Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton says the Middle East is facing more instability now than at any time in the past 50 years and he blames the Obama administration for fueling the chaos through cozy relations with Iran, abandoning Iraq and funding terrorism through foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Bolton says the most alarming developments center on Iran, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the latest escalation of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, but he says the erosion of stability impacts far more places in the region.
“It’s worse than at any time, I think, since before the 1967 war between Israel and the Arabs. In each of the countries, (including) Libya or Egypt or Yemen or other states that are just dissolving in front of us, you could see this series of crises merge into the entire region and really spinning into anarchy,” said Bolton.
Over the past few weeks, the greatest concerns stem from the growing success of ISIS in its effort to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and the specter of Iran taking a more dominant role in the region as it tries to fend off the attempts of ISIS to overthrow the Shia government in Baghdad.
Bolton says he wishes it were possible for both sides to lose, but sees one as a much bigger threat than the other.
“As bad as ISIS is, never forget that Iran remains the principal enemy. It already has nuclear weapons. It’s the world’s central banker of international terrorism, fully capable of giving a nuclear device to a terrorist group. So Iran remains the central threat but it does not in any way diminish the potential that ISIS has. We’re just in a situation where two powerful groups are in play and neither one of them is a friend of the United States,” said Bolton.
As for ISIS, he says fears that a region of Iraq and Syria under the control of radical extremists could make that part of the world the new breeding ground for terrorist attacks, much like Afghanistan was in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks.
“If they were able to establish a stable control over that area, as when the Taliban and Al Qaeda were running Afghanistan, it very much could be a base for terrorist operations. We’ve had reports there are lots of Americans and Europeans fighting with ISIS, who could well come back to Europe or the United States,” said Bolton.
The ambassador says many of the Sunnis fighting alongside ISIS are not radicals but see an opportunity to overthrow the hated Maliki government in Iraq. Bolton says President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq entirely at the end of 2011 was the trigger for the chaos we now see there. While lamenting what he sees as the squandered U.S. sacrifice in Iraq, he says the U.S. has very limited options in addressing the problem.
The latest explosion in the Middle East is the murder of three Israeli teenagers, and U.S. and Israeli intelligence strongly suggests Hamas is involved or even responsible for the bloodshed. Given the recent reuniting of Hamas and Fatah under the banner of the Palestinian Authority, Bolton says this episode is proof that peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is impossible.
“It really brings into focus this endless cycle of terrorist attacks that Israel is subjected to from Hamas and others. I think that justifies a very, very strong response from Israel. We all probably look at this as a crime. It would be if it were committed in the United States, but the fact is this act of terrorism is part of Hamas’ ongoing war against Israel,” said Bolton, who is comfortable with whatever level of response Israel sees fit to inflict.
“It’s an asymmetric struggle, the way the terrorists conduct their affairs. So, I think Israel is entitled to treat it as an act of war and to respond accordingly. Once you see that logic, it certainly doesn’t have to be a proportional response. I think it can be anything up to and including destroying Hamas,” said Bolton.
As for the U.S. response to the latest terrorist attack, Bolton agrees with the likes of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) and others who say the reconnecting of Fatah and Hamas means the American foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority should vanish.
“I think it is the right call. I think Fatah itself has very little legitimacy. When they team up with Hamas, I think it’s a statement that they would prefer to be making agreements with a terrorist group than making agreements with Israel,” said Bolton, who believes a two-state solution has proven to be unrealistic.
“I think the United States has to indicate that this charade is coming to an end and the whole thing is a tragedy for Israel and really a tragedy for the Palestinian people, who have been used as pawns in this struggle by radicals in the Arab world for a long, long time,” he said.
Nearly lost in the commotion throughout the region in recent weeks is President Obama’s latest effort to assist what he considers to be the moderate rebels in Syria. Obama wants Congress to approve $500 million to train and equip moderate forces trying to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.
Bolton says this is an idea without a plan and the recent exploits of ISIS should serve as a cautionary tale.
“It’s purely a political gesture by the president. He doesn’t have any strategy in mind at all here. I think what we saw ISIS do when the Iraqi army collapsed in Mosul, Tikrit and other important Iraqi cities, that allowed ISIS simply to scoop up their weapons and a considerable amount of finance. You can put weapons in the hands of so-called moderate, assuming we could agree on what the definition of moderates is. We could give them weapons, but there’s no way we can ensure that they’ll be able to hold on to those weapons,” he said.
Bolton says this is a very dicey time for all responsible actors in the region and he believes the absence of American leadership is making everyone vulnerable.
“I’m extremely concerned about it. I’m concerned about American interests. I’m concerned about our friends like Israel and the oil-producing monarchies of the Arabian peninsula. It’s a very dangerous time. Honestly, it’s not just that the president doesn’t have a policy to deal with it. He’s not paying attention to it,” said Bolton.