Plunge faster into the abyss

Dr. David Wurmser

As Israel approaches its sixth month at war with Hamas in Gaza, and likely nears another war on its northern border with Hezballah, the Biden administration continues to pursue a radically transformative regional agenda to seek rapprochement and strategic condominium with Iran and establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.  The main obstacle to this agenda, according to administration strategists, is not its dissonance with reality, but the irresponsibility and intransigence of Israel’s government.  To overcome this obstacle, thus, the administration has resumed interfering in domestic Israeli politics and intensified its efforts to destabilize an Israeli government it believes most threatens its ideological quest regionally. 

The administration seeks this ambitious agenda despite the attacks of October 7, which did little to dissuade it from its faith in the two anchoring objectives. It does so because the events reinforced its view of the importance of its informing paradigm — a truly post-colonial agenda animated by a progressive narrative (contrition over both the “interference” in Iranian affairs throughout the last century and over the dispossession of the Palestinian people as part of a larger global European oppression). Applying that self-excoriating paradigm, the administration’s cognoscente believe, will finally address the underlying grievances driving regional rage and resentment, and thus replace them with a condition of mutual strategic deference and respect between Washington and Tehran, both of whom tightly control their proxies.  

The Gaza war did nothing to dilute the administration’s obsession with this vision. Indeed, if anything, it reinforced the imperative, feasibility and urgency of advancing its two key mechanisms of its realization – establishing a Palestinian state and rapprochement with Iran’s Islamic regime.

Added to this urgency is that progressives have influenced and radicalized not only the administration’s policy, but also its domestic political understanding, strategy and operations. Progressives have intentionally peddled a climate of political despair for the entire Democratic party – without any real evidence — that is miraculously resolvable only by pandering to the most radical pro-Palestinian elements in Michigan in the run-up to the 2024 elections. 

The main obstacle they see to surmounting this electoral despair and attaining the messianic vision whose implementation would reunite the party with its progressive base, in their view, is the current obstinacy of the Israeli government.  And as a result of this conceptual box within which the administration has locked itself, the already-prioritized objective of ousting the Likud government in Israel has now intensified and risen to a perfect storm injected with steroids.

The problem is, the further this administration’s effort deepens, the more detrimental the immediate application of its ideological mission is to ousting the current government and then swaying Israeli politics in the longer term after the war.

The greatest influence which the United States exercises over Israel is the political woes of the left side of Israel’s spectrum. Ever since the election of Menachem Begin and his Likud party in 1977 — resulting from a tectonic realignment of Israeli politics crystallizing all the “outsiders” against the ossifying elite that had dominated the state since its founding – Israel’s left-leaning, Ashkenazi (European) -hyper-secular elites and the parties through which they exercise political power have faced declining prospects for electoral victories. In the last two decades, the only ability of the left to gain power was to align behind right-wing parties that bolted from personal loyalty to the current leader of the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli structures in all sectors thus became increasingly distorted. Specifically, the more left-leaning elites have tried to reinforce their control over non-elected structures governing the state and society (military, judicial, financial, high-tech, societal, academic, press), as well as sought to expand the power of these structures over every aspect of life in order to maintain their control and “ownership” of Zionism.  The judicial reform upheaval that tore Israel to shreds in the year before the Gaza war erupted was a battle between the proponents of that long-term effort and the resulting backlash that had developed. And the post-war debate over the responsibility for the catastrophic failure of the war’s surprise, especially delineating who is to blame between the political (which was a right-leaning coalition) and military leadership and security elites (retired “LeSheavarim” or “formers” and current), almost immediately started fracturing along the same schism. The intensity of these debates marked just how far the right would go to finally challenge those structures and how far the left would go, even to the mat, to protect those institutions and its grip over them.  

Enter the American angle. Institutions, no matter how elite and entrenched, ultimately begin to yield to the pressure of aligning with the society from which they derive their power.  Left isolated, thus, the distortion of Israeli institutions would eventually align with the society in which it operates.  But the left in Israel is deeply invested in another layer of resilience.  It has successfully leveraged Israel’s international allies, and in particular the American relationship, to domestically overpower their more street-popular opposition.

The Israeli left has been able to do this largely because in as much as the international community had intervened in Israel traditionally, it was to advance a more left-leaning agenda. In the marketplace of politics in Israel, the world had the left’s back. 

But this whole structure is anchored ultimately to U.S. influence and dominance on both practical and intellectual levels. And it is also anchored to an international community – especially an American foreign policy establishment – that is largely homogenous in its outlook in viewing Israel’s left as more amenable to the pursuit of its agenda.  As such, Israel’s left became not only increasingly reliant on American support but also increasingly subordinate to American demands.  When administrations defined the U.S. national interest in ways roughly aligned with the interests as conceived by Israel’s left – even if it bent Israel to be dangerously dependent and more flexible than wise in things it normally would rather not be — that remained a powerful and even insurmountable alliance.  But if Washington departed from the interests of Israel’s left – especially under administrations that leaned more right – that investment drifted from essential to either useless or even detrimental.  

Back to the present.  Over time, the memory seared into the Israeli psyche on October 7 will melt into resumption of “normal” politics in Israel, and when that happens, some of the fissures in Israeli politics which raged before the war will return.  But the administration fails to grasp that moment is not yet here; the war in Gaza has not yet ended and the war in the north has not begun or even begun to be resolved.  And in this, the administration is essentially trying to prod Israel back to its pre-October 7 political atmosphere, crack the unity government and leverage the power of Israeli institutions to shift the political direction of Israeli society.

Moreover, even when the guns fall silent, there is no going back to October 6.  Israeli society has changed, and while polls suggest it holds the right-leaning government that was in power on October 7 responsible along with the military leadership, policy issues polls also suggest that the population has shifted sharply rightward. And the Israeli center-left – which had been aligned with Washington’s preferences for the last 30 years – has also shifted rightward as a result of the war at the same time this administration – under the sway of a radicalizing progressive agenda – has drifted leftward and is sharply abandoning its more liberal pro-Israeli agenda.  The gap then between Israel’s center-left and the Biden administration – which the latter fails to observe — is vast and growing.

This leads us to the current moment. For over a week, the Biden administration has encouraged the idea in Western press that this is “Netanyahu’s” war, that Israel cannot be allowed to enter the final towns and areas in Gaza still under Hamas control (Rafiah and the Philadelphia corridor), that a ceasefire and Palestinian statehood are both unattainable as long as the Likud prime minister remains in office and that absent a ceasefire the danger of escalation with Iran grows and the aspiration for regional stability through a rapprochement and strategic condominium with Tehran recedes.  So Netanyahu must go – and the chattering class of Washington has responded to echo that sentiment quickly.

The problem is that over the last week, it is clear this is not “Netanyahu’s” war. Israeli polls for example note that 73 % of Israelis support the IDF entering Rafiah and the Philadelphia corridor in Gaza, even if it means conflict with Egypt and the U.S. administration. Similar majorities want to continue fighting and reject a ceasefire until Israel has achieved full victory and destroyed all of Hamas in Gaza and brought the area under full Israeli control for the near term. Similarly, most Israelis see little hope in avoiding escalation against Hizballah in order to prevent the communities of the north becoming the next victims of an even more deadly repetition of the October 7 attacks as afflicted Israel in the south. And there is no measurable block of Israelis that holds any hope of coming to terms in any way, even in terms of a proper deterrence relationship, with Iran. 

In short, the Israeli people now see the Biden team’s self-assigned transformative regional mission to be existentially threatening and a grave danger to the very survival of the state and the safety of its citizens. Moreover, it is clear the center-left in Israel is aligned with the comparable polling blocks on these issues.  While there may be some marginal far-left parties and politicians that still cling to these views, the core of the center-left in Israel was sobered by the horrors of October 7 no less than the right of the spectrum.  As such, for example, despite the idea that PM Netanyahu is driving Israel to enter Rafiah, Benjamin Gantz, who leads the center-left party announced that there is no conceivable way in which Israel can avoid entering Rafiah and taking the rest of Gaza, nor is any currently floated form of a ceasefire agreement draft anything but a “non-starter.”

Added to this is that every public indicator also suggests that Israelis apportion the greatest blame for the national calamity which befell them on October 7 not only to specific parties or figures, but to the overall climate of fractionalization and bitterness that rendered Israeli society over the last year.  National unity at this moment is considered to be synonymous with national survival, and any actor disrupting  consensus or issue dividing the nation’s unity is rejected as a subject of address at this time. It is not an ideological view, but a practical one as well: the nation as a whole through mass mobilization of reserves is fighting, not just its regular army. To raise issues or trigger debate that can divide tank crews, elite units, combat squads and platoons, directly undermines the ability of the IDF to perform.  To break the nation’s unity and force through controversial “day after” policies and new elections now would be catastrophic in this regard.

In that context, any “day after” scenario such as Palestinian statehood, the splitting of the national unity government and the holding of elections, or even the idea of trying to leverage the desperate concern for the fate of the hostages against the imperative of absolute victory over Hamas is with disdain, disgust and determination profoundly rejected in public opinion.    

The Biden administration thus is making a parade of mistakes to emphasize its messianic progressive agenda now, in believing it has any Israeli following for its agenda, and in trying to split Israeli politics and use Israel’s dependence on American aid to oust the current government and stand up a new, more pliable one.  The administration is banking on its influence to cause a rift with Israel – with every day unveiling yet another form of crisis and break with Israel — in hopes it strengthens the left, weakens the prime minister and forces a new elections and government.

Instead, with every new crisis, and with every indication that the administration does not appreciate the deep wound suffered in the Israeli psyche to its very confidence of existence resulting from October 7, the Biden administration fails further.  Indeed, it is squandering immense credit it built in Israeli society after October 7 in its quest for a ceasefire, for protecting inflated forms of Palestinian humanitarian interests, for rejecting a war plan over which there is roughly a national consensus rather than nurturing its credit over the long run to further leverage it to seek a more modest vision in the post-war atmosphere. 

In the end, the very crises the administration embraces to try to weaken and oust the current government, the more the administration causes the U.S. to lose influence over Israel and erode the respect it holds within Israeli society. 

In the end, the administration will defeat itself.

Israel and Lebanon: Do cedars line the road to Tehran?

Dr. David Wurmser

U.S., French and British diplomats are burning the midnight oil to concoct a formula to avoid escalation of the fighting started by Hizballah along the Lebanese-Israeli border shortly after Hamas’ invasion into Israel from Gaza on October 7. It is indeed a volatile situation, and one which cannot simply fade out or smoothly slide into quiet. Israel has made clear it can neither accept a ceasefire in place along the northern border nor simply allow the current expanded border conflict to persist at the level it currently is fought. For Jerusalem, the realities on the ground require substantial change. 

Israelis — and indeed it is appropriate to speak of the people rather than just its government since polls suggest a powerful majority, nearing a consensus — understand that Hamas’ invasion was a smaller version of Hizballah’s plans on the northern border communities at the hands of Hizballah’s Radwan force. The Radwan force itself is the template upon which Hamas modelled its Nukhba force — the elite terror army that spearheaded the October 7 invasion.  

At the same time, also as a result of the catastrophe of October 7, Israel has learned that a defensive strategy alone – a border wall and missile defense — will not protect Israel from another deadly surprise attack. As a result, Hizballah’s very presence in southern Lebanon is now understood by Israel to be so dangerous that neither the current parameters of the border violence nor the status quo ante before October 7 are unsustainable, and escalation is only a matter of time. Thus, diplomats are scurrying feverishly not only to reach a ceasefire but also to convince Hizballah to redeploy its terror forces kilometers northward in order to answer Israel’s need for a sharply expanded buffer zone.

The last war in 2006 between Israel and Hizballah ended in a UN Security Resolution (UNSCR 1701). The resolution defined a 30-km wide buffer zone and an international force to enforce it. Sadly, neither the UN force (UNIFIL) created nor the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) ever enforced it, and Hizballah almost immediately drifted back to establish itself in full along Israel’s northern border.  Moreover, the UN resolution also called for Hizballah’s dismantlement and the demarcation of the Israeli-Lebanese border. Hizballah never disbanded, although the border Israel defined was acknowledged by UN surveys as the proper line.

Hizballah maintains this fiction of an unresolved border in order to justify its continued existence as a legitimate Lebanese faction defending Lebanese territory from an occupier, therein tying the legitimacy of its continued existence to the irresolution of the border.  As such, it persists in demanding the ceding of territory, some of which Israel has held since 1948, as part of the border modification.

If press reports are to be believed, the current formula crafted by diplomats – which Israel has neither accepted nor rejected — is an immediate ceasefire that within days enables the withdrawal of Hizballah forces to at least 10 km northward. The idea emerges from the Israeli tactical concern that the longest range anti-tank missiles which so deeply threaten Israeli communities can accurately hit targets 10 km away. Distancing Hizballah 10km also would obstruct the Radwan force’s ability to strike without detection since it must traverse a long distance before it even reaches the border.  To enforce the withdrawal, the Western powers suggest that a reinforced LAF deployment into the vacated areas can keep Hizballah out dependably enough to allay Israel’s concerns. Moreover, the currently reported ceasefire proposal by the West uses the term “border modification” rather than “border demarcation” – suggesting a subtle but important concession to Hizballah already. 

It is a bad deal. It should be rejected by Israel and abandoned by Western diplomats.

Were the West to actually succeed in reaching anything close to this proposed outline, it would not stabilize the region, but instead represent a catastrophic setback for Israel and the West and a missed strategic opportunity for the region. Moreover, its flaws are not only tactical and technical – as legion as those would be — nor even only the lacerating of principles.  Its greatest damage is the threat of missing a tremendous regional strategic opportunity to gravely, even mortally, wound the Iranian regime and damage its underlying reigning ideology. 

Tactically, the problem with Hizballah’s threat to communities is not just what comes from within 10km.  Short range missiles with devastating warheads (Burqan) are reasonably accurate and have slightly longer ranges.  The 30km range, as opposed to the 10km range is a material difference in terms of pushing a large part of Hizballah’s arsenal out of range of the cities of northern Israel.  Moreover, given the history of the LAF and UNIFIL’s complete incompetence in even monitoring, let alone halting, the Hizballah buildup in the south over the last two decades leaves little hope that they will actually meaningfully enforce the buffer zone.  More keystone cops do not increase performance.  This is especially true since the families of the Radwan force live in the southern areas of Lebanon, and thus can easily melt into the population all the way to the border without detection. In short, unless the buffer is much wider, and patrolled by forces Israel can rely upon to actually prevent the Radwan forces from infiltrating, then Israel is making once again the same mistake as in the south before October 7: the buffer is a defensive wall that can be breached – a wider one, but still the same concept that failed.  Israel needs positive control and to preserve preemptive maneuver in those areas.  And it cannot passively sit by watching its enemies build up, confident that its responsive capability will decisively and swiftly dispatch any threat that dared approach the border.  That confidence was shattered irreparably on October 7.

Currently, in terms of principles, the UN Resolution from 2006 (1701) establishes the foundation of removing Hizballah from the south for a far more expansive buffer zone then appears currently on the table.  That expansive buffer zone in the ceasefire agreement sought, as noted, a much narrower buffer. This is problematic.  Once the conviction of upholding that resolution is compromised, then every principle becomes negotiable. There is no “bottom.” Any line not only Israel, but the US and France draw then is considered flexible and open to barter. Moreover, it establishes precedent; ⁠Israel concedes yet more to get Hizballah to implement what it already committed to in the past. That “double payment” signals Israel is weak and the Wet is gullible.  Finally, settling for less than the terms of 1701 also validates that Hizballah’s 16-year violation of its obligations and its aggression paid off — it successfully used terror to get a better deal. 

All these tactical, technical and principled objections to the proposed deal are valid, and alone should cause not only Israel but Western powers, as well, to balk at further diplomacy. But it won’t since the West is inescapably locked into a paradigm of stabilizing the region through reaching a condominium with Iran, and the leashing by Tehran of its proxies. Escalation is the greatest fear, thus, of these diplomats and through their industriousness, imagination, and near messianic fervor — mixed with immense pressure on Israel to concede on points against its better judgment – will never give up on a deal, even a bad deal.  And it is precisely, thus, why one would imagine Hizballah would jump at the deal, leaving Israel in a very difficult position to say no.   

And yet, Hizballah balks.  It responds “no” to these proposals, which seems inexplicable given they are so advantageous and that Israel remains under such pressure to yield. Why? What calculations underlie its “Nyet”?

Ultimately, it is because Hizballah — and even more so Iran — need to control the population in the areas south of the Litani (Leontes) River but north of 10km for strategic reasons.  That is not only because the Radwan force is in some ways a territorial militia and its families live in that area, but because of two other reasons, both of which allow Hizballah no room for compromise.

First, Hizballah demands border modifications not only because it wants Israel to yield, thus affording it and Lebanon the opportunity to show strength and gain territory. It is because Hizballah needs to posit demands it knows Israel cannot accept. Indeed, were the border demarked to both Israel’s and Lebanon’s satisfaction, then Hizballah would lose its claim to be a Lebanese resistance organization fighting to restore lost Lebanese territory.  Under those circumstances, it would have to be disbanded immediately, not only under the terms of UNSCR 1701, but under two other UN resolutions from the same period as well.  Hizballah needs the border to remain unresolved so that territory can be claimed to be “occupied” illegally and thus its continued existence is never de-legitimized.

The second reason, which is the also the most important, is the imperative of breaking Hizballah’s grip on the population south of the Litani (Leontes) River (Jabal Amal), is also neither primarily a tactical (10, 12. or 20 km zone) objective or a principled reason (importance of upholding UNSC resolutions). It is because south Lebanon is a supremely important battleground in an ideological-theological warfare campaign waged regionally by Tehran which could just as easily be inverted and waged against the Iranian regime. It is really about the broader campaign of strategically defeating the current Iranian brand of revolutionary Shiism. 

The Shiite areas of southern Lebanon are the country’s Shiite heartland.  They are also one of the most important Shiite populations globally. It is where Ayatollah Musa al-Sadr initiated the Shiite Awakening in the 1970s.  As Fouad Ajami wrote in his most personal book, The Vanished Imam, al Sadr emerged from among the most established of the establishment Shiite families in Iraq and Iran, and transplanted himself to the most oppressed and impoverished community of Shiites, the Jebel Amal in southern Lebanon.  It was a backwater community which once a millennium ago was a leading center of Shiite learning. Laying in its graveyards are the luminaries of the 10th and 11th centuries that forged Shiism for the last millennium.  But time was unkind, and after Saladdin not only conquered Jerusalem, but aggressively ushered in an age of Sunni supremacy, this once vibrant center deteriorated into sparsely-populated and far-flung, sleepy villages on the sidelines of history – as indeed did much of the Shiite world.

One cannot thus imagine how electric and invigorating for the Shiite world it was to see this upstart Ayatollah, Musa al-Sadr, restore Lebanese Shiism into a political force and a rising community that lead the reversal of the millennium-long slumber of the entire Shiite community of the Middle East and became the cradle of restored Shiite confidence and relevance. He fathered the Shiite Awakening. It was the magical land at the magical moment led by this enthralling young Ayatollah. 

By the last year of the 1970s, al-Sadr, however, had engendered two main enemies: Yasir Arafat and Ayatollah Rouholla Khomeini. Arafat was threatened by al-Sadr and the Amal movement he founded, because Arafat was the embodiment of Arab nationalism, which had doubled as Sunni supremacy over Lebanon’s and Iraq’s Shiites. For the West, Arafat was about Palestine, but for Shiites, he was about Sunni oppression. Thus, the PLO, who saw the armed militia movement of Amal created by al-Sadr as a threat to Fatah-stan in late 1970s, had him killed in a visit to Libya. For our purposes, however, more important was that the murder was welcomed by Ayatollah Khomeini – although he never openly expressed joy, neither has Iran ever championed the cause of avenging al-Sadr’s demise. Khomeini was in the final stretch in the process of bringing down the Shah of Iran. For that, he needed help in organizing terror structure from Arafat (Mughniyah/ Force 17). But even more importantly, he needed Arafat to crush the Shiite Awakening whose mantle al-Sadr wore.  

Khomeini had his sights not only on Iran, but on Shiite leadership. It was both expansionist but also essential.  To turn Shiism into a powerful political tool of regional ambition, Khomeini had to crush all forms of Shiism that could challenge him. To do so, however, he aspired to take over and establish himself – dishonestly – as its founder and father of the Shiite Awakening.  Moreover, al-Sadr was a particular threat.  He was a highly respected clerical leader—a more traditional theologian and not a firebrand adventurer — who rejected the foundation of Iran’s revolutionary ideology and core principle of Valiyet e-Faqih or Rule of the Jurisprudent, which was a renegade Shiite minority view that established a theological totalitarian dictatorship. The new crowd in Tehran could not but be deeply threatened by the rancorous population of southern Lebanon and its more traditional view of Shiism, which has strong ties to Iraqi Shiite leaders too. In short, the Jabal Amal Shiites posed a theological dagger into Iran’s ideological heart regionally, not just in Lebanon, and thus al-Sadr’s murder was a welcome development. But it was not enough to remove the threat of al-Sadr; Lebanon’s Shiites were still not loyal, and the Amal organization established by al-Sadr remained the voice of those Shiites. Thus, positive control of Jebel Amal required establishing a completely subordinate proxy, Hizballah, to control Amal and the Shiites of Lebanon.  Hizballah’s existence, and its control over south Lebanon, was a strategic aim of existential importance to Khomeini upon taking office.  

Nothing has changed in this regard in the last 45 years. The governing theology of Iran remains this revolutionary, minority interpretation of Shiism rejected by most Shiite clerics. To control Lebanon’s Shiites, and especially to control Amal, which is the force that was created by Ayatollah Musa al-Sadr in the 1970s as the flagship of the Shiite Awakening, Iran needs as much now as ever to employ Hizballah to force Lebanon’s Shiites into submission. Amal likely would split from Iran if not subject to Hizballah control. Because Iran’s Valiyet e-Faqih theology and its Hizballahi minions are not only a minority view among Lebanon’s Shiites, but also represent a minority interpretation violating traditional Shiite thought among other regional Shiites, especially in southern Iraq, then how goes Jabal Amal can determine how goes Najaf and Karbala. And indeed, the same clerical families are in both: Musa al-Sadr’s relative is Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.  Thus, if those areas in Lebanon fall from Iran’s positive control, it ideologically rattles the regime in Iran and undermines it profoundly in Iraq since it would create not only an uncontrolled Shiite population influencing Iraqi Shiites, but also because it would have established Iran and Hizballah as failures in their self-anointed role as protector of Shiites.  

As such, the strategic imperative of delegitimizing Hizballah and laying waste to its theological foundations – which carries the conflict away from Israel’s borders which reverberates not only in Najaf and Karbala, but in Tehran itself — cannot be accomplished by a 10km buffer.  Nor through a 20km buffer. To remove the Jabal Amal Shiites from under Hizballah’s iron hand, Hizballah would need to lose control of the entire area not only up to and surrounding the Litani (Leontes) River, but even the Awali (Asclepius) River.

In the end, Iran needs Hizballah to exist not only to maintain an active front against Israel, but even more importantly to maintain control over south Lebanon’s Shiites who left to their own devices would likely emerge as a mortal threat to the ideological construct of the Iranian regime itself.  In other words, not only does Iran need the current diplomatic efforts to fail to prevent Hizballah’s being disbanded (but perhaps pared back north of the Litani River) as a strategic asset of Iranian power, but Tehran needs to prevent Hizballah’s withdrawal from the south as a matter of the Islamic Revolution’s own legitimacy and existence in Iran itself.  As such, even though to Western calculations, the ceasefire deal being offered is a deal too good to refuse, for Hizballah and Iran, it is a Trojan poison that must be refused.

The Gaza war and the conflict between Hizballah and Israel are regional strategic wars in a great twilight struggle between Iran and the West, not only between Iran and Israel.  It is imperative that the West, thus, switch from a passivity approach and hope of moderation in Tehran – the very concept that failed on October 7 – and turn to a more forward leaning strategy.  The West must allow Israel not only to properly defend itself, but to seize the rare confluent opportunity given us along with Israel to deal Iran’s revolutionary ideology a body blow, perhaps a fatal blow, rather than work to straight-jacket Israel and force it into validating Hizballah’s legitimacy, into allowing Hizballah to evince its strength and into relegating Lebanese Shiites to the clutches of this twisted Ghulat (extremist offshoot) of Shiism. 

The war in Jebel Amal – and the imperative of pushing Hizballah entirely out of Lebanon south of the Awali River (not only Litani) — thus is a major battle in taking the war into Tehran itself.

Bolton: Navalny’s murder demonstrates Putin’s confidence

By John Bolton

Alexei Navalny’s death in a Russian prison camp elicited widespread condemnation, and Western leaders demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin be held accountable. A fierce Putin critic, Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021 after recovering from a 2020 attempted assassination by poisoning that was almost certainly ordered by the Kremlin. He was immediately jailed. President Joe Biden said Friday, “Make no mistake: Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death … What has happened to Navalny is yet more proof of Putin’s brutality.”

Of course, there are always exceptions. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump declined to blame Russia’s government for the unsuccessful poisoning plot, citing insufficient information. Since Navalny’s death, Trump has said nothing.

Unfortunately, Western leaders are often quick to express outrage but not quick to do anything about it. In a 2021 meeting in Geneva, Biden warned Putin that Russia would face “devastating” consequences if Navalny died in prison. Asked Friday what those consequences would be, Biden answered lamely, “That was three years ago. In the meantime, they faced a hell of a lot of consequences. They’ve lost and/or had wounded over 350,000 Russian soldiers. They’ve made it into a position where they’ve been subjected to great sanctions across the board. And we’re contemplating what else could be done.” Obviously, however, the “consequences” Biden mentioned flowed from Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, not Navalny’s treatment or his demise.

We may never know the actual causes of Navalny’s death. The most benign explanation is that it was hastened by the 2020 failed poisoning, compounded by years of harsh prison conditions. However, video of Navalny earlier last week showed him in apparent health and good spirits. No one really believes that “accidents” happen to high-profile prisoners in the Russian gulag. And the decision to eliminate such a prominent thorn in the Kremlin’s side would have to come from Putin himself.

But why now? Some Westerners immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that Navalny’s death “underscores the weakness and rot of the system Putin has built.” In fact, killing Navalny is evidence that Putin feels back on top, confident in his rule, untroubled about either domestic or international pushback.

Putin sealed Yevgeny Prigozhin’s fate last year for the effrontery of questioning Putin’s handling of the Ukraine war. Whatever political dissent was then roiling, the massive Russian security services appears now to have dissipated. The “siloviki,” the “men of power,” are back in line. As for democratic opponents, they are either hiding or in exile. Putin is not losing sleep.

Internationally, things look brighter for Putin than they have in several years, both geo-strategically and specifically in Ukraine. Navalny’s murder signals Putin is confident that he holds the upper hand. Trump continues threatening U.S. withdrawal from NATO, adding recently “I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members not meeting their commitments to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.

Biden criticized Trump for egging on NATO’s principal adversary, but Putin is conducting his own disinformation campaign on Trump’s behalf. Asked his thoughts on Biden and Trump, Putin described Biden as “more experienced, predictable, an old-school politician.” Putin must have enjoyed this head-fake, which Trump was too foolish to leave alone, responding it was “a great compliment, actually.”

Putin also made a fool of Tucker Carlson for his recent lickspittle interview, mocking him for a “lack of sharp questions,” a rare case where Western observers would agree with Putin. Offers to negotiate on Ukraine during the interview may have been a feint, given repeated Kremlin rejections of negotiations until it achieved its objectives in Ukraine.

The tides are unfortunately flowing in Russia’s favor. Ukraine’s 2023 spring offensive gained little ground, and potentially important locations such as Avdiivka, hotly contested since the war began, are now falling to Russia. Just opening talks with Kyiv could benefit Moscow, freezing the frontlines into a new Russia-Ukraine border, giving Russia’s military much-needed time to regroup and regain what little fighting edge it initially brought to the war. A pause could also permit China to continue extending its economic and political influence over Russia, which is hardly in America’s interest.

The most immediate response to Navalny’s murder and Ukraine’s critical needs is Congress waking up to the strategic imperative of Washington aiding Kyiv. Biden has trickled aid in piecemeal, non-strategically, for two years, thereby allowing Russia to fight the war to a stalemate. Biden has been continually deterred by fears of Russia launching a “wider war,” although he has never explained where Russian capabilities to wage such a war are hidden.

U.S. politics have added to the practical difficulties of sensibly providing weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, but Navalny’s tragedy should be a wake-up call, especially for Republicans. We are not providing charity for Ukraine, but acting to protect core American interests. Paraphrasing what Donald Rumsfeld used to insist: “Don’t foul this up.”

John Bolton was national security adviser to President Trump from 2018 to 2019 and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006. He held senior State Department posts in 1981-83, 1989-93 and 2001-2005.

This article was first published in The Hill on February 19, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

The two-state solution is dead. Israel must achieve total victory

By John Bolton

Foreign Secretary David Cameron recently suggested that the United Kingdom could recognise the state of “Palestine” before waiting for the conclusion of talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He said that recognition “can’t come at the start of the process, but it doesn’t have to be the very end of the process”.

This is dangerous ground for the unwary, including both Cameron and the credulous Biden administration, which is also musing about recognising a nonexistent state. Since the first Oslo Accord, if not before, it has been bedrock peace-process doctrine that both Israel and the Palestinians must agree to any “two-state solution”.  Moreover, Israel is responding to a terrorist attack comparable to al Qaeda’s 9-11 attack on America, while simultaneously menaced by Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. What kind of ally then puts a knife in Israel’s back?

Without agreement by the two most-concerned parties, there is no agreement at all. As former US Secretary of State James Baker often said, “we can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.”

Recognising “statehood” in international affairs is far more consequential than recognising a state of mind. In both treaties and customary international law, statehood has critically important characteristics, including having a defined territory and population, a capital city, and being able to implement normal governmental functions. There is no existing “Palestine” that meets any of these core criteria. Pretending that the Palestinian Authority (or Hamas for that matter) qualifies does not make it so. Indeed, wishing wistfully quite likely inhibits achieving the objectives statehood advocates supposedly want.

Imposing this key potential outcome of contentious negotiations almost certainly reduces Palestinian incentives to deal seriously with the Israeli government, which will in turn reduce Israeli interest in any deal. However much the Foreign Office dislikes Israel or Netanyahu, there is no justification for abandoning a key premise of the international state system.

The origins of the other-worldly notion of recognising a Palestinian state before there is one stem directly from none other than Yasser Arafat. Beginning in 1988-89 and continuing episodically thereafter, Arafat tried to have the Palestine Liberation Organisation admitted as a member of the United Nations and its specialised agencies. Because all UN agency charters limit membership to “states,” Arafat believed that admission would confer state status on the PLO, thus constructing not “facts on the ground” in the Middle East, but in the corridors of the UN.

President George H. W. Bush strongly objected to this fantasy, threatening to withhold all American contributions to any UN component that admitted “Palestine,” a threat ultimately embodied in statutory law by overwhelming House and Senate votes.

This is of far more than just historical interest. The threat worked until American resolve collapsed under Obama, allowing the Palestinian Authority to gain admittance to Unesco (from which Ronald Reagan had earlier withdrawn, with George W. Bush later returning). Obama’s mistake led to President Trump’s decision to withdraw. Biden rejoined. Should Trump win in November, count on a third withdrawal in short order.

Obsessively imagining a Palestinian state has thus caused real damage to the United Nations, which doesn’t matter that much except to the very types of people in the Foreign Office and State Department who also advocate early recognition of Palestine.

Rishi Sunak walked back Cameron’s frolic, saying the remarks had been “over-interpreted”. During Prime Minister’s Questions, however, he said Britain would recognise a Palestinian state when it was most conducive to the peace process, and stressed his commitment to a two-state solution. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, any prospect that Israel would agree, already close to nonexistent, died along with over 1,200 Israelis killed in Hamas’s barbaric October 7 attack.

If further proof were required, consider Biden’s embarrassing efforts to negotiate a second cease-fire and the release of remaining Israeli hostages brutally kidnapped by Hamas. It was not Israel, but Hamas which effectively scuttled this gambit, by adding conditions guaranteed to provoke Israel’s rejection, which they did

Netanyahu made clear that Israel wants, as it should, “total victory” over Hamas. In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt insisted that Germany and Japan agree to unconditional surrender. There is no reason Israel should not demand the same from Hamas. We can then turn to other Middle Eastern threats facing Israel and the wider West, nearly all of which emanate from Iran. 

This article was first published in The Telegraph on February 10, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

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

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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.

Here are the dangers of a second term for Donald Trump

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By John Bolton

If returned to office, Trump will need others to carry out his directives. He will want White House staffers to follow his orders without asking troubling questions, as testimony in the classified-documents case demonstrates. These staffers will not be known for independent, creative thinking, just personal fidelity to Trump, for whom loyalty flows only one way.

No responsible president would want such a staff; he or she would instead seek advisors who voiced their opinions straightforwardly, not hesitating to bring bad news when necessary. Presidents face tough issues requiring tactical decisions where even philosophically like-minded advisors will disagree. So selecting a strong, competent White House staff has nothing to do with “restraining” a president or undercutting his constitutional authority. It is simply good management.

Everyone knows presidents make the final decision, but a White House of serfs will serve neither presidents nor America well. Indeed, being surrounded by neutered aides fearful of firing could again cause Trump’s downfall, at potentially terrible cost to the country.

The president’s free hand in staffing the West Wing contrasts with appointments for the vast majority of senior “officers of the United States” who manage the broader federal government, where the Senate’s advise-and-consent power limits his discretion.

Trump and many supporters see a “deep state”, a careerist cabal in law enforcement, intelligence, foreign policy, and the military, covertly running the government and conspiring to destroy him and his regime.

‘Deep state’ is a fallacy

The “deep state” is a fallacy, but there is no doubt that government bureaucracies develop distinctive cultures. What Trump and his acolytes don’t understand is that this culture arises not from clandestine conspiracies but from legislative mandates and incentive structures that federal agencies live within. It is often not a pretty picture.

I have, for example, long argued that the State Department needs a “cultural revolution” to redirect its efforts, one that will take decades to bring about. But directing recalcitrant bureaucracies, however difficult and frustrating, is a required skill for any president who truly wants to accomplish significant change and not merely bloviate about it.

Since Trump does not understand this logic, he will inevitably and repeatedly cross lines that will cause conflict, often constitutional conflict. Take the four pending criminal indictments against Trump. He will have constitutional authority to order Justice to dismiss the two cases brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith, or, if necessary, pardon himself.

Trump has already argued for a government shutdown to stop Smith’s trial preparations and investigations. While the president’s authority to self-pardon is disputed, litigating a Trump self-pardon could take years before definite resolution, even assuming someone has standing to litigate the issue. And if the Supreme Court invalidated Trump’s self-pardoning, it might take yet another impeachment saga to remove him from office. He will not depart voluntarily this time.

The result could well be mass resignations from Smith’s office, and perhaps across Justice. This time, there will be little prospect, as during the “Saturday Night Massacre”, of halting a tide of resignations. When Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned because of commitments that they made during their confirmations. Nixon then ordered the department’s third-ranking official, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to fire Cox, and Bork said he would also resign. But Richardson talked him out of it, arguing that Bork alone could prevent a flood of resignations from lower-ranking Justice lawyers. Richardson told him, “You’ve got the gun now, Bob. It’s your duty to pull the trigger.” Bork did so, maintaining the department’s basic function and integrity were vital.

Every time Trump seeks retribution through Justice, as he has on multiple occasions, the risk of protest resignations arises, impairing the effective operation of the entire federal legal system. In such circumstances, who would serve in a Trump Justice Department? The same question applies across the federal bureaucracy.

The New York and Georgia indictments are more complicated. Trump has no authority to direct them, nor can he pardon himself, because they are not federal cases. What would he do if convicted and sentenced? Quite possibly, he would simply reject such outcomes (particularly if they involved jail time), arguing, typically, that they were “witch hunts”, and refusing to accept the validity of the legal results.

Impeachment may be only remedy

What then? How do state or local officials deal with an incumbent president contesting their jurisdiction and authority? And who at the national level would assist them? Yet again, impeachment may be the only remedy.

Because of that possibility, Congress will be in constant agitation during a second Trump incumbency: constant combat with Trump over his legitimacy in office will distract America from pending threats, especially internationally, where his attention span is already perilously short.

Beyond Justice, the entire “deep state” will face comparable tribulations. Trump’s prior clashes with national security bureaucracies are well known. Who will be willing to serve there as political appointees, and who among them could expect easy Senate confirmation?

Trump is completely comfortable with extraordinary personnel turnover, partly because he has no idea what is required to steer the massive federal bureaucracy, and partly because high turnover means he alone remains the centre of attention. Trump is not focused on reducing the federal government’s size and scope so much as on achieving objectives personal to him, particularly retribution. In consequence, vast portions of the national security machinery may simply grind to a halt in a second Trump term. We are entirely in uncharted territory.

Deviations from conservative norms

There is no “Trumpism”. His lack of philosophy and inability to reason in policy terms leaves him uniquely susceptible to dramatic shifts in his “positions”, and certainly in his rhetoric. If his self-interested cost-benefit analysis of something changes, his “policy” view changes accordingly, and quickly. This is a major contributing factor to Trump’s endemic untrustworthiness and unfitness for the presidency.

Examples of his deviations from conservative norms already abound, as in 2016 when Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” this is hardly a law and order position. Nor is his solicitude for Jan 6 rioters, including hosting a fundraiser at his Bedminster resort and pledging to contribute to their legal defence fund.

“There have been few people that have been treated in the history of our country” like these defendants, he said, incorrectly. Had they really been Antifa members, he would have favoured maximum sentences. The consistent conservative view is straightforward: Whatever the politics of those who invade the Capitol to disrupt Congress’s orderly functioning, they should serve maximum prison terms without parole.

Trump’s ineligibility for a third term (which could be changed only by constitutional amendment) inhibits him in some respects. But in other ways, it also frees him from political constraints. In my experience, when substantive policy arguments made no headway, Trump was often persuaded by arguments based on personal political benefit. Because he need not fear the challenges of another presidential election, the political constraints around him are much looser, and the real “guardrail” of voter opinion will be minimised.

Moreover, he will be hearing endlessly about his “legacy”, a message with an uncanny ability to turn the heads of public officials away from philosophical and policy goals toward their own self-enhancement. How far astray he will go is unknowable, but his record indicates that conservatives supporting Trump because they believe he is one of them, could be quite surprised after four more years.

This article was first published in The Telegraph on February 3, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

Abolish UNRWA

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By John Bolton

The world undoubtedly was startled to learn that staffers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency participated in Hamas’s barbaric Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pledged a full investigation, and several countries, including the United States, suspended funding to UNRWA.

Washington should demand far more than just further revelations about UNRWA involvement in Oct. 7’s tragic events.

The larger, more complex truth about UNRWA is its decadeslong performance less as a U.N. agency and more as a bulwark of Palestinian resistance to reality, especially in the Gaza Strip. This larger UNRWA history has contributed significantly to making Palestinians a pariah people, unwanted even by fellow Arabs. And it is UNRWA, along with Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Palestinian Authority, that embodies the myth of Palestinians’ perpetual refugee status until Israel disappears. UNRWA has been a witting participant in weaponizing the Palestinian people against Israel, ultimately to their own severe detriment.

The answer to the UNRWA problem requires abolishing and dismantling the agency and its philosophy, which runs contrary to international refugee principles derived after World War II. Until the treatment of Palestinians, particularly Gazans, comes into conformity with the more humane approach institutionalized by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there is little long-term hope that Palestinians will be deweaponized.

Basic UNHCR doctrine originated in the post-1945 mass movements of refugees and displaced persons. Its two main goals are providing protection and assistance for refugees. One form of protection, highly difficult but critical to attempt, is isolating refugees from the politics of the violent conflicts that made them refugees to begin with. UNRWA does the opposite, fanning the flames of discontent even in its basic education programs and cooperating closely with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. On assistance, UNHCR worries not only about refugees’ immediate needs but also their long-term prospects, either returning to their original homes or resettlement elsewhere. This, too, is dramatically different from UNRWA’s uniform focus on the “right of return” to Israeli territory.

UNHCR believes refugees should either return to their country of origin or, if that is impossible for whatever reason, be resettled in third countries. UNHCR often looks to the “country of first asylum,” typically a country bordering the one from which the refugees fled, but there are, at times, capacity and other restraints justifying resettlement elsewhere. One thing clear to all refugee agencies and experts, except UNRWA, is that long-term subsistence in refugee camps is the least desirable alternative. In the mind-deadening camps, there is no hope for viable economic activity or long-term prospects. Yet, to promote the larger political objective of using Palestinians as a wedge against Israel’s very legitimacy, that is exactly what UNRWA does.

The truly humanitarian strategy for Palestinians is to settle them in locations with sustainable economies. To that end, we should realize that Gaza is very different from the West Bank, and the futures of Palestinians should be separated accordingly. On the West Bank, there may well be prospects for long-term stability with the cooperation of Israel and Jordan. That possibility does not exist in Gaza. Assuming Israel and Jordan can agree on a political solution, circumstances on the West Bank are far better for long-term settlement of the existing Palestinian population than in Gaza, which is merely a high-rise, long-stay refugee camp.

Ironically, precisely because of the way prior enemies of Israel abused the Palestinians, there is enormous reluctance to accept them for resettlement. Egypt and Jordan, the real countries of first asylum, are the most vocal in rejecting the option. Indeed, no country in the Middle East has shown interest in permanent refugee resettlement. Surely, however, all can see that simply rebuilding Gaza is a guaranteed failure, perhaps leading quickly to a repetition of Oct. 7.

In any case, Israel is physically reshaping Gaza to ensure its own security, and new Israeli buffer zones and strong points are not going away soon. All parties with a stake in the conflict must accept that the two-state solution is dead. Not only is there no viable economic future in Gaza alone, but connecting it with an archipelago of Palestinian islands on the West Bank won’t improve prospects.

Abolishing UNRWA and replacing it with UNHCR will be difficult, but UNRWA may be collapsing under its own weight. Firing all UNRWA’s roughly 40,000 employees, well over 90% of whom are Palestinians, may be impossible, but whoever is reemployed must be vetted carefully and supervised for a probationary period before receiving job security. UNRWA’s mindset must be eliminated and replaced with UNHCR’s.

There must be a dramatic shift in expectations and policy objectives for the Palestinians as a matter of humanitarian priority, no matter how wrenching and disappointing. For decades, the two-state policy has been tried and failed. It’s time for a new direction.

This article was first published in The Washington Examiner on February 2, 2024. Click here to read the original article.

Trump Is a Danger to U.S. Security

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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.

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

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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.

America’s Arms-Control Restraints No Longer Make Sense

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Our enemies are proliferating, so we must adapt

On June 18, 1935, the United Kingdom and Germany entered “a permanent and definite agreement” that limited Germany’s total warship tonnage to 35 percent of the British Commonwealth’s. This was a major concession from Great Britain, since agreements at the Washington (1921–22) and London (1930) naval conferences had already significantly reduced its own fleet. Hitler defined “permanent and definite” to mean lasting less than four years: He abrogated the treaty on April 28, 1939, four convenient months before the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact carved up Poland and started World War II. Arms control at work.

After 1945, America concluded a series of treaties that were, when signed or shortly thereafter, almost uniformly disadvantageous to us. Considerable efforts to eliminate these restraints have been made, but significant risk remains of reverting to the old ways or not extracting ourselves from the remaining harmful treaties. Whoever next wins the presidency should seek the effective end of the usual arms-control theology before the tide turns again.

To have any chance of bolstering U.S. national security, arms control must fit into larger strategic frameworks, which it has not done well in the last century. Even if they made sense in their day, many arms-control treaties have not withstood changing circumstances. Preserving them is even less viable as we enter a new phase of international affairs: the era after the post–Cold War era. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s ongoing “ring of fire” strategy against Israel, China’s aspirations for regional and then global hegemony, and the Beijing–Moscow axis augur trying times. We need a post–post–Cold War strategy avowedly skeptical of both the theoretical and the operational aspects of the usual approaches to arms control.

Rethinking arms-control doctrine down to its foundations began with Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative and resumed with George W. Bush. The partisan and philosophical debates they launched have continued ever since, but the next president will confront foreign- and defense-policy decisions that cannot be postponed or ignored. Best to do some advance thinking now.

Bush’s aspirations were more limited than what liberals derided as Reagan’s “Star Wars.” Bush worried about American vulnerability to the prospect of “handfuls, not hundreds,” of ballistic missiles launched against us by rogue states. Providing even limited national missile defense, however, required withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, as Bush did in December 2001. Arms control’s high priests and priestesses, and key senators such as Joe Biden and John Kerry, were apoplectic. Missile defense was provocative, they said. Leaving the ABM Treaty meant abandoning “the cornerstone of international strategic stability” (a phrase commonly used by politicians, diplomats, and arms controllers) and upsetting the premise of mutual assured destruction, they said.

But Bush persisted and withdrew. As the saying goes, the dogs barked and the caravan moved on. In 2002, Bush turned to a new kind of strategic-arms agreement with Vladimir Putin, the Treaty of Moscow, which set asymmetric limits on deployed strategic nuclear warheads and was structured in ways very different from earlier or later nuclear-weapons treaties. We abandoned the complex, highly dubious counting and attribution metrics of prior strategic-weapons deals, as well as verification procedures that Russia had perfected means to evade. The Treaty of Moscow was sufficiently reviled by the arms-control theocracy that Barack Obama replaced it in 2010 with the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), reverting to failed earlier approaches, more on which below.

During Bush’s first term, we also blocked efforts in the United Nations at international gun control. We established the G-8 Global Partnership — to increase funding for the destruction of Russia’s “excess” nuclear and chemical weapons and delivery systems — and launched the Proliferation Security Initiative to combat international trafficking in weapons and materials of mass destruction. Neither effort required treaties or international bureaucracies. We unsigned the Rome Statute, the treaty that had created the International Criminal Court, to protect U.S. service members from the threat of criminal action by unaccountable global prosecutors.

Finally, the Bush administration scotched a proposed “verification” protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) that risked intellectual-property piracy against U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers but did not enhance the verification of breaches. The BWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention express aspirations not to use these weapons of mass destruction, but it is almost impossible to verify compliance with them. Moreover, arms controllers forget that the BWC sprang from Richard Nixon’s unilateral decision to eliminate American biological munitions, which proved that we could abjure undesirable weapons systems on our own.

The Bush administration went a long way toward ending arms control, but the true believers returned to power under Obama. Eager to ditch the heretical Treaty of Moscow, his negotiators produced New START — the lineal descendant of two earlier SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and three START agreements — which entered into force in February 2011 for ten years, extendable once for five more. The Senate should never have ratified this execrable deal, as I explained in these pages (“A Treaty for Utopia,” May 2010). Nonetheless, with a Democratic majority it did so in a late-2010 lame-duck session, by 71 votes (all 56 Democrats, two independents, and 13 Republicans) to 26. While the vote seems lopsided, there were three nonvoters — retiring anti-treaty Republicans who opposed ratification — and the Senate secured the constitutionally required two-thirds ratification majority by only five votes. Today, given a possible Republican majority ahead and the unlikelihood that so many Republicans would defect again, ratifying a successor treaty is a dubious prospect at best.

The Trump administration resumed untying Gulliver, exiting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019. While the INF Treaty may have made sense in the 1980s, by the time of withdrawal only the United States was abiding by its provisions. The likes of China and Iran, not treaty parties, were accumulating substantial numbers of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and Russia was systematically violating INF Treaty limits. That left America as the only country abiding by the treaty, an obviously self-inflicted handicap that withdrawal corrected. Then, in 2020, the U.S. withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty because Russia had abused its overflight privileges and because our national technical assets made overflight to obtain information obsolete. Russia subsequently withdrew from Open Skies.

But the arms-control theology still has powerful adherents. On January 26, 2021, newly inaugurated Joe Biden sent his first signal of weakness to Putin by unconditionally extending New START for five years without seeking modifications to it. This critical capitulation was utterly unwarranted by New START’s merits or by developments since its ratification. The treaty was fatally defective in that it did not address tactical nuclear weapons, in which Russia had clear superiority. It remains true that no new deal would be sensible for the United States unless it included tactical as well as strategic warheads.

In addition, technological threats that postdate New START (which deals with the Cold War triad of land-based ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers) need to be confronted, especially cruise missiles, which can now reach hypersonic speeds.

Most important, China has made substantial progress since 2010 toward becoming a peer nuclear power. Beijing may not yet have the deliverable-weapons capacity of Washington or Moscow, but the trajectory is clear.

A tripolar U.S.–Russian–Chinese nuclear world (no other power has or will have rates of warhead production comparable to China’s) would be almost inexpressibly more dangerous than a bipolar U.S.–USSR world. The most critical threat that China’s growing strategic-weapons arsenal poses is to the United States. How will it manifest? Will we face periodic, independent risks of nuclear conflict with either China or Russia? Or a combined threat simultaneously? Or serial threats? Or all of the above? Answers to these questions will dictate the nuclear-force levels necessary to deter first-strike launches by either Beijing or Moscow or by both, and to defeat them no matter how nuclear-conflict scenarios may unfold.

None of this is pleasant to contemplate, but, as Herman Kahn advised, thinking about the unthinkable is necessary in a nuclear world. These existential issues must be addressed before we can safely enter trilateral nuclear-arms-control negotiations. Beijing is refusing to negotiate until it achieves rough numerical parity with Washington and Moscow. There is little room for diplomacy anyway, since in February 2023 Russia suspended its participation in New START. Further strategic-weapons agreements with Russia alone would be suicidal: Bilateral nuclear treaties may be sensible in a bipolar nuclear world, but they make no sense in a tripolar world. Russia and China surely grasp this. We can only hope Joe Biden does as well. Next January, our president will have just one year to decide how to handle New START’s impending expiration. We should assess now which candidates understand the stakes and are likely to avoid being encumbered by agreements not just outmoded but dangerous for America.

A closely related challenge is the issue of U.S. nuclear testing. Unarguably, if we do not soon resume underground testing, the safety and reliability of our aging nuclear arsenal will be increasingly at risk, as America’s Strategic Posture, a recent congressionally mandated report, shows. Since 1992, Washington has faced a self-imposed ban on underground nuclear testing even though no international treaty in force prohibits it. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 bars only atmospheric, space, and underwater testing, a gap that the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would have banned all testing, was intended to close. Because, however, not all five legitimate nuclear powers under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ratified the CTBT, it never entered into force and likely never will. Though the U.S. signed the CTBT in 1996, the Senate rejected its ratification by a vote of 51 to 48 in 1999. Russia recently announced its withdrawal, thereby predictably dismaying Biden’s advisers. The next U.S. president should extinguish the CTBT by unsigning it. As was recently revealed, Beijing seems to be reactivating and upgrading its Lop Nor nuclear-testing facility. We can predict confidently that neither China nor Russia will hesitate to do what it thinks necessary to advance its nuclear-weapons capabilities. We should not be caught short.

Additional unfinished business involves the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, another arms-control “cornerstone,” this one of European security. Effective since 1990, as the Cold War ended, CFE became obsolete almost immediately. The Warsaw Pact disbanded (its members largely joining NATO) and the USSR fragmented. Russia suspended CFE Treaty compliance several times before withdrawing formally in November 2023, having already invaded Ukraine, another CFE Treaty party. In response, the United States and our NATO allies suspended CFE Treaty performance. Like the CTBT, the CFE Treaty is a zombie that the next president should promptly destroy.

The list of arms-control-diplomacy failures goes on. The NPT, for example, has never hindered truly determined proliferators such as North Korea (which now has a second illicit nuclear reactor online) or Iran, much as arms-control agreements have consistently failed to prevent grave violations by determined aggressors.

This long, sad history has given us adequate warning, and the next president should learn from it. The array of threats the United States faces makes it imperative that we initiate substantial, full-spectrum increases in our defense capabilities, from traditional combat arms and cyberspace assets to nuclear weapons. Instead of limiting our capabilities, we must ensure that we know what we need and have it on hand. We are nowhere near that point.

This article was first published in The National Review on January 25, 2024. Click here to read the original article.