Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton talked on Wednesday’s Breitbart News Daily with Sirius XM host Alex Marlow about victory in Mosul, strategy for a post-Islamic State Middle East, the diplomatic crisis in Qatar, and the North Korean nuclear problem.
“I don’t think it’s quite over in Mosul, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that ISIS is ultimately going to be defeated there, and ultimately, it will be defeated elsewhere in Syria and Iraq,” Bolton said.
“Remember, this is the signal battle. Over two-and-a-half years ago when ISIS burst out of Syria, burst out of nowhere, the Iraqi Army confronted them before Mosul and collapsed completely, just disintegrated,” he recalled. “This is the army that Obama and the Bush administration had been arming and training for years, and they just completely collapsed.”
Although victory in Mosul is an important milestone in the improvement of the Iraqi military, Bolton feared it is “a hollow victory for the United States.”
“Obviously, we want to destroy ISIS. Obama’s slow-roll policy allowed them to continue to recruit terrorists far longer than was necessary and allowed many of the top leaders, I think, to get out of the Middle East, to go somewhere else – to go to Libya, to go to Yemen, and to live to fight another day,” he explained. “But I think the worst part of it – and this will be even more manifest when Raqqa, the capital of the so-called ISIS caliphate, is taken hopefully in the near future – we have not prepared for the strategic situation after ISIS is defeated.”
“Or I could put it a different way and say Obama did prepare for it, and he was happy to have Iran and its surrogates fill the vacuum that ISIS is going to leave,” Bolton added. “That’s what is happening in Mosul now. The Iraqi government is, to all intents and purposes, under the control of the ayatollahs in Tehran. Not entirely, but I’d liken the situation to Eastern Europe in the late 1940s as the Soviet Union tightened its grip on the countries that were soon to become satellites. That’s what Iran is doing to Iraq.”
“What Iran’s objective is, when we collapse ISIS at the last stages, it wants to link up from Iran, through the Baghdad government in Iraq, to the Assad regime’s regular forces in Syria and the Hezbollah terrorists who are there in Lebanon,” Bolton warned. “There are press reports already that some Shiite militias from Iraq have already linked up with Assad’s forces.”
“The Iranians are trying to create an arc of control that lays the foundation for the next struggle in the Middle East, against the Sunni coalition led by the Saudis,” he said. “Barack Obama was entirely comfortable with that. I think that’s consistent with his view that, you know, Iran’s really basically a normal kind of nation, we’ll just talk them out of their nuclear weapons and then everything will be fine.”
“That’s not how the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards Corps see it,” Bolton argued. “Now there are even stories in places like the Washington Post and the New York Times saying we could have some trouble here in Mosul and Western Iraq because of what I’ve just described.”
“I wish I could say the Trump administration had a strategy to deal with it,” he sighed. “I think the president’s probably in the right place on this, but I don’t think his bureaucracy has produced that kind of strategy yet. In the kind of strategic vacuum that may be developing, I think we’re going to have trouble in the not-too-distant future.”
Bolton said the “complex multi-party conflict” in the Middle East leaves the United States with “several objectives which are not always entirely consistent with one another.”
“The only good news is our adversaries have inconsistent objectives too,” he added.
“Our first objective – and what we’ve been pursuing in a far too relaxed pace under Obama; it speeded up under Trump – is to defeat and destroy the ISIS caliphate. It doesn’t end the ISIS problem, but it takes their territorial base away from them and forces them to go to places that are a lot less hospitable, like Libya, and gives us a chance to pursue them elsewhere,” he said.
“But then the question is, ‘What do you do with the vacuum, the political vacuum that exists once ISIS is defeated?’” Bolton asked. “The Sunni Arabs do not want to go under the control of the Baghdad government, for the reason I just said: it’s dominated by the ayatollahs. Nor do the Sunni Arabs of Syria want to happily resume being oppressed by the Assad regime, with both Assad and Iran obviously being backed by Russia. So you need a solution to the Sunni problem there in that hole that used to be the ISIS caliphate. We do not have a strategy.”
“I propose creating a new state, a secular but demographically Sunni state that the Saudis could help pay for, to provide some measure of stability and to prevent Iran from achieving that arc of control that I mentioned a few moments ago,” Bolton recommended.
“Really, this is part of the bigger picture of how we deal with Iran, which is continuing to pursue nuclear weapons along with its friends in North Korea and continuing to support terrorism around the world,” he explained. “That struggle with Iran is something that was just absent from the radar screen in the Obama administration, but it’s going to come to the fore again once ISIS is defeated.”
“We’ve got to be thinking ahead,” he urged. “It’s not enough to kind of wake up every day and say, ‘Well, gee, what problem do we have now?’ You have to have a strategy, and the strategy I think is critical is defeating radical Islamic terrorism and dealing with the threat of the world’s principal state sponsor of terrorism, which is Iran.”
Marlow asked Bolton how the diplomatic conflict between Qatar and the other Sunni nations fits into the Middle Eastern puzzle.
“Across the Gulf, the oil-producing monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, there’s a lot of financial support for terrorism,” Bolton replied. “Some of it comes directly from governments. Some of it comes from royal families, which is in many senses the same thing. Some of it comes from other wealthy people; the government gives them a wink and a nod and away they go. It comes from a lot of places.”
“The Saudis have picked on Qatar in particular because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but I think also they’re worried about Qatar’s tilt toward Iran,” he continued. “They want a united Sunni Arab community here, in preparation for the coming conflict. Qatar’s response is, ‘Well, what are you picking on us for? Because of the Muslim Brotherhood? The United States hasn’t declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and neither have we, so why are we any different from you?’”
“It’s not entirely accurate, the way they put it, but they’ve raised a fair point,” Bolton conceded. “My reaction is, ‘Great, let’s take this opportunity and do what we should have done anyway. Let’s declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.’ Having done that, we turn back to Qatar and say, ‘Now, you follow suit.’”
“I think we ought to use the president’s summit meeting in Riyadh a couple of weeks ago, where they created this pan-Arab, pan-Muslim center for combating extremism and give all these governments the cover they need to cut off the sources of terrorist financing,” he said. “Cut it off from Qatar and the Qatari royal family, cut it off from Saudi Arabia, cut it off from all of the Arab countries that have so much excess cash flowing around because of the oil revenues.”
“There’s a way to me here to advance American objectives and get Arab unity back, which we do need as we look at the coming problem with Iran,” Bolton judged.
He suggested adding Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps to the designated terrorist list because “that’s fundamentally what it is,” but he acknowledged that applying that designation to the Muslim Brotherhood has proven surprisingly difficult.
“There’s been an amazing campaign. It’s always amazing to me how these stories and op-eds and lines of chatter appear simultaneously, all very well-coordinated,” said Bolton. “The argument being the Muslim Brotherhood is a complicated organization, not every part of it is devoted to the support of terrorism. Some of them do humanitarian work and so on; a declaration that the entire Brotherhood is a foreign terrorist organization would actually buttress the cause of the jihadis; so, therefore, don’t do anything.”
“Let’s take the notion inherent in that argument as having some validity, that there are pieces of the Muslim Brotherhood that don’t qualify under the statutory definition we have of a foreign terrorist organization,” he allowed. “My response to that is, ‘Okay, we need some careful drafting based on the evidence we have now that excludes some affiliates, some components of the Muslim Brotherhood from the designation.’ I’m prepared to live with that, of course, until we get more complete information.”
“But the argument of the proponents of the Brotherhood is because things are complicated, do nothing. Do not declare any part of it a terrorist organization. That’s the wrong conclusion. The right conclusion is, things are complicated? Okay, fine. Just declare part of it a terrorist organization. We’ll deal with the rest of it later,” he said.
“It’s not an argument to do nothing,” Bolton insisted. “It’s an argument to be precise in designating what is a foreign terrorist organization. I think good lawyers, good counterterrorism experts could do this without a huge amount of difficulty, and I really think it’s the right thing to do in terms of policy. And as you say, I think it’s the right thing to do politically for the Trump administration as well.”
Marlow concluded by bringing up another extremely complex situation: North Korea’s nuclear missile program and the odds that China will take meaningful action to halt it. “Is China increasingly belligerent to the United States, and are they doing enough on North Korea at this point in time?” he asked.
“I think they’re increasingly belligerent all around their frontier and in the world as a whole,” Bolton replied. “Take trying to take over the South China Sea as just one example of it.”
“On North Korea, they’ve said for 25 years they don’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons because it will cause instability in East Asia, and that’s a bad thing for their economic growth. That’s what they say, but they never deliver on that,” he noted.
“I personally think they’ve been playing a double game. They appear to tighten sanctions on North Korea until our attention wanders and we look at something else, and then we’re back to business as usual. They’ve done it to Donald Trump. He’s already noted that in his famous tweet. But that’s been a pattern they’ve followed for a long, long time on North Korea,” he said.
“I think we’ve got to call them on it because I think the North Korean threat is getting increasingly dangerous, increasingly risky for the United States, and our options are limited. Fiddling around with China as we have for 25 years is not going to solve the problem,” Bolton advised.