“It’s Tragic That After Twenty Years in Afghanistan, We’ve Come Back Full Circle”
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton sat down virtually with Israeli Amb. Ron Prosor to look back on the September 11, 2001 attacks and assess their geopolitical consequences. Recent events in Afghanistan led them to discuss the expected damage to America’s global image, how its allies and rivals will see it, and what the possible implications are for the Middle East and Israel
Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla, U.S. Central Command Public Affairs, DVIDS (public domain) (i)
Each time former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton sees the news of the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, he is overcome with dread and remorse. “This is a terrible tragedy for America and its allies, and especially for the Afghans,” he says, “Twenty years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, despite thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent, we’ve come full circle to exactly where we were. And if the Taliban allows terrorist groups to establish themselves and continue to plan anti-Western terrorist attacks, as they certainly will, the situation may get even worse. Quite frankly, it’s inexplicable.”
Bolton has a unique perspective on Afghanistan, as the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security during the September 11 attacks. He then played a pivotal role in the planning and execution of the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan one month later – which toppled the extremist Taliban regime and hunted down their Al-Qaeda affiliates.
Bolton recalls being in a morning meeting at the State Department when word came that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Soon after, to everyone’s horror, they were informed that a second passenger plane had hit the Twin Towers.
Close by, Ambassador Ron Prosor, then Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C., was scrambling for information to pass onto his government regarding the events of that morning. As hours passed, it became clear that the U.S. had suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. “I remember watching the news in our Embassy and saying to myself, ‘The world as we knew it is over’,” he recalls.
In the 20 years that have passed, Ambassadors Bolton and Prosor have often crossed paths as the U.S. launched its global campaign against terror in the Middle East, with Israel serving as its closest regional ally. Both diplomats served as their governments’ Permanent Representatives to the UN, and Bolton later served as National Security Advisor to former President Donald Trump. Prosor rose to Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then served as Ambassador to the United Kingdom, before heading to the UN. The years of professional encounters have also made the two close personal friends.
On the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, “The Arena” sat the two veteran diplomats and foreign policy experts down virtually to discuss how the world, the U.S.’ stature and global standing, have changed since that fateful day – especially in light of recent events in Afghanistan.
The day that changed the world
Prosor: John, we really have to start with current events – what’s going to happen to the U.S.’ global image and standing in the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal?
Bolton: The Afghan collapse, more accurately, is already causing considerable damage to U.S. credibility amongst our allies. Additionally, our rivals will be sure to seek ways to exploit the vulnerabilities it exposed. In the short term, it will certainly embolden radical elements to ramp up their efforts to drive us out of Iraq and Syria. In the long run, it will make allies reconsider the extent of our commitment and resolve, and it may drive them into the arms of our rivals or enemies. I’m extremely concerned about the damage done to our national security, though to be fair, it’s still worth mentioning that former President Trump started on this path by agreeing to a deal with the Taliban in February 2020.
We arrived in Afghanistan 20 years ago with a clear strategic aim: to remove the Taliban government and hunt down its Al-Qaeda affiliates. And we stayed there all these years to ensure that there was no resurgence of terrorist activity aimed at the West. This withdrawal, which will leave billions of dollars of advanced American military materiel in terrorist hands, has undone almost everything we have accomplished these past two decades.
President Bush at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center | Photo: US National Archives on Flickr, taken by White House Photography Office, September 11, 2001 (no known copyright restrictions)
Prosor: Before we start discussing the U.S.’s new strategic position, I’d like to go back to the day that it all began. Can you recall what happened in the Bush administration on September 11, which brought Afghanistan and terrorism into the heart of U.S. national security?
Bolton: Well, it’s hard to forget that day. I was in a meeting at the State Department with the Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, who was acting Secretary that day since Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Peru when the attacks took place. After the second plane hit, I recall running to my office at the State Department, looking across the Potomac River and seeing smoke rising above the Pentagon – it was the third plane that was intentionally crashed.
President George W. Bush was in Florida at the time of the attacks, and as a security measure they took him on a circuitous route on Air Force One before he came back to Washington.
Armitage, myself, and several other people spent most of the day in the State Department operations center on secure calls with the situation room in the White House. . We were trying to contact our embassies all around the world, but also reaching out to national governments. For example, we used the hotline to signal to Moscow that the various military preparations and measures we were taking had nothing to do with them.
All that time we were also trying to collect all possible information on the events, alongside the intelligence agencies – trying to pin down who was responsible and planning what we would do in response.
Prosor: Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush spoke in front of Congress and told the world: “You’re either with us – or you’re with the terrorists.” Around that time the administration also began using the terms “axis of evil” and “rogue states” to describe countries harboring terrorists and building weapons of mass destruction. Here in Israel, and I think in many other places, there was hope that this would prove to be a turning point – a moment where the world finally understood the need to rein in the bad actors mentioned in that speech. However, most of these actors are still around today and continue to threaten global stability. In your opinion, what should the U.S. have done differently to change their behavior after 9/11, and was this a missed opportunity?
Bolton: I think we did miss an opportunity. Immediately after 9/11, we had to make a lot of decisions about the threats we faced. We obviously needed to respond to the Al-Qaeda attacks, which resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But there wasn't any doubt in our minds that, one way or another, nuclear proliferation linked to terrorism would continue to pose a threat to the United States for a long time.
The original “axis” members – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – were the states we were worried about the most regarding nuclear proliferation, though we were also concerned about chemical and biological proliferation. And despite what everybody said after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Saddam Hussein had kept about 3,000 scientists and technicians who possessed the intellectual capability and expertise to put together another nuclear weapons program. He called them his ‘Nuclear Mujahideen.’
On the other hand, even after over 20 years of efforts, North Korea clearly has nuclear weapons – though we can’t say whether it can deliver them by ballistic missiles yet. And we know from the Mossad’s amazing raid in Tehran [in 2018] that they've got everything they need in terms of expertise to make nuclear weapons, if they haven’t made one already.
Prosor: So what went wrong?
Bolton: Essentially, what we failed to do then has led us to the situation we're in now. To use one of Winston Churchill’s lesser-known lines, he would have said that all this represents the “confirmed unteachability of mankind.” We won’t act when the price tag is cheap and the risk is low – but then, by the time people say, “we better do something,” it's already too late.
The bottom line is, even though it certainly remains highly controversial in the United States, I think what we did in those years was fully justifiable and made sense. However, I don't think we responded to the extent we should have.
Prosor: Looking back on these 20 years, especially after Iraq and the recent Afghanistan withdrawal, do you still consider regime change a viable policy goal?
Ambassadors Bolton and Prosor during their virtual conversation (screenshot)
Bolton: When you face objectionable behavior by a state, you can either take steps to change its behavior, hopefully permanently – or you change the regime, also hopefully permanently, which in turn produces changes in behavior.
We somehow continue to be surprised when authoritarian states don't behave the way we expect and hope, even though they have been lying, cheating, stealing, and camouflaging violations of agreements they have signed for close to a century. We try to reach deals with terrorist states like Iran and North Korea, and with organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and most recently the Taliban, as if they're ever going to honor them. The same goes for China and Russia for that matter.
In some cases, then, existential threats really strengthen the argument for regime change. It's not a universal remedy but it deals with significant threats from governments not likely to change, like in Afghanistan, where we toppled the Taliban regime and rooted out Al-Qaeda with a large degree of success. The problem was with what came afterwards – an overly ambitious and optimistic “nation-building” endeavor that had no chance of succeeding.
Another prime example is Iran, where the Islamic revolution hasn’t lost its fervor and momentum for over 40 years. One only needs to look at the results of the latest Iranian election [in May 2020], in which hardliner Ibrahim Raisi was “elected.”
Prosor: There, indeed, is an individual who the world can have no illusions about his true character and beliefs.
Bolton: Indeed. People in the West love to say ‘Well, [former president Hassan] Rouhani was a moderate.’ But they ignore the fact that the spectrum of political opinion in the leadership in Iran only ranges between ‘hardline’ and ‘extreme hardline.’
A growing threat to U.S. hegemony
Prosor: Though no one has said it officially, it’s quite clear – especially after Afghanistan – that the U.S. has almost completed its disengagement from the Middle East, where it began its global war on terror after 9/11. Recent administrations have been preoccupied primarily with Russia, China, cyber threats, and other challenges. What do you consider to be the main threat to U.S. security and to world peace today, and where does terrorism rank on this scale?
Bolton: This question needs to be addressed at two levels – first, broad strategic threats, and second, tactical threats which pose imminent potential danger.
At the strategic level, the broad threats remain Russia and especially China. But the tactical threats of WMD proliferation and terrorism are still there. It’s quite obvious that since the U.S. and its allies have pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban has taken control of the country, we’ll likely soon see Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and terrorist groups yet unknown taking root there again, and continue to pursue new ways to harm the West.
Prosor: Since we’ve already discussed Afghanistan, I’d like to move to the strategic level and ask you about China, which is undoubtedly the U.S.’ main rival nowadays in multiple arenas. Israel, too, is increasingly finding itself caught between the superpower and its contender. When I was in Washington in the early 2000s, I still remember you, alongside a few others, sounding the alarm about the growing Chinese threat. Looking back, do you think that the West was too preoccupied in the first decade of this century with fighting terrorism to properly understand and prepare for the rise of China?
Bolton: Well, as the global superpower, the U.S. must be capable of dealing with a range of threats. If we can't walk, chew gum, and say the alphabet at the same time, we're in trouble (laughs).
I think the main reason we missed the growing threat of China wasn’t due to lack of attention, but rather because we believed – contrary to growing evidence – that opening up to China would lead it to open up to us. This goes back to the Nixon administration’s warming to Beijing in the early 1970s and then Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the mid-1980s. These events led us to embrace two optimistic theories:
The first theory explained that economic engagement with China would encourage it to conform to international norms because of the benefits of international commerce. According to this line of reasoning, China would eventually look a lot like Japan or South Korea, or maybe even France and Germany.
Obviously, it hasn't worked out that way. While the Chinese joined the WTO in 2000, they continue to steal intellectual property, discriminate against foreigners, and engage in technology transfers. It’s a state-run economy in every sense of the word – even commercial companies like Huawei and ZTE are state actors and part of the intelligence apparatus. So instead of conforming to international norms, China is distorting those norms quite successfully for its own benefit.
The second theory postulated that China would become more democratic as its standard of living rose. The theory followed that an election in a village out in the middle of nowhere would spread to other villages, which would lead to elections at the provincial level, and then the national level. This pattern would persist until, pretty soon, China would look a lot like other “Asian tigers,” which democratized as they become more economically developed. This theory, too, failed. [Chinese Premier] Xi Jinping is now the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong – and his recent actions in Hong Kong demonstrate what he thinks about democracy.
It’s time to admit we've been pursuing the China problem incorrectly for at least 20 years, and try to catch up and deal with the consequences across the board. But ultimately, while we did not respond adequately, I don't think it's because we were preoccupied with terrorism.
Prosor: It seems that, so far, the Biden administration is following the same political strategy with regards to China that the Trump administration did, which is one of few bipartisan issues in American politics today. Do you agree?
Bolton: I don’t think Trump ever had a China policy. What truly drove his relations with Beijing all along was his desire to sign “the biggest trade deal in history.” He was never going to get it, of course, but at that time Xi Jinping was just as much of a friend to him as Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin were.
Trump’s change of heart only came after the outbreak of the pandemic, when people began to realize that the Chinese had not been transparent or honest regarding the origins of coronavirus. Public opinion polls showed this shift not just in the United States, but all around the world.
Trump eventually picked up on this shift in public opinion, though it didn’t help him in the 2020 election. However, I believe that if Xi had called him the next day and said, “Let's talk about that trade deal,” Trump would have been right back to it.
The Biden administration’s approach so far reflects its awareness that American opinion on China has changed dramatically. However, whether Biden can transform that into an effective policy remains to be seen. The President, and many of his staff, served eight years as part of the Obama administration, whose default approach was that everything is fine with China. That was a huge mistake. So while I think this administration is doing better than I might have expected, I am still hesitant to draw any conclusions this early.
Bolton: "Trump never truly had a China strategy". The former president with Xi Jinping, in 2019 | Photo: Shealah Craighead, The White House (public domain)
Prosor: Let’s address the second strategic threat you mentioned: Russia. In June, President Biden rallied his European partners at the G7 summit so he could meet President Putin with a strong allied front. Despite all the bad blood following the Trump years and recent cyberattacks he U.S. attributes to Russia, it seems that Washington cannot entirely abandon its relations with the Moscow. Israel, too, has an interest here since Russia is essential to the Iran nuclear deal, and Moscow has suggested it is willing to negotiate to receive Iran’s spent fuel rods. In your opinion, how can the new administration build a constructive relationship with the Kremlin, if at all?
Bolton: I’m very pessimistic on the prospects of dealing with Russia, since Putin has not done anything to make Russia-U.S. cooperation easy. You already mentioned cyberattacks in the U.S., Europe, and probably elsewhere, and to that we need to add its destabilizing activities in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East – really all around the world.
The bottom line is that, while I believe there are incentives to try to find ways to cooperate with Moscow, they're very hard to discern at this point.
Back to multilateralism?
Prosor: The Trump administration was criticized for alienating traditional allies and abandoning international treaties. Biden has worked hard to reverse course and rebuild cooperation with Europe against China and, to a lesser degree, against Russia. At the end of the G7 summit he declared that “The U.S. is back.” Is Washington indeed re-embracing multilateralism?
Bolton: Until late August, I would have said yes. But given how Biden decided unilaterally to leave Afghanistan without properly consulting or informing our allies there, I think Europe will once again grow wary of cooperating with the U.S., as will our other allies. Armin Laschet, Angela Merkel’s successor in Germany’s CDU party, called America's withdrawal “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding,” no less.
However, there is still one central area where the Biden administration is expected to pursue a multilateral approach, and that is its near-religious zeal to return to the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal, which the Trump administration left in May 2018].
I, and many others, see it as a fool's errand, because you cannot simply go back to 2015 given everything that has changed since then. To give just one example, out of many dozens: Iran has now enriched Uranium-235 to levels of around 60% and built and utilized centrifuge technology significantly beyond what's allowed in the agreement. How do you put that genie back in the bottle? You obviously can’t. So even simply recreating the original deal requires some compensation for that.
Biden’s people are so eager to return to the agreement that they argue: “The 60% enrichment proves the [JCPOA] was working, since the Iranians start enriching only after Trump left the deal.” That's obviously not true: it’s only then that they made it public, since they didn't have to hide it anymore. In fact, doing so works to the Iranians’ advantage, because now everybody knows they can do it – and, as I said before, you can't take back their progress.
I predict Biden will go back into the JCPOA sooner rather than later, and that Iran will reap an enormous economic benefit from it. It will not only strengthen their nuclear program but also their support for terrorism, and it will increase their military activity outside of Iran through the Quds force. Ultimately, it will make the region more unstable.
Prosor: You were named one of the main influences regarding Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA. Indeed, you once wrote on international agreements signed by the United States: “so many bad deals to kill, so little time.” You probably won’t be surprised to hear that many in Israel would agree with your criticism of international organizations and international law, and I won’t even go into my personal experience working opposite them at the UN. Since we've both served as Permanent Representatives for our countries, I’ll phrase this question diplomatically – can these institutions still be fixed, or should they be abandoned?
Bolton: Let’s start by discussing international law. In my view, for nations to be bound by a treaty or to join an organization, they must undertake it knowingly and give informed consent to the terms. The danger in international law nowadays lies in customary international law, which is being developed by professors at law schools who haven’t the slightest idea what the real world is like. Nevertheless, they tell you it's morally binding and if you don't agree with it, you're essentially a pariah state.
If the United States, or any other country, knowingly accepts obligations that are clear and explicitly stated, then it is a choice they make as sovereign nations. But having obligations imposed on them by a body of opinion in academia is, to me, unacceptable.
Prosor: One also cannot ignore the rise of international judicial bodies, such as the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, which has been persecuting Israel and the U.S. in recent years.
Bolton: The ICC is a good example of a new category of organizations that set up judicial bodies, which some people think are making their own laws. Luckily, only a few states in the West have agreed to accept this situation so far. Now, while it is their right to do so, I would never accept a law that I have not participated in drafting. This is basic American “no taxation without representation.”
Prosor: We in Israel really appreciated the Trump administration’s support vis-à-vis the ICC and the sanctions it imposed on its former chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. Given the Court investigation’s current trajectory, would you advise Israel to engage and cooperate with the ICC, or work to discredit it?
Bolton: To me, the single worst aspect of the ICC’s activity is that it purports to be able to exercise its jurisdiction on citizens of countries without permission from of those countries. The U.S. and Israel are not the only countries not party to the Rome Statute – so are China, India, and Russia. Yet the Court asserts that it has jurisdiction over their actions in many different circumstances, and I find that completely unacceptable.
What the ICC has done, in the case of Afghanistan, Gaza, and I’m sure in others, is focus on investigating democracies that are not part of it. Why? Because we're open societies. It's easy to get information out when mistakes are made, and like all human beings we make mistakes.
Prosor: Essentially, it is the “streetlight effect” – looking for the easiest cases to pursue.
Bolton: Precisely. The difference is that in democracies, if our people make mistakes, violating our laws or our doctrine, for example, we will punish them. That's what democracies do, and we don’t need someone in The Hague second-guessing us.
My view, going back even before the Rome Statute was agreed upon, was that the policy of the U.S. should be “no recognition, no legitimization, no cooperation.” I know for Israel this is a harder question, because people will say, “We're a small country, what alternative do we have?” But giving any sense of legitimacy to the ICC is a mistake. I think that if we if we stick to our principles, it's only going to be a matter of time before the Court becomes a thing of the past.
Prosor: In Israel, we’re similarly frustrated by the persecution from many other international organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Council, which doesn’t even try to hide its anti-Israel bias.
Bolton: We’ve both served in the United Nations, and we know what works and what doesn’t. Those agencies that stick to their jobs and avoid politics provide valuable services to the world. What's broken in the UN system is the political decision-making bodies – the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council – where issues that are fundamentally questions of power are fought out as if they are questions of law, which they are not.
Building a coalition against Iran
Prosor: If President Biden is indeed bent on rejoining the JCPOA as a multilateral agreement, how can Israel work with other regional actors against Iran?
Bolton: First, despite recent developments, I think there's still every prospect that additional Arab and Muslim countries will recognize Israel. Having Bahrain and the Emirates increasingly engaged in economic activity with Israel is going to be enormously beneficial to all participants. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or even Qatar or Oman, it begs the question – why let only two of your neighbors enjoy the benefits?
But, if Biden revives the JCPOA, I think it will ultimately be Israel’s turn to act. And the interesting question will be – which Arab states can Israel work with to ensure the Iranians don't go any further?
Prosor: I think that the looming Iranian threat has actually served to make public what were once clandestine ties between Israel and Arab countries. As Iran inches closer to a nuclear weapon, these countries understand the need to form a united front against Tehran. The “Abraham Accords” the Trump administration advanced were certainly born, in part, from these developments. But what can other Arab countries contribute to containing Iran, if they don't feel like they have Washington’s support?
Bolton: This is definitely a moment in which Israel can take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding the United States to draw Arab nations closer. For countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the only alternative to the U.S. is to get closer to China or Russia. But that is ultimately asking for serfdom under suzerainty, particularly Chinese. It's going to come at a high cost.
I think that Arab countries really don't want closer relations with Russia or China; they do wish they still had closer relations with the United States. But they know that Israel does have the backbone to do what's necessary in Iran, even if the U.S. doesn’t. Fundamentally, I think that could make a big difference.
Prosor: The Gulf states, for sure, do not wish to chain themselves to Chinese interests. And it’s certainly in Washington’s interest to provide them with incentives to avoid doing so.
Bolton: Right. And it’s important to remember that no matter what the Biden administration does, there is strong support in Congress to make sure that Israel can defend itself and that Iran doesn't threaten us either. That's essentially unanimous within the Republican party (with one or two oddball exceptions) and with a surprisingly large – if silent and somewhat intimidated – minority within the Democratic Party. I think that's important for everybody to remember as well.
Prosor: You brought us to American politics, which leads me to my final question. In your opinion, who will be the Republican candidate for the 2024 Presidential election – and what are the chances it’s going to be Trump?
Bolton: It’s hard to say now. I personally believe Trump won’t run in 2024, and that deep in his heart he knows he lost in 2020. He’s got this narrative about a stolen election, but it's impossible to run that same line twice. I think he'd like to be a kingmaker, but it's going to be a wide-open contest in 2024. And a lot of people believe Biden will not run for reelection, so the Democratic nomination could be wide open as well. Ultimately, it could develop to be a very, very long presidential campaign, alongside a sizable contest for control of Congress in 2022.
Prosor: John, it’s been great speaking to you like this again. Thank you very much for your time.
Bolton: It was indeed a pleasure. Thank you.
Leeaht Segev contributed to this article
(i) The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.