Tom Ridge, New York Daily News, 18 April 2018
John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser has given rise to a lot of hand-wringing about the possibility of another U.S. war in the Middle East. Critics should pause before they rush to judgment.
The U.S. remains entangled in the Syrian war, attempting to mitigate the damage of Bashar Assad while searching for a way forward in what looks increasingly like a no-win situation. We have necessarily renewed our 15-plus year commitments in Afghanistan, where the Taliban appears poised to attempt a comeback. Meanwhile, our Middle Eastern allies are threatened by another civil war in Yemen. Discord undermines stability in Iraq and a number of other countries essential to national and international security.
There is a common factor underlying all these conflicts. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been Assad’s chief backer since the start of the Syrian civil war. Tehran backs the Houthi rebels in Yemen and provides them with weapons like the ballistic missiles aimed at Saudi Arabia.
Iran is striving to duplicate its Hezbollah model among paramilitary groups in Iraq and elsewhere. And Iran has begun expanding relations with the Taliban, ignoring sectarian differences in order to cause trouble for common enemies, just as it did with Al Qaeda in years past.
Every sensible policymaker recognizes that Iran’s fingerprints are prominent on every major crisis in the Middle East. This is true of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has won mainstream acceptance.
Instead of portraying Bolton’s appointment as unreasonable, commentators could have opted for a perfectly reasonable discussion about the different approaches the U.S. might take to what is widely acknowledged as a serious and growing threat from the Islamic Republic. In the wake of the 2015 nuclear agreement, much of Iran’s behavior has gotten worse, including its antagonism of Western and regional adversaries and its intrusion into the affairs of neighboring countries.
A sober examination of Bolton’s positions might reveal that there are two basic approaches to Iran policy.
The first approach naturally tends toward appeasement; that’s what we’ve been mired in in for almost the entirety of the Islamic Republic — particularly during the nuclear negotiations, when the Obama administration gave away much of the political and economic leverage that the West had over Iran.
The other approach is more assertive in the face of Iran’s ongoing provocations — and that’s what we finally have a chance to try now.
What Bolton’s critics seem to ignore is that assertiveness does not necessarily suggest a rush to war. Rather than risking American lives or wealth, it should entail coordinated economic sanctions, international campaigns to hold officials to account for human rights abuses and other misbehavior, and the promotion of domestic elements that are friendly to American interests and to democratic values more generally.
Iran already has a broadly popular resistance movement, as was proven in late December and January when the entire country was rocked by a series of anti-government protests that went on for several weeks. Demonstrators were comprised of diverse demographics, including poor, rural Iranians who had long been assumed to be bedrocks of support for the regime. They explicitly called for regime change, a call echoed by a major opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Soon after the Iranian people’s uprising began in December, Trump declared his support for their fight against tyranny. Bolton has long offered the movement his support, too.
This historic moment presents a unique opportunity, one that the U.S. could exploit by shifting its Iran policy away from appeasement and misplaced outreach in favor of support for the Iranian Resistance and the Iranian people’s long-frustrated desire for freedom and democratic governance.
In light of that opportunity, there is no better time for a figure like John Bolton to join the White House and help Trump shake the U.S. free from failed patterns.
Bolton no doubt understands that getting rid of Iran’s clerical regime will not require the U.S. to launch another foreign war. Quite the contrary, domestically-driven regime change is the only thing that will take war off the table altogether, and it would be a giant step in the direction of freeing the U.S. and its allies from several existing quagmires.
Ridge served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of homeland security and as governor of Pennsylvania.