’s Image

Do not let global “public opinion” about the United States, from Albania to Zimbabwe, dissuade you from doing what you think is right for America. Your job is to defend and advance our interests and values, a task which invariably will displease our adversaries, and even many of our friends, especially those who wish we were, well, more European in our behaviour and attitudes.

What we must do, however, is more effectively advocate the policies you will be pursuing. Failure at both the political level in Washington and abroad, and at the level of the career Foreign Service, made the Bush Administration one of the most tongue-tied Presidencies in our history. We should try to shift international public opinion to support our policies, not modify our policies to try to satisfy international public opinion. The State Department will not understand this distinction. You must.

A final word

Many U.S. and foreign commentators have been quick to tell us that America is in decline, and that our role in the future will not be what it once was. They will be correct only if you fall prey to their pessimism.

And if you do, rest assured that they will shortly turn critical of “American isolationism,” just as they have been critical in recent years of “American unilateralism.” You will never satisfy them. Defend America and its friends, and the rest will take care of itself.


Originally published at The Daily Telegraph and reproduced here with the publisher’s permission.

14 Responses to "Letter to the next president"

  1. devils advocate   November 9, 2008 at 8:20 am

    John,America is in an isolationist/let’s-take-care-of-ourselves moodso for all the wordery, it’s obvious to the “rogues” that they can continue their merry ways

  2. villager   November 9, 2008 at 9:29 am

    “Many U.S. and foreign commentators have been quick to tell us that America is in decline, and that our role in the future will not be what it once was. They will be correct only if you fall prey to their pessimism” … This is the kind of thinking that has led us to the current recession and global financial turmoil. When analysts come forward and show the future that their analysis reveals, deny them by criticizing them as “pessimists” and create negative labels for particular individuals such as “Dr. Gloomy”. For this and other reasons, this letter belongs in the trashbin.

    • bcdogs   November 9, 2008 at 6:21 pm

      I have been no fan of Bolton since the 2000 Florida recount. I second the trashbin and your other sentiments…

  3. Guest   November 9, 2008 at 10:12 am

    The key point here is we have never been in a better position in recent history to project American leadership around the world. The Euros has spoken and gotten their wish and the mullahs and Russia and China are giving their undivided attention. Now the Euros need to walk the walk that they talked. I have never seen a situation were a new American President can wield more more power. If he chooses military confrontation who would NOT be with us. Negotiating with dangerous entities is going to start looking different than the “you tried to kill my father” tit-for-tat (Iraq). While China’s massive population has increased their importance I see a reestablishment of the American brand forthwith without some of the hand-wring some envision.

    • Razorback21   November 14, 2008 at 7:25 am

      I don’t American leadership projected around the world. I want leadership at home on the domestic front. We should project leadership as part of a coalition, whether it be the EU, China or whoever as it relates to foreign interests.Right now, I want my President to act on the domestic issues facing us. If we fail at home, their will be no American leadership around the world.

  4. Guest   November 9, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    If the next president is in need of any advice, it’s advice from someone like Bolton that he should ignore. Bolton has proven time and again, that he is a hot head with little success that would justify his arrogance.

  5. Anonymous   November 10, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Bolton and his viewpoint: an example of why the US is in dire straits with the rest of the world

    • Guest   November 10, 2008 at 4:19 am

      Yes, and makes clear why we need more intelligent and less reactive qualities in our leaders.

  6. Michael Bolton   November 14, 2008 at 10:49 am

    C´mon..just look at his face. Can you take him seriousely?

  7. Dr. Crow   November 14, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    What North Korean nuclear weapons program? What Iranian nuclear weapons program? Mr. President: First thing, keep delusional paranoids out of your administration.

  8. Anonymous   November 15, 2008 at 10:10 am

    I say let Iran’s obsession play out, it will anyway, these regimes will find a way to get what they think is their rightful place at “the arm’s in hand” table. They will also teach their friends to produce weapons of their own. They will also probably use them at some point, that will be the beginning of the end. This I believe is the natural predictable path of historical choices made by all past civilizations without exception. Our response to their aggression/divine right, will be swift and mighty. The spoils will support the next rise in certain victors economies until another bully arrives and process begins again.

  9. Guest   November 15, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    There is no way in hell that China is going to go to bat for us in seeking regime change in North Korea, and every military assessment I’ve read (in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere) has been pessimistic that any military action against Iran can succeed.There are no good options in these two situations.I think our best shot in the Middle East is to aggressively pursue a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and its other hostile neighbors while being equally aggressive in funding renewable energy investments in order to minimize vulnerability to oil price shocks coming from the region. If Israel is at peace with Palestinians and its immediate neighbors, the anti-Zionist rhetoric coming from Iran will fizzle. And if we can substantially switch to renewables by 2020, Iran’s agenda becomes much less interesting. Both of these goals are difficult long-shots, but they stand a better chance than Bolton’s!

  10. Jack W. Rosen   November 16, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    To ignore the pronouncements of Iran’s leaders, is to ignore the past. When someone says over and over they will do a certain thing “like destroy Isarael with nukes ” they usually mean it and will do it if they can.We have too many who assume that the Mullahs think just like us clear thinking logical foreign policy elites, and are “logical”. They are but from a different viewpoint. They think in terms of long range, and are willing to accept necessary casualties, even in large numbers to themselves and to their enemies.Those who lived through Mein Kampf, and Munich learned an expensive lesson, that “when good men do nothing, evil will flourish”. To those who preach continued forebearance to bullies, I suggest that they never had to deal with the bully in the schoolyard. If they had they would realize bullies think nothing of the opponent except as a foil to their desires.Bolton thinks clearly and is under no delusion as to gentleness of Iran, Syria and N. Korea. They are realists, and so should we.

  11. Guest   November 18, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    This guy is a national treasure. It’s disgraceful that he must subject himself to the ignorant and uninformed (present company included). Bolton should be secretary of state.