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Friday, July 19, 2024

Ambassador John Bolton’s Insights on US-Pakistan Relations

Ambassador John Bolton, former National Security Adviser and US Ambassador to the UN, discusses US-Pakistan relations with CEO and Editor GVS Dr. Moeed Pirzada.

Ambassador John Bolton served as the National Security Adviser in the United States Trump administration. Additionally, he has held the position of US Ambassador to the UN. His extensive career spans nearly 40 years as a Washington insider, beginning with the Reagan administration and encompassing increasing levels of responsibility. He possesses a deep interest in international relations, reflected in his extensive writing. Bolton is also a prolific author, with his latest book titled “The Room Where It Happened.”

CEO and Editor Dr. Moeed Pirzada of GVS engaged in a discussion on US-Pakistan relations with John Bolton.

GVS: Before delving into the intricacies of US-Pakistan relations, I would like to touch upon a previous statement you made during an interview with TRT, the Turkish Radio and Television, in August 2023. You expressed a strategic decision not to participate in the impeachment proceedings at the congressional level, citing a belief that they lacked merit and timing. Given the recent developments, including the Supreme Court’s stance, which seemingly favors Trump’s return to office, how do you perceive the potential ramifications of this decision?

Read More: Will State Dept Take a Bold Stand on Rigging in Pak Elections

Bolton: I firmly believe that if Trump were to be re-elected, it would spell disaster for the United States. The mishandling of the impeachment process by the Democrats, driven by partisan motives rather than a genuine pursuit of justice, only served to embolden Trump rather than hold him accountable. By failing to secure a conviction in the Senate, they inadvertently empowered Trump and exacerbated the challenges facing the nation.

GVS: Despite widespread criticism from the US intelligentsia, Trump continues to enjoy significant support within the Republican voter base, a demographic with which you have been intimately associated for nearly four decades. What, in your opinion, accounts for this unwavering allegiance to Trump among Republicans?

Bolton: Trump’s appeal to the Republican base is, in my view, an anomaly. He has capitalized on prevalent sentiments of alienation and discontent within American society, leveraging them to his advantage. However, this adulation comes at a cost, as it undermines the integrity of the Republican Party and, potentially, the stability of the nation.

GVS: Turning our attention to the current political landscape, we find ourselves presented with a dilemma. On one hand, we have a sitting president whose health and cognitive faculties have been called into question. On the other hand, there is considerable dissatisfaction among Republican elites with an alternative leadership option. How would you characterize this situation, and what implications might it hold for the United States?

Bolton: The current state of affairs is undeniably concerning. With public opinion polls indicating widespread dissatisfaction with both potential candidates, the American electorate finds itself caught in a precarious position. The lack of viable alternatives from either party exacerbates the dilemma, underscoring the need for a concerted effort to address these challenges before they further erode the nation’s stability.

GVS: Coming to your book, ‘The Room Where it Happened’, it is very interesting. One thing that strikes me is that you have been the NSA, the National Security Adviser for 17 months. There are 14 chapters in the book, more than 500 pages, and there is hardly any mention of Pakistan, which was considered to be the frontline state. You and your president were talking about withdrawal from Afghanistan, and you were against the idea of the withdrawal. But from the book, the reader gets the impression that you had no substantive interaction with the Pakistani system, the government, or the Prime Minister. What are your thoughts on this?

Bolton: In fact, that is accurate. I did not have much interaction with Pakistani officials during my 17 months. Partially, that has to do with what was going on. It could have been different in a different piece of the Trump administration. It is also a fair criticism of our inability in the Trump presidency to look at big picture issues that had long-range implications.

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There is a saying in the United States that “the urgent crowds out the important,” and I think, with Trump, since it was so chaotic all the time, I would grade us not very highly on our ability to do long-range planning and to deal with the consequences of our decisions, like the effect of the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan or our inability to do more to persuade Pakistan and others of the threat of China, which I think is, for the US, the existential threat of the 21st century. I take your point, and I wish that there were more than 24 hours in the day, but it is the way it worked out in my tenure. I have tried to reflect in the book, and it is a noteworthy point you are making.

GVS: The Republican administration, and President Trump himself were often in touch with the then Prime Minister Imran Khan. In fact, the relationships were actually frostier when Trump came, but they improved a bit, there was a sort of reset. They met three or four times, the last time being in Davos at the World Economic Forum. Trump appreciated him; they used to talk on the telephone. When the Biden administration came on January 20, 2021, the relationship took a hit. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan kept trying to congratulate Biden. Do you have an idea of what went wrong?

Bolton: I think the connection between a lot of very high-ranking officials in the Democratic Party and Nawaz Sharif and his family, and earlier historical connections, may be an explanation for it. I do not know that for sure. Certainly, Imran Khan said a number of unkind things about the United States over the years.

I would look forward, at some point, to talk about these issues with Imran Khan because I think it is very important. It is distressing that if there was this cutoff in the Biden administration, it has impeded their ability to say to the military now, “You know, this is not going well for Pakistan, what has happened in this recent election,” which they should be saying. The State Department has issued a statement; I have endorsed that. But I do not see the kind of contact that I would have expected from the White House these days.

GVS: You mentioned unkind statements from Imran Khan towards the U.S. However, most of those statements occurred after February, following his government’s loss in April 2022, subsequent to the Donald Liu Cipher case, which you also commented on in the Voice of America discussion. Can you recall any other unkind comments on your life history prior to 2022?

Bolton: To put it this way, there has been a tendency towards excessive friendliness to China. The Chinese effort to gain hegemony along the vast Indo-Pacific periphery is indeed very serious. Over decades, we have engaged in discussions with Pakistan on this matter. What I observe is China attempting to exploit Pakistan for its own agenda, aiming to increase its influence. I believe this poses a significant potential threat to Pakistan and, indeed, to anyone seeking long-term peace and stability in the region.

GVS: Ambassador Bolton, I would like to remind you of your opinion piece in The Washington Post from August 2021. Following the fall of Kabul, your article, “The Op-Ed Pieces: Time for Equivocating about Nuclear Arms,” touched upon the need for a friendly Pakistan, among other issues. You also likened the Pakistani army’s state to that of the Persian army, suggesting a similar situation. You mentioned the strategic games they have played with the United States. As a former NSA, you assert that the Pakistani state is essentially governed by the military. Given this understanding of the power dynamics, why do you attribute strategic disagreements between the United States and Pakistan to Imran Khan?

Bolton: I want to clarify that I am not blaming Imran. What I advocate for is a friendlier attitude towards the United States, which I believe would benefit Pakistan. This is the case I would like to present to the military, Imran, and all Pakistani politicians.

GVS: Considering your understanding of the military’s influence, many Pakistanis are intrigued and surprised that every administration, despite having a critical tone towards the Pakistani military’s behavior and games, tends to be more friendly towards the military than towards elected Pakistani civilian governments. How do you explain this?

Bolton: I would not characterize it uniformly. After 9/11, for instance, I worked under Colin Powell at the State Department, where we cooperated closely with Pervez Musharraf and his government. However, the advice I would offer to the military, and I would be willing to discuss this in private, is that the recent election’s overwhelming result in favor of Imran Khan and his supporters suggests that it does not serve the military’s interests to oppose the popular voice. Moreover, internal disputes weaken Pakistan’s ability to resist China, and Beijing is adept at exploiting such divisions.

Unlike the United States, which is not on your border, China’s proximity brings its own set of challenges. From the perspective of America’s best interests, it is crucial to prevent Pakistan from falling into the Chinese orbit. China has already established ties with Beijing and Moscow, with other nations like North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Belarus in tow. If China had its way, it would draw Pakistan into this orbit as well, which I believe would be detrimental to Pakistan’s interests.

GVS: As a keen student of international relations, I understand your perspective. However, have these issues ever been discussed at the table with a Pakistani elected government regarding achieving a certain kind of balance between China and the United States?

Bolton: There were times when the relationship with the United States was much closer, with a lot less balance. I do not see why that is not possible again. During my time in the White House, such discussions didn’t occur. My first trip to Pakistan was in 1982 when I was at the US Agency for International Development. So, I have been there on numerous occasions. As they say, the Pakistan-US relationship is sometimes complicated. But focusing on core interests, I believe it is crucial, certainly from the US viewpoint, and I also think from the Pakistani perspective, to resist the temptation to define it solely by how Pakistan relates to India or China, though both are significant.

GVS: I am grateful that you mentioned the massive rigging in the Pakistani election, which does not bode well for the military’s image. Many congressmen and senators have urged the Biden administration not to recognize the interim government the military is proposing unless a thorough investigation into the alleged rigging takes place. Even the State Department has called for such an investigation, as you appreciated in your tweet. Can you envision the United States and the Biden administration not recognizing this provisional government unless a serious investigation into the alleged rigging occurs?

Bolton: I cannot predict the internal workings of the White House. Part of the issue is that the President is not monitoring things 24/7, which poses a political problem for them going forward. My message to Imran Khan’s supporters would be that they have the legitimacy of the popular vote on their side. They should avoid overplaying their hand; it will ultimately work in their favor. However, I would also say to the generals, as I mentioned earlier, in private perhaps: for goodness’ sake, acknowledge the true popular sentiment. It would not diminish the military’s power or role in Pakistan; rather, it would strengthen them to acknowledge it.

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