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Biden’s biggest Middle East problem: Too many competing goals

By John Bolton

Before Washington unleashed strikes against Iranian assets and Iranian-backed militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, media reporting highlighted the Biden administration’s concerns over potentially broader regional fallout. Fearful of escalating the current conflict and producing a wider war by crossing Tehran’s publicly declared “red line,” we heard, the United States would not attack inside Iran.

Retaliation, we heard, would be carefully calibrated lest it disrupt negotiations for a lengthy cease-fire and the return of Hamas-held Israeli hostages. Or disrupt talks to recognize “Palestine,” with the Palestinian Authority as Gaza’s postwar government. Or prevent Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel. Or complicate President Biden’s desire to withdraw American forces from Iraq and Syria. Or complicate his efforts to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Or more.

So intricately reticulated were Biden’s worries, that striking the right balance seemed impossible. Such worries are legitimate, but not for the reasons advanced by anonymous administration sources. The problem is of Biden’s own making. He has too many wrongheaded, confused and contradictory strategic objectives colliding and gridlocking, most likely leading to inadequate or undesirable results for them all. Washington needs not just aspirations, but priorities and concrete strategies to realize them. You can only simultaneously drive so many camels through one needle’s eye.

Biden’s wish list is overbroad and deeply flawed. For example, the idea of raising the Palestinian Authority from its ashes on the West Bank to govern Gaza leaves Israelis across the political spectrum speechless. The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor recently described the Palestinian Authority as “weak and increasingly unpopular,” a “sclerotic institution, riven with corruption,” and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as presiding “over his rump of a fiefdom like other Arab autocrats in the region, stifling civil society and repeatedly dodging calls for fresh elections.” It defies common sense that such an entity should be entrusted with responsibility on the West Bank, let alone post-conflict Gaza.

Nor do the objectives of full diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, or a formal Saudi-U.S. military alliance, require near-term Palestinian statehood. Before Oct. 7, Riyadh and Jerusalem were progressing toward mutual recognition, motivated by their shared view of Iran’s threat, amplified by the palpable economic and political benefits likely after recognition. The current conflict has not altered those realities. Rather, Iran’s “ring of fire” strategy against Israel has emphasized, not reduced, the congruence of Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s national security priorities. Riyadh and other Persian Gulf capitals could help by publicly explaining why this is really an Iranian war against Israel, not an Arab- or Palestinian-Israeli war. The issue of Palestinian statehood was not resolved before several Saudi neighbors recognized Israel, nor will it be a dealbreaker for Riyadh.

And while it is clearly desirable to deepen politico-military ties between Washington and Riyadh, the Senate will be ratifying no significant treaties this year or well into the future, given the Constitution’s two-thirds majority requirement. If Biden’s negotiators are suggesting that quick treaty ratification is realistic, both Israelis and Saudis should beware. Nor would a Donald Trump victory in November be likely to change the picture, since no one can honestly say what he will do, other than look to put himself in the best possible light.

Recognizing a Palestinian state before peace is agreed with Israel only compounds the error. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said recognition “can’t come at the start of the process, but it doesn’t have to be the very end of the process.” Sadly, these suggestions mirror Yasser Arafat’s endless campaign in U.N. agencies to make “Palestine” a state just by saying so. They contradict years of U.S. policy, as well as the Oslo accords, and will cause Israel to stiffen its resistance. This is no way to treat an ally gravely threatened by Tehran.

As for the “wider war” issue, the United States and Israel have been in a wider war since Oct. 7. The real worry should not be “wider war,” but the cause of the current one, which is unmistakably Iran. Until Iran stops interfering beyond its borders — stops arming, equipping, training and financing terrorist groups and stops seeking nuclear weapons — there will be no lasting Middle East peace and security. Iran does not and will not fear U.S. power until it pays heavily for what its barbaric surrogate Hamas unleashed four months ago, now joined in violence by Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shiite militias.

Prioritization is essential here — and actually straightforward, contrary to White House hand-wringing. By torquing Iran’s menace into the still-unresolved issue of the Palestinians, Biden has fused multiple problems into a larger, even harder problem. Instead, the United States and Israel should focus first on thwarting Tehran’s multiple offensives, then more intensively focus on other issues. Whatever their public commentary, Arab leaders fully recognize that cementing ties with Israel is critical to their own security, especially facing a possible future with a feckless American president. Every day that passes without consolidating like-minded states against Iran renders achieving any of Biden’s multitudinous goals more difficult.

The Middle East has never been an easy problem set. Biden is making it unnecessarily more difficult.

This article was first published in The Washington Post on February 6, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

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Trump Is a Danger to U.S. Security

His isolationist views and erratic thinking and style would post even greater risks in a second term.

When I became President Trump’s national security adviser in 2018, I assumed the gravity of his responsibilities would discipline even him. I was wrong. His erratic approach to governance and his dangerous ideas gravely threaten American security. Republican primary voters should take note.

Mr. Trump’s only consistent focus is on himself. He invariably equated good personal relations with foreign leaders to good relations between countries. Personal relations are important, but the notion that they sway Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and their ilk is perilously wrong.

Mr. Trump’s most dangerous legacy is the spread of the isolationist virus in the Republican Party. The Democrats long ago adopted an incoherent melding of isolationism with indiscriminate multilateralism. If isolationism becomes the dominant view among Republicans, America is in deep trouble.

The most immediate crisis involves Ukraine. Barack Obama’s limp-wristed response to Moscow’s 2014 aggression contributed substantially to Mr. Putin’s 2022 attack. But Mr. Trump’s conduct was also a factor. He accused Ukraine of colluding with Democrats against him in 2016 and demanded answers. No answers were forthcoming, since none existed. President Biden’s aid to Ukraine has been piecemeal and nonstrategic, but it is almost inevitable that a second-term Trump policy on Ukraine would favor Moscow.

Mr. Trump’s assertions that he was “tougher” on Russia than earlier presidents are inaccurate. His administration imposed major sanctions, but they were urged by advisers and carried out only after he protested vigorously. His assertions that Mr. Putin would never have invaded Ukraine had he been re-elected are wishful thinking. Mr. Putin’s flattery pleases Mr. Trump. When Mr. Putin welcomed Mr. Trump’s talk last year of ending the Ukraine war, Mr. Trump gushed: “I like that he said that. Because that means what I’m saying is right.” Mr. Putin knows his mark and would relish a second Trump term.

An even greater danger is that Mr. Trump will act on his desire to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He came precariously close in 2018. The Supreme Court has never ruled authoritatively whether the president can abrogate Senate-ratified treaties, but presidents have regularly done so. Recently enacted legislation to stop Mr. Trump from withdrawing without congressional consent likely wouldn’t survive a court challenge. It could precipitate a constitutional crisis and years of litigation.

Mr. Trump is unlikely to thwart the Beijing-Moscow axis. While he did draw attention to China’s growing threat, his limited conceptual reach led to simple-minded formulas (trade surpluses good, deficits bad). His tough talk allowed others to emphasize greater Chinese misdeeds, including massive theft of Western intellectual property, mercantilist trade policies, manipulation of the World Trade Organization, and “debt diplomacy,” which puts unwary countries in hock to Beijing. These are all real threats, but whether Mr. Trump is capable of countering them is highly doubtful.

Ultimately, Beijing’s obduracy and Mr. Trump’s impulse for personal publicity precluded whatever slim chances existed to eliminate China’s economic abuses. In a second term, Mr. Trump would likely continue seeking “the deal of the century” with China, while his protectionism, in addition to being bad economic policy, would make it harder to stand up to Beijing. The trade fights he picked with Japan, Europe and others impaired our ability to increase pressure against China’s broader transgressions.

The near-term risks of China manufacturing a crisis over Taiwan would rise dramatically. Mr. Xi is watching Ukraine and may be emboldened by Western failure there. A physical invasion is unlikely, but China’s navy could blockade the island and perhaps seize Taiwanese islands near the mainland. The loss of Taiwan’s independence, which would soon follow a U.S. failure to resist Beijing’s blockade, could persuade countries near China to appease Beijing by declaring neutrality.

Taiwan’s fall would encourage Beijing to finalize its asserted annexation of almost all the South China Sea. Littoral states like Vietnam and the Philippines would cease resistance. Commerce with Japan and South Korea, especially of Middle Eastern oil, would be subjected to Chinese control, and Beijing would have nearly unfettered access to the Indian Ocean, endangering India.

And imagine Mr. Trump’s euphoria at resuming contact with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, about whom he famously boasted that “we fell in love.” Mr. Trump almost gave away the store to Pyongyang, and he could try again. A reckless nuclear deal would alienate Japan and South Korea, extend China’s influence, and strengthen the Beijing-Moscow axis.

Israel’s security might seem an issue on which Mr. Trump’s first-term decisions and rhetoric should comfort even his opponents. But he has harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the Oct. 7 attacks, and there is no foreign-policy area in which the absence of electoral constraints could liberate Mr. Trump as much as in the Middle East. There is even a danger of a new deal with Tehran. Mr. Trump almost succumbed to French President Emmanuel Macron’s pleading to meet Iran’s foreign minister in August 2019.

Mr. Trump negotiated the catastrophic withdrawal deal with the Taliban, which Mr. Biden further bungled. The overlap between Messrs. Trump’s and Biden’s views on Afghanistan demonstrate the absence of any Trump national-security philosophy. Even in the Western Hemisphere, Mr. Trump didn’t carry through on reversing Obama administration policies on Cuba and Venezuela. His affinity for strongmen may lead to deals with Nicolás Maduro and whatever apparatchik rules in Havana.

Given Mr. Trump’s isolationism and disconnected thinking, there is every reason to doubt his support for the defense buildup we urgently need. He initially believed he could cut defense spending simply because his skills as a negotiator could reduce procurement costs. Even as he increased defense budgets, he showed acute discomfort, largely under the influence of isolationist lawmakers. He once tweeted that his own military budget was “crazy” and that he, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi should confer to prevent a new arms race. Mr. Trump is no friend of the military. In private, he was confounded that anyone would put himself in danger by joining.

A second Trump term would bring erratic policy and uncertain leadership, which the China-Russia axis would be only too eager to exploit.

This article was first published in The Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

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As Iran-backed militias attack Americans, Biden tries to save Tehran terrorists

By John Bolton

Many words describe President Biden’s Iran policy. “Craven,” “weak,” “obsequious” and “embarrassing,” among others, come readily to mind.

But there are no words to describe adequately the recent White House decision, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, to warn Tehran about a possible terrorist attack.

Sunday’s serious American casualties in Jordan, at the hands of an Iran-backed militia, tragically underscore Biden’s folly.

Anonymous administration sources justified sharing intelligence with a US enemy by citing a “duty to warn” policy applicable to both citizens and noncitizens.

Although the Journal story mentions “exceptions” to this policy, its administration sources were less than candid.

I have experienced duty-to-warn personally.

Starting in 2020, the FBI, pursuant to the policy, has warned me of Iran’s efforts to assassinate me and other current and former American officials.

I’m sure Tehran is pleased to know President Biden nonetheless still has its best interests at heart.

The origins of duty-to-warn lie in the Libyan-ordered 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Information about terrorist threats had earlier been sent to US embassies but without comparable warning to the general public.

Combined with reports of other preferential treatment for government officials, the post-Lockerbie outcry produced federal legislation creating a “no double standard” policy.

Broadly stated, the State Department shares threat-related information to both official and non-official Americans, which is especially important for our citizens living or traveling abroad.

US law-enforcement and intelligence agencies were contemporaneously considering how to deal with information regarding American citizens facing specific terrorist threats.

The “duty to warn” evolved over decades, adjusting the scope and extent of threats considered and the categories of people to be warned.

Elements of the policy remain classified, but Intelligence Community Directive 191, largely unclassified, is likely the authority the anonymous administration sources cited.

Claiming Biden officials had no choice but to disclose threat intelligence to Iran is flatly wrong.

It is nearly inconceivable US policymakers could believe it wise to disclose sensitive material to an enemy state currently taking numerous hostile steps against Americans.

The Journal gave only one example of sharing intelligence with an adversary: in December 2019 when Donald Trump provided information to Vladimir Putin, hardly an inspiring precedent.

ICD 191 is limited in significant respects.

It is merely a policy statement, not a legislative requirement, and therefore subject to adaptation as circumstances require.

Indeed, it already provides two justifications for not disclosing threat information that emphatically apply to Iran.

The terrorists’ target here was memorial services for Qassem Soleimani, former head of Iran’s Quds Force, sent to his Maker courtesy of the United States in January 2020.

These memorials were Iranian government events, attended by large numbers of government officials, especially from the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards (of which the force is a component) and others.

ICD 191 authorizes waiving disclosure where the target is at risk because of its “participation in an insurgency, insurrection or other armed conflict” or where there is reason to believe the target “is a terrorist, a direct supporter of terrorists, an assassin” or commits other criminal activity.

These exemptions define attendees at the Soleimani memorial services to a T.

The White House decision to proceed anyway is an entirely unforced error.

It comes even while the administration is treating US military and civilian personnel in Syria and Iraq as little more than tethered goats, inviting targets for Iran-backed-militia attacks.

With the Houthis’ efforts to strike American naval vessels in the Red Sea, these attacks are now unambiguous, notwithstanding US and UK retaliation against the Yemeni terrorist group for firing on commercial ships.

And, as noted, Iran is directing an active assassination campaign against current and former government officials and private citizens like Masih Alinejad and Salman Rushdie.

Iran’s reaction to receiving intelligence about a possible terrorist attack is unknown, but Tehran obviously failed to defend against the threat, which manifested itself Jan. 3.

Thus, not only was Biden’s tip to the mullahs misguided, it failed, thereby proving it was a mistake to begin with.

There is no doubt ICD 191’s current text, written during the Obama years, is inadequate and needs strengthening, especially in light of Biden’s palpable misjudgment.

Duty-to-warn should not apply, for example, if the persons or state being targeted are themselves trying to murder US citizens.

That’s Iran.

Duty-to-warn should not apply to any person or state arming, training or financing terrorist groups threatening or attacking American personnel overseas.

That’s Iran.

This article was first published in The New York Post on January 28, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

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Oct. 7 was the opening attack in Iran’s ‘ring of fire’ war against Israel

When Hamas launched its blitzkrieg from Gaza on Oct. 7, it did not mark the onset of yet another Arab-Israeli war. Nor was it a war of Palestinians against Israel. Instead, the barbaric onslaught marked the beginning of an Iranian war against Israel, carried out by Tehran’s terrorist proxies. The war’s future course and duration are murky, but the ayatollahs’ underlying strategy is clear: close their long-envisioned “ring of fire” around Israel, permanently weakening or even paralyzing the Jewish State.

Jerusalem’s leaders and most neighboring Arab rulers grasp this reality. Sadly, however, the threat has not fully registered throughout the West. Instead, too many decisionmakers see only unrelated regional crises. They worry about an imminent “wider war,” heedless that the wider war began Oct. 7. The West is not thinking strategically about defeating Iran’s coalition, but is distracted by criticisms, often implicitly or explicitly antisemitic, purportedly expressing “humanitarian” concern for Gazans or the hostages Hamas kidnapped.

Also unclear is whether Israel has sufficient resolve to persevere until achieving true peace and security for its people. What Thomas Paine wrote of America now applies to Israel: “these are the times that try men’s souls.”

Consider the politico-military battlefield as it now stands.

Gaza remains the most active front in this multi-front war. Since the Oct. 7 surprise, timed almost exactly to the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which also caught Israel off-guard, Israel Defense Forces have made steady progress. Right after Oct. 7, U.S. military advisers cautioned the IDF to proceed prudently, minimizing its own and Gazan civilian casualties.

Ironically, given current White House pressure to conclude major Gaza operations quickly, Americans stressed that their campaigns in Iraq to subdue Fallujah and Mosul took between nine and 12 months. This counsel proved wise, especially given the extraordinary tunnel system Hamas had spent 15 years digging under the Gaza Strip, not to benefit Gazans economically but to enable Hamas and its patron Iran to wage war against Israel. Accordingly, diversionary arguments like whether Hamas had command operations under the al-Shifa hospital, which it did, are beside the point. Al-Shifa hospital management and many others undoubtedly knew about Hamas’s activities and intentions.

The continuing debate over whether Iran “ordered” Hamas to attack on Oct. 7, or whether Hamas acted independently, obviously implicates Iran’s role in the broader conflict. Initially, Iran and Hamas vehemently denied Tehran’s leading role, awkwardly coupled with fervent pleas of mutual support. Now, even this pretense is gone.

Iran’s foreign minister recently threatened that, “if the U.S. continues its military, political and financial support of Israel and helps manage Israel’s military attacks on Palestinian civilians, then it must face its consequences.” Qassem Soleimani and his Quds Force worked for years to bring Iran’s terrorist proxies across the Middle East into closer alignment, arguing correctly that greater coordination and joint strategies would increase their collective threat to Israel. That has now come to pass.

Moreover, debate about Iran “ordering” Hamas is misplaced. Politico-military alliances rarely have rigid hierarchical structures. America leads NATO, but no one seriously believes Washington “orders” the other allies. Extensive planning and coordination precede most NATO decisions. Doubtless, senior political and military leaders in Tehran are frustrated with Hamas and others not seeing things exactly as they do, but friction and contention among coalition members cannot obscure the ultimate locus of power.

The other belligerent terrorist groups also act at Iran’s behest. Yemen’s Houthi rebels, for example, could not endanger commercial shipping or Western naval vessels in the Red Sea without Iranian arming, equipping, training and financing. The Houthis’ geographical location affords them enormous leverage over the southern Red Sea, and therefore the Suez Canal, through which 12 to 15 percent of the world’s trade (and some 30 percent of container-shipping traffic) passes. Insurance rates and prices on a wide variety of goods are rising and will increase as the conflict continues.

In recent years, Houthis launched Iranian drones and missiles against civilian airfields and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, giving Iran launching platforms in the backyards of its Gulf Arab foes. The Houthis are a threat because of what Iran provides. Iran is not doing so as charity for Houthis, but to advance Tehran’s own interests. On January 11-12, after months of inaction, a U.S.-led coalition finally struck at Houthis targets in Yemen. Whether this long-delayed military response will suffice to deter further Iran-Houthi depredations remains to be seen.

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The West may now have no option but to attack Iran

Tehran will only accept it has miscalculated if it faces significant costs for its recent acts of aggression

Houthi attacks on commercial shipping and US Navy vessels in the Red Sea threaten the global economy, endangering the vital Suez Canal trade route. As if 14 such attacks in the past month, and against Israel directly, were not enough, Iran has now joined the fray. The Pentagon said on December 23 that an Iranian-launched drone struck an Israeli-affiliated merchant ship in the Indian Ocean.

This marks the first time since October 7 that Washington has directly blamed Iran, even with over 100 attacks on US personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iran-dependent Shia militia, on which the White House has fudged in assigning responsibility. Tehran denied the Indian Ocean attack, repeating its mantra that Hamas operates independently in warring against Israel. Nevertheless, India deployed guided-missile destroyers to the region, and seeks more evidence on the vector of the attack.

Just after Christmas, however, Iran committed the classic “Washington gaffe” – i.e., telling the truth accidentally – when the Revolutionary Guard Corps reportedly described Hamas’s barbaric assault as “one of the acts of revenge for the assassination of General [Qassem] Soleimani by the US and the Zionists”. Hamas immediately denied the linkage, no more credibly than the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ subsequent effort to walk back its revealing “revenge” declaration.

The critical truth here is that Iran has directly committed an act of war against what it believed was an Israeli target. While hardly comparable to Hamas’s barbarity, Hizbollah and Houthi attacks, or Iran’s own massive arms and intelligence support, Tehran has now crossed the line of armed hostilities. The West’s operating assumption should be to expect more of the same. Iran has, for example, recently threatened shutting down commercial shipping across the Mediterranean. It is Iranian belligerence driving potential escalation, not Western self-defence.

The Biden administration, much of the media, and Iran’s propagandists will probably continue ignoring the reality of who is calling the shots in this conflict. But the evidence is growing inexorably that October 7 was intended to draw Jewish blood to implement Soleimani’s “ring of fire” strategy, with Iran pressing Israel on multiple fronts, directing operations via terrorists and state actors it has armed, trained, and financed.

Iran’s near-term objectives remain opaque. Was Hamas’s brutal surprise attack a one-off gambit, to see if Israel’s government collapsed; to assess Western support for Israel; to block an Israeli-Saudi exchange of full diplomatic relations; or some combination? Was Iran waiting to see if Israel became bogged down militarily in Gaza, and then decide its next step? Or was Hamas simply the first Iran surrogate to launch? Hizbollah has fired rockets and mortars ever since, forcing Israel to evacuate civilians from a two-kilometer-wide strip along the Lebanon border. While Hizbollah has not yet initiated a full-fledged attack, it has husbanded its arsenal, perhaps awaiting the opportune moment.

Both Houthi and Shia militia attacks have been met with only feeble and ineffective Western responses. Neither Hamas, nor Houthis, nor Iraqi militia have yet prompted the US or Israel to retaliate directly against Iran. Obviously, Tehran does not feel pressured enough to restrain its expendable surrogates, proving that the West has not established conditions for deterrence, thereby potentially cooling the conflict down. The White House and its media stenographers repeat endlessly that they do not want the current hostilities to spread, but Biden’s non-strategy, based on hope, will not succeed.

Only if Israel, America, Britain, and others show they possess the resolve and capability to impose significant costs on Iran, as punishment for its aggression, will they persuade the ayatollahs that proceeding further will bring them intolerable pain. Very likely, only direct military force, applied against critical targets inside Iran, will impose such costs, proving to Tehran it has miscalculated not only about Israel, but on President Biden and the West more generally. That is why the evidence of a direct Iranian attack on a commercial ship in the Indian Ocean is potentially so important.

It has been clear for years that overthrowing the mullahs, replacing them with some other form of government that enjoys the support of Iran’s citizenry, is central to decreasing insecurity throughout the Middle East. Arab funding of terrorist actions against Israel is hard to find today, especially as full, open diplomatic relations with Jerusalem continue to expand. If Iran’s line of credit to the likes of Hamas, Hizbollah, the Houthis, and other barbarians disappears, their ability to survive except in remote Afghan encampments will palpably decrease.

That is the outcome Washington and London should seek. Instead of pushing Israel for more “pauses”, “truces”, “ceasefires” or the like, allow Jerusalem to achieve its legitimate objective of eliminating Hamas as a military and political force. That is one sure way to convince the ayatollahs their gambit has failed, and their own end may be near.

This article was first published in The Telegraph on December 28, 2023. Click here to read the original article.

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Iran’s growing aggression against America shows Biden’s weakness

John R. Bolton was national security adviser under President Donald Trump and is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” which will soon be published in paperback with a new foreword.

President Biden’s justifiable focus on the Hamas-Israel conflict is perilously diverting his attention from acts of war by other Iranian proxies against American targets in the Middle East. We must answer Iran’s belligerence with more than words, thus demonstrating plainly that these acts must cease.

For two months, hostile acts have accumulated. Since Oct. 17, when the attacks began, Shiite militias have struck U.S. military and civilian targets in Syria and Iraq more than 100 times, most recently rocketing our Baghdad embassy for the first time in over a year. Thus far, there have been at least 66 casualties. Yemen-based Houthi terrorists have made numerous attacks against commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea. A U.S. destroyer recently shot down a suspected Houthi drone headed its way during one such attack on a commercial vessel.

Only the credulous doubt that Iran’s regional surrogates are acting in concert in the current crisis. Iran’s surrogates explicitly see these disparate attacks as retaliation for Israel’s efforts to eliminate Hamas in Gaza. Senior Biden administration officials have unambiguously stated that Iran is not only financially supporting but also directing and helping plan Houthi attacks. And Iran’s foreign minister was even more blunt, recently telling the New York Times that “if the U.S. continues its military, political and financial support of Israel and helps manage Israel’s military attacks on Palestinian civilians, then it must face its consequences.”

To date, Biden’s responses have been minimal and inadequate. Infrequent, pinprick attacks against Shiite militia positions in Iraq signal weakness, not resolve. They have failed to reduce militia attacks. While it’s true that these Iranian attacks have yet to produce mass casualties among our armed forces, it’s not for lack of Iran trying. “They are aiming to kill,” one defense official recently remarked. “We have just been lucky.” And as former Central Command head Frank McKenzie put it recently, “we’ve given them no reason not to continue” attacking.

The Biden administration is not only failing to establish even minimal deterrence; it seems incapable of thinking strategically about U.S. interests in the region, dismaying friends and allies alike.

Protecting freedom of navigation has always been a core U.S. security priority. Ships transiting the Red Sea, from the Suez Canal to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, have proved to be convenient targets for the Houthis. Roughly 12 percent of global trade, amounting to as much as 30 percent of global container traffic, sails this route. The 2021 blockage of the Suez Canal by a ship that ran aground severely disrupted global markets.

The persistent attacks have already spiked maritime insurance rates. Four of the world’s largest shippers, after direct hits or near misses on their vessels, have “paused” entries into the Red Sea. Oil giant BP has followed suit with its fleet of tankers. Smaller shipping companies won’t be far behind. Ships will be sent around Africa, adding costs and delays to a still fragile international supply chain. Oil prices are already rising because of the uncertainty.

The Biden administration has sought to set up a multinational force to escort commercial traffic. But this is a purely defensive measure and therefore insufficient. Like the pinprick attacks against Shiite militias, it will not deter the land-based, mobile Houthis or their Iranian weapons suppliers. The administration has asked Houthis to stop their attacks and imposed limited sanctions. That, too, will not do much.

Biden delisted the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization within a month of taking office in 2021. For starters, he should immediately redesignate them as such. And he should overcome any compunction within his team about striking the Houthis directly.

But he should also think more broadly. Iran is incontrovertibly behind all these escalations, and it needs to receive a strong signal that its behavior is unacceptable. Washington must establish clear deterrence, including through using force. By imposing costs on Iran now, it will lessen the odds of more extensive escalation later.

Iranian military assets in the Red Sea or naval bases along the Persian Gulf are logical deterrence-establishing targets. Even attacks against Iranian territorial air defenses or Quds Force bases in Iran would signal resolve but not regime-threatening intentions. Let Iran worry for now whether its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs are also at risk.

Iran is not looking for ways to live with America in the Middle East. Tehran wants us out, particularly from our gulf military bases. Tehran also wants Israel further isolated and ultimately eliminated. None of this should be acceptable to the United States.

To the mullahs, U.S. restraint shows not good faith but civilizational decline. We never strike Iran, and the mullahs draw the appropriate conclusions. Powerful retaliatory strikes against Iran’s surrogates alone might establish deterrence, but Washington is not even trying that.

Deterrence is based not on rhetoric but on power and performance. Time is running out for Biden to get the point.

This article was first published in The Washington Post on December 20, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.

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Israel Faces Pressure to Yield to the ‘Terrorist Veto’

The strategic consequence of any pause, truce or cease-fire is to increase Hamas’s odds of survival.

There is a tension between Israel’s two objectives of eliminating Hamas as a political and military force and recovering the innocent civilians kidnapped on Oct. 7. Weighing these competing priorities, Israel decided to pause its anti-Hamas military campaign in exchange for the return of some hostages. This policy’s wisdom is debatable.

A greater hazard, however, imperils Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense. I call it the “terrorist veto,” and with every passing day, Israel’s chances of escaping it diminish, notwithstanding Friday’s resumption of hostilities. For many people, the not-so-hidden goal of the hostage negotiations is to focus international attention—and emotions—on pausing hostilities indefinitely and tying Israel’s hands militarily. Whether labeled a pause, truce or cease-fire, the strategic consequences are objectively pro-Hamas. Using human bargaining chips and fellow Gazans as shields, Hamas seeks to prevent Israel from eliminating its terrorist threat.

Success for Hamas means merely surviving with a limited presence in Gaza, particularly a Gaza rebuilt as it was before Oct. 7. This result is a terrorist veto, even if military-pause supporters resist this painful but accurate term.

If the Hamas veto succeeds, other barbarians such as Hezbollah and Tehran’s mullahs (the ultimate enemy here) can insulate themselves from the consequences of their terrorism. Even worse, the terrorist veto can be copied by barbaric nation-states, with victims of aggression rendered unable to vindicate their sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ukraine and Taiwan come to mind as potential victims of this new paradigm.

President Biden and others deny trying to block further military action, but that is precisely the effect of their policies. On Wednesday CNN said Mr. Biden’s policy rests on three pillars: releasing the hostages, stepping up aid into Gaza, and figuring out what happens after the war. No mention of eliminating Hamas. Meantime, some Democratic senators are pressing for conditions on aid to Israel to restrict its military operations, to which Mr. Biden has alluded positively.

However the arguments for prolonging the initial or subsequent pauses are made, Israel will face three potentially debilitating consequences if it ceases or limits its military campaign. First, despite strong statements by many Israelis, in government and out, the country’s resolve is weakening. Right after Oct. 7, Jerusalem perhaps was prepared to hear U.S. military advisers caution that subduing resistance in Mosul and Fallujah took between nine months and a year. Then, Israelis might have been committed to a long struggle, but it seems unlikely they still are after this initial pause. Declining Israeli resolve guarantees that Hamas won’t be eliminated.

Cease-fire advocates argue that because Israel persuaded a million Gazans to move south before its initial campaign, Gazan “civilian” casualties in further operations in the south will dwarf previous casualties. Although Hamas and Iran initially placed Gazans in harm’s way, international recrimination will unfairly fall on Israelis, further sapping their resolve.

Second, because Hamas, Iran and their allies likely gain more militarily from the pause than Israel, the human costs to Israeli’s military will rise, as will domestic opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s objectives. It may be impossible to count incremental Israel Defense Forces casualties due to the pause, but the tally could exceed the number of hostages released.

Third, the greater the pauses or limitations, the more time Hamas’s surrogates worldwide have to increase anti-Israel pressure on their governments. In turn, many governments will lean on Israel to accept less, probably far less, than Mr. Netanyahu’s stated objectives.

The White House is urging, post-hostilities, turning over responsibility for Gaza to the Palestinian Authority. That utterly ignores its dismal performance in the West Bank, where the authority has been ineffective, corrupt and covertly supportive of terrorism. By some accounts Hamas is now more popular in the West Bank than Gaza. Extending Palestinian Authority control would put Israel back under the threat that surged on Oct. 7. The only long-term solution is to deny Hamas access to concentrated, hereditary refugee populations by resettling Gazans in places where they can enjoy normal lives.

Winston Churchill’s observation that “without victory, there is no survival” directly applies to Israel’s crisis. Victory for Israel means achieving its self-defense goal of eliminating Hamas. Anything less means continuing life under threat, with Tehran and its terrorist surrogates confident that when Westerners say “never again” they don’t really mean it.

This article was first published in the Wall Street Journal on December 1, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.

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Hamas has just won a major victory over Israel

The hostage deal has costs as well as benefits – and it’s the terrorists who stand to gain most

Beware of terrorists bearing gifts. Compassionate goals and unrelenting war make for a complex mix. While freeing Hamas’s October 7 victims is laudable, there are right and wrong ways to do so. There are costs as well as benefits. Here, Hamas has won a significant victory. Whether the deal sets a definitively negative precedent for Israel remains unclear, but it casts doubt on whether it will attain its legitimate goal of eliminating Hamas’s terrorist threat.

The agreement is fatally defective in many ways, even if it proceeded flawlessly (which it has not). Hamas is set to release 50 terror victims, and Israel will release 150 accused or convicted criminals, a ratio the reverse of what we should consider civilised. Equating innocent victims with law-breakers is morally appalling. One fifteen-year-old “child” Israel listed for possible release was convicted of attempted murder for stabbing a neighbor. Many are male teenagers. You can guess why.  A critical argument for this deal now is removing hostages from danger, but it does nothing for those left behind.

The releases are occurring over four days, during which Israeli military activity is “pausing” operations. Undoubtedly, Israel will use the pause to prepare the next phase of hostilities, rotating and resupplying troops and the like. But Hamas terrorists are the real beneficiaries of a cessation of hostilities. They have been pounded by air, and hunted down inside and under Gaza in their extraordinary tunnel networks. Israel’s military campaign is just in its opening phases, but Hamas has been significantly damaged.

Why let up now? Hamas will use the pause to extricate its terrorists from a difficult position, exfiltrate assets and personnel into Egypt and Israel through undiscovered tunnels, and prepare southern Gaza for the next Israeli offensive. How many chances for faster advances or more surprise attacks will Israel lose due to this pause? How many more Israeli soldiers will die because of Hamas’s opportunity to set additional traps and further entrench itself?

If Hamas chooses to release more hostages, the pause will be extended one day for each ten hostages. What conceivable justification is there to allow your enemy to unilaterally determine the length of the pause? And what if “technical difficulties” mean only six hostages are released; does Hamas still get another day of respite? Israel will unfairly bear the onus of resuming hostilities, adding leverage to Hamas propaganda efforts to erase its own October 7 barbarity.

Inexplicably, both Jerusalem and Washington are suspending overhead surveillance of Gaza for six hours a day during the pause. This concession may be more significant than the pause itself because it denies Israel information about Hamas’s activities. Israel has agreed to be “eyeless in Gaza” during these terrorist-friendly time windows.

The White House boasts that the deal means “a massive surge of humanitarian relief” into Gaza, but without adequate assurances the relief will go to those in need. When Herbert Hoover launched America’s first major international relief effort in World War I, he insisted on two conditions: aid must go only to non-combatants, and the donors must distribute or closely monitor its distribution. We have no idea how much will fall into Hamas’s hands, enabling more terrorism.

Israel’s critical military problem is the opportunities it will miss by halting in mid-stream its increasingly successful assault. Hamas’s strategy is to take any pause, however short, and whatever its rationale, and stretch it into a permanent ceasefire. That may not happen on the first try, but the pressure on Israel to succumb will grow.

Israel’s critical political risk is seeing its determination to eliminate Hamas undermined. Even chancier is the strength of US backing, which is already weakening. Biden’s initially robust rhetorical support for Israel has cooled, and his resolve shrinks daily under the assault of the Democratic party’s pro-Palestinian Left-wing. His problems will grow more acute as the 2024 presidential campaign unfolds.

The benefits of freeing hostages are visible now. The much larger costs are on their way.

This article was first published in The Telegraph on November 24, 2023. Click here to read the original article.

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Resettlement from Gaza must be an option

Israel is far from eliminating Hamas’s terrorist threat, but what becomes of Gaza Strip residents thereafter? One viable long-term solution that receives little attention is resettling substantial numbers of Gazans. Rejecting this idea reflexively risks dooming the Middle East to continuing terrorism and instability.

For decades after Israel’s creation, Arab states, particularly radical regimes like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, insisted that Palestinians had been forcibly displaced. Only return to their “country of origin,” namely Israel, was acceptable. Perhaps back then people didn’t chant “from the river to the sea,” but anti-Israel Arab governments used Palestinians as political and military weapons against Israel. Allowing resettlement elsewhere meant acknowledging Israel’s permanent existence, which was then unacceptable.

Times have changed. Israel isn’t going away. Muslim governments have recognized Israel and, before October 7, more were coming. Moreover, the two-state solution is definitively dead: Israel will never recognize a “Palestine” that could become another Hamas-stan. Besides, Gaza is not a viable economic entity, and neither would a “state” consisting of Gaza and an archipelago of Palestinian dots on the West Bank be viable. Israel has made clear it rejects any “right of return” for Palestinians, and has announced it will no longer even grant work visas to Gazans seeking employment.

Western peace processors trying to create a Palestinian state under the “Gaza-Jericho first” model made a cruel mistake, the victims of which were its intended beneficiaries. The real future for Gazans is to live somewhere integrated into functioning economies. That is the only way to realize the promise of a decent life and stability for a people who have been weaponized for far too long. The sooner the Biden administration realizes it, the better.

Refugee status is not hereditary. International policy is clear that the least desirable outcome for those displaced by conflict is life in a refugee camp, which is essentially what all of Gaza is. This has been orthodoxy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees since its inception. Central to its basic mission of refugee protection and assistance is that the two legitimate outcomes are returning refugees to their home country or resettling them in countries willing to grant them asylum. UNHCR is not a permanent welfare agency.

The UN Relief and Works Agency, by contrast, is an aberration from the return-or-resettlement doctrine. For decades, UNRWA has served as the Palestinian department of health, education, welfare, housing and more; it would close up shop if resettlement became a reality. What a surprise that UNRWA does little resettlement, and functions within the UN system as a surrogate for Palestinian demands.

The answer is to abolish UNRWA, and transfer its responsibilities to UNHCR, which understands that resettlement is far better humanitarian policy than permanent refugee life. If allowed to speak for themselves rather than through Hamas’s distorted prism, Gazans would likely agree in large numbers.

Gaza’s governance after the war could be accomplished by partitioning it, perhaps along the Wadi Gaza, Israel’s dividing line for its incursion, with a UN trusteeship for Israel to the north and one for Egypt to the south. The UN Charter’s Article 77 arguably provides authority for such arrangements, since Gaza is an unsettled remainder of the League of Nations Palestinian mandate. Given legitimate Israeli and Egyptian security concerns, they could administer their respective trusteeships under Charter Articles 82 and 83, as America handled its Pacific trusteeship after World War II.

Where could Gaza’s population be resettled? Having previously weaponized Palestinians against Israel, Arab governments now see Palestinians as threatening themselves. Hence, post–October 7, Jordan and Egypt immediately declared they would not accept any Gazans into their countries. That isn’t Israel’s fault, but Israel’s plain self-interest also lies in resettlement away from Gaza. At least for now, the West Bank is a different question, unless Hamas and other terrorists have greater strength there than is immediately apparent.

Iran, Hamas’s principal benefactor, should certainly be willing to accept large numbers of people in whom it has long shown such an interest. Most other Gazans should be resettled in the regional countries that previously weaponized them. Although members of Congress have introduced legislation barring Gazan resettlement, America could grant refugee status to Gazans with a proven record of opposing Hamas, which our media reports is a large number.

Resettlement raises substantial practical questions, and would be difficult and contentious, but this is not a convincing objection — so are all the alternatives. Recreating the status quo ante October 7 is clearly impossible, totally unacceptable to Israel. Having the Palestinian Authority govern Gaza is almost as bad. Who can seriously argue that Mahmoud Abbas’s corrupt, dysfunctional regime, which barely governs the West Bank, will improve by expanding?

Resettlement may be unpalatable to many, but it needs to be on the table.

This article was first published in The Hill on November 16, 2023. Click here to read the original article.

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Israel is running out of time before Biden damns it to defeat

We should be alarmed: the US’s support is rapidly eroding in part thanks to Iran’s propaganda efforts

US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s trip this week to Israel, Jordan and other key players in the region vividly demonstrates the dangerous misconceptions underlying America’s Middle East policy. Blinken’s visit also shows how rapidly Joe Biden’s superficially strong support for Israel is eroding. The Israel Defense Forces are now racing against time before he wilts under domestic and international pressure, and the West’s collective enemies exploit his flawed world view. 

Why, a month after one of this century’s worst acts of barbarism, are the perpetrators and their puppet-masters moving ever closer to skating free? 

First, before and after the October 7 massacres, Iran, Hamas and others masterfully deployed their information-warfare campaigns, asymmetrically attacking Israel’s very legitimacy. Jerusalem was initially unprepared, slow in responding, and still faces inhibitions – such as a need to tell the truth – that Hamas and its allies don’t share. The anti-Israel campaign’s target is not “the Arab street”, but Western decision-makers. Indeed, across the Middle East, most cities are quiet, almost business-as-usual. 

But in America and Britain, pro-Palestinian demonstrators jam the streets, denouncing alleged Israeli war crimes, and explaining away, or even justifying, Hamas’s invasion. The aim is to exploit Western weakness and lack of resolution. It seems to be working. In the UK, Labour is badly split, and in Washington, Biden faces intense pressure from the “progressive” Left. Keir Starmer sees his longed-for premiership dissolving before his eyes, and Biden worries his party’s extremists could cost him victory next November. They may both be correct.

Secondly, neither Washington nor London have articulated the larger strategic context of the Hamas attack, namely the fanatical religious and hegemonic aspirations of Tehran’s mullahs. Not doing so inevitably shields Iran and its proxies and impairs Israel’s inherent right to self-defence. Failing to see the real effective mastermind precludes addressing the full enormity of the risks Israel and its allies face – not just terrorist attacks, but straight up the escalation ladder to Iran’s nuclear weapons. Israelis get this, which is why former Mossad director Yossi Cohen urges hunting down every Iranian involved in the October 7 attacks. 

Hamas did not wake up one fine day and decide by itself to attack Israel. Along with Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Iraqi Shia militia, and many others, Hamas is a beneficiary of Iranian weapons, training, and finance. Its sneak attack has to be seen as part of Tehran’s larger strategy. Taken by surprise, Jerusalem is still struggling to grasp comprehensively Iran’s plan. Tehran’s surrogates are concealing their hand, but Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s recent speech shows their menace and resolve to break the will of Israel and its supporters by threatening wider regional war.

The Iran-Russia axis is also becoming clearer, with ominous reports that the Wagner Group will provide air defences to Hezbollah. Moscow has also criticised Israeli air strikes in Syria for violating international law, reversing long-standing acceptance of such operations. Russia and China, meanwhile, are supporting Hamas with propaganda and disinformation – a significant political signal.

Thirdly, through strategic failures of imagination and inadequate explanations of the full threats Israel faces from Iran, Britain and America risk losing the overall diplomatic battle. Blinken’s trip was to advocate for a “pause” in hostilities to allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. Others are calling for a full “ceasefire”. There is no meaningful distinction between these verbal formulations. A former US Senate staffer revealed the game by writing that halting the hostilities “that begins as a temporary measure, but which could be extended, is vitally necessary”.

Moreover, while the fate of the hostages Hamas kidnapped is important, and rightly a priority for Israel and others, it is not this conflict’s true centrepiece. Governments have moral obligations to protect their citizens, and Hamas’s taking of hostages will inscribe the full picture of the group’s inhumanity into history. 

Nonetheless, a government’s moral obligations extend to the whole nation, which Israel sees today as existentially threatened. Benjamin Netanyahu correctly emphasises that it is precisely military pressure that will produce more hostage releases, not gestures of goodwill, which Iran and its terrorist surrogates disdain. But if they persuade guileless Westerners that the stakes are only humanitarian issues in Gaza, they are more likely to prevail in arguing that Israel bears responsibility for the war continuing.

Netanyahu rejected Blinken’s démarche because Israel is literally in hand-to-hand combat against Hamas, but this is only the start of the propaganda campaign. When Biden calls for Israel to “pause” and sends Blinken to plead his case in Jerusalem, we should be alarmed. Israel has the resolve to continue, but its fate may lie in Washington and London. That is not good news.

This article was first published in The Telegraph on November 7, 2023. Click here to read the original article.

ABOUT JOHN BOLTON

Ambassador John Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. He served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 2005-2006. He was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from 2001 to 2005. In the Reagan Administration, he was an Assistant Attorney General.