This is what happens when one of the world's most powerful foreign affairs players meets one of the world's foremost Middle East analysts
As Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton created and implemented the Proliferation Security Initiative. The PSI was the most successful counter-proliferation program the US has undertaken in recent years.
As UN Ambassador in 2005 and 2006, Bolton dismantled the corrupt UN Human Rights Commission. He opposed the formation of its successor, the equally corrupt Human Rights Committee, saying, “We want a butterfly. We don’t intend to put lipstick on a caterpillar and call it a success.”
Bolton’s record of success engendered jealousy among many members of the Washington establishment. But they were more irked by his refusal to go along to get along. Bolton’s stubborn insistence on basing US policies on reality, rather than ideology or fashion has made him the bête noire of the foreign policy establishment.
Trump’s decision to appoint a man who insists on operating on the basis of realities on the ground – even when they are inconvenient and make foreign policy professionals and queasy allies angry or nervous – speaks volumes about his approach to foreign policy and the goals he has set for his administration.
Long considered – rightly – one of Israel’s best friends in Washington, Bolton has distinguished himself throughout the years by his conviction that Israel is the US’s most powerful and vital ally in the Middle East. So it isn’t surprising that during his visit to Israel this week, one of his biggest headline-grabbing quotes was one where he seemed to reject the country’s hope of securing US recognition of its sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Speaking to Reuters Tuesday, Bolton said, “I’ve heard the idea [of US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights] being suggested but there’s no discussion of it, no decision within the US government.”
He added, “Obviously we understand the Israeli claim that it has annexed the Golan Heights – we understand their position – but there’s no change in the US position for now.”
In a conversation with this writer Wednesday morning at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Bolton emphasized that he had said, “for now.”
“I said, ‘US recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan is not on the table, for now.’”
His clarification was not a diplomatic feint.
There are two aspects of the Trump White House’s relationship with Israel that distinguish it from its predecessors. Unlike his predecessors, but like Bolton, Trump relates to Israel as a key US ally and a partner. Trump’s predecessors generally viewed Israel as a supplicant.
Trump and his advisors are willing to listen to Israel’s positions objectively. They don’t assume, as many of their predecessors did, that their Israeli counterparts are hustling them.
When Bolton says the administration hasn’t changed its policy regarding Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, he’s inviting Israel to make its case. Why is it important for the US to change its policy? How would such a move improve the strategic balance of forces on the ground? Why is it in the US’s interests to act in this way?
If Israel has a case to make, the Trump White House is willing to listen.
Consider the attention the White House is paying to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.
Bolton said, “Syria was the main topic of discussion during President Trump’s meeting with President [Vladimir] Putin in Helsinki [on July 16]. This was the case both during their meeting with their advisers and during their one-on-one meeting.”
He added that the importance both leaders attributed to the issue didn’t come out of thin air.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s discussion of the issue during his phone call with the president earlier that week and during his visit with Putin during the FIFA tournament contributed to making Syria such an important issue,” he explained.
In other words, when Netanyahu expressed his concerns about Syria, Trump listened.
Until recently, the Trump administration’s position on Syria was the same as the Obama administration’s. That is, the US is involved in Syria to fight Islamic State. Iran’s takeover of the country is not its problem.
Today the Trump administration shares Israel’s position that all Iranian forces must withdraw from Syria.
Trump’s decision is not evidence that he is beholden to Israel. It is instead a demonstration of his determination to base US foreign policy on reality.
This determination marks the White House’s policy on Hezbollah as well.
On the face of things, the US-Israeli demand that Iran remove its forces from Syria seems to ignore the elephant in the room. Hezbollah is the second-most powerful military force in the Middle East – second only to the Israel Defense Forces, and the most daunting conventional threat Israel faces. This week, the IDF carried out a massive war exercise in the Golan Heights to prepare its forces for a war with Hezbollah.
As Syrian regime forces have seized the border zone with Israel, Hezbollah forces – often wearing Syrian military uniforms – have deployed directly across from Israel. They pose a clear and dire threat to Israeli security. Yet Israel and the US are not explicitly demanding their withdrawal.
Bolton assured that Hezbollah has not been given a free pass. It is simply that the US views Hezbollah forces as Iranian forces.
“Hezbollah forces in Syria have to go back to Lebanon,” he said.
He added, “They are functionally part of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards] Quds force.” Given this state of affairs, making a separate demand for their departure is unnecessary.
The White House’s clear-eyed view of Hezbollah is not shared across the administration. For instance, the Pentagon stubbornly maintains – against mountains of proof – that Hezbollah does not control the Lebanese government and armed forces (LAF). The Pentagon’s position enables the US to continue to arm the LAF with advanced weapons systems and military training.
Over the past decade, the US has provided the LAF with more than $1.5 billion in military systems and trained 32,000 LAF troops.
In May, Hezbollah expanded its control over the Lebanese government in the parliamentary elections. In June, the US completed a shipment of six A-29 Super Tucano fighter jets to the LAF. In a ceremony marking the arms delivery, US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard hailed US military assistance to the LAF.
“The acquisition of the A-29 Super Tucano…will transform an already-strong air power capability that has been a key part of the Lebanese Army’s ability to defend this country,” she said.
“The A-29 provides the LAF with precision guided munitions and advanced precision strike capability. This is a game-changing acquisition that takes the LAF to the next level of combat capability.”
Richard added, “We will be complementing the power of the A-29 aircraft with six MD-530G light attack scout helicopters… This is a significant air force that we are building together.”
While avoiding the issue of US military support for Lebanon, Bolton noted that Israelis aren’t the only ones concerned about the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ unit’s control of Lebanon.
“Lebanese Americans are very worried about it. They see that [Lebanese President Michel] Aoun is controlled by Hezbollah,” he ventured.
The White House’s concerns about Iranian power center on Trump’s commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. To achieve this end, in stark contrast to both the Obama and Bush administrations, Trump is predicating his policies on the full realities of Iran’s nuclear program.
Compare, for instance, the Trump White House’s position regarding the Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zour that Israel destroyed in September 2007 to that of his two predecessors.
When Israel bombed the nuclear reactor in Syria, it acted in defiance of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice wished to discuss the North Korean-built reactor at the UN Security Council. The Olmert government and other senior members of the Bush administration opposed Rice’s position. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Vice President Dick Cheney realized that if the US raised the issue at the UN, any chance of destroying the reactor would disappear into the mist of prolonged sanctions debates.
After Israel destroyed the reactor, Rice demanded that Israel say nothing what it did.
Rice’s concern wasn’t simply a function anger at being ignored. She didn’t want the truth exposed because it made her non-proliferation policies impossible to justify.
The North Koreans didn’t build the Deir ez-Zour reactor alone. As Israeli officials whispered unofficially in the ears of reporters, Iran was also a partner in the project. Iran paid for the reactor.
Rice was unwilling to publicize the fact that Iran and North Korea were jointly engaged in illicit nuclear proliferation activities in Syria because in 2007 she was trying to appease Pyongyang into signing a nuclear deal and she was working to warm US relations with Iran.
But Rice’s policies and determination to ignore the truth paled in comparison to the Obama administration’s policies.
In 2013, then President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told supporters that forging a nuclear accord with Iran was the central goal of Obama’s second term. Basing US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program on the reality of the program’s malign intentions – as manifested by the Syrian reactor – would hinder Obama’s chances of achieving the deal he sought.
So he ignored reality and insisted that Israel remain silent about the operation.
Israel’s public acknowledgement that it destroyed the reactor had to wait for the Trump administration.
Unlike its predecessors, the Trump administration has not made its goal to reach a nuclear accord with Iran or North Korea. Its goal is to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and to block Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal. To achieve this end, full acknowledgment of all aspects of both regimes’ nuclear operations is essential.
And so it is that Wednesday morning, Bolton readily admitted, “Syrian officers who defected to the United States have told us that they helped transfer the Iranian funds that financed the North Korean built nuclear reactor in Syria.”
Tipping his hat to the US’s most powerful ally in the Middle East, and perhaps signaling US considerations in its nuclear talks with Pyongyang, Bolton added, “The lesson Iran took from the 2007 bombing [of the reactor] was that if you conduct illicit nuclear operations, do them far away from Israel.”