Since his appointment as national security adviser last week, countless journalists, left-leaning commentators, and Democratic politicians, as well as isolationist-leaning conservatives, have castigated John Bolton as a warmonger who poses a danger to the United States, and to the world. These voices are especially vitriolic when discussing Bolton's tough posture toward Iran, noting that he has called for military strikes to cripple Tehran's nuclear program.
Bolton "has never met a war he didn't want," wrote Wendy Sherman, Washington's lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal. "The march to military conflict [with Tehran] will be hard to stop, especially with Mr. Bolton leading the National Security Council."
Bolton is "likely to encourage Trump to chart a path toward military confrontation with Iran," wrote Colin Kahl and Jon Wolfsthal, former senior advisers to President Barack Obama, in a piece titled, "John Bolton is a national security threat."
The New York Times editorial board did not mince words either. "Yes, John Bolton really is that dangerous," the paper argued, suggesting that the former United Nations ambassador's opposition to the nuclear deal, and his policy recommendations toward Tehran, will lead to war.
In reality, however, it is the Times and its friends who are fostering war with Iran. As the Islamic Republic's expansion in Syria sets the stage for a wider war in the Middle East, many observers in the West advocate policies euphemistically labeled "engagement" that amount to inaction in the face of Iranian aggression, thereby advancing, not stopping, the path to armed conflict. Bolton, conversely, actually may help prevent large-scale war in the Middle East because of his "ultra-hawkishness," by reestablishing a credible U.S. military deterrent to avert a catastrophic conflict.
Current conditions in the Middle East make it hard to foresee any outcome other than war. Specifically, Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization based in Lebanon, are on a collision course to fight a third Lebanon war because of the situation in Syria—not tomorrow, but in the foreseeable future.
Unlike the first two wars in 1982 and 2006, when the Jewish state fought Iran's chief proxy force, the next round will involve Tehran's militias from across the Middle East and could turn into a regional calamity. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said that a future war with Israel could draw thousands of fighters from countries including Iran and Iraq. Iranians themselves will fight and die, with the Islamic Republic's armed forces being an active belligerent. Israel's next war with Hezbollah, then, will also be a direct war with Iran. Such a conflict will devastate the Middle East, bringing massive destruction to the region.
The events of Feb. 10 show how the status quo in Syria is fostering an Israel-Hezbollah war. That morning, the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) flew a drone from a base in central Syria into Israeli airspace. Israel quickly destroyed the drone and sent fighter jets across the border to attack the base, destroying its command center and mobile launch vehicle.
The Syrian government, allied with Iran, responded by firing advanced, Russian-supplied surface-to-air missiles at the Israeli jets. One jet was shot down; the two-man crew ejected successfully in Israel. In response, Jerusalem destroyed about half of Syria's air defenses, attacking more than a dozen Syrian and Iranian military targets.
The clashes—the most significant between Israel and Iran's alliance network since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011—should have alarmed Western policymakers about Tehran's expanding military presence in Syria, but they largely did not.
The Iranian regime and Hezbollah seek to destroy Israel. The Syrian conflict offered them an opportunity to create a new front against the Jewish state to help achieve that goal. Now that Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias have effectively crushed rebel efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, Tehran can turn its attention south to Israel.
The IRGC and its proxies will continue moving toward the Golan Heights to build up their presence, forcing Israel to launch more military strikes in Syria. This dynamic puts Israel and Hezbollah on a path toward war, especially as Iran builds missile-production facilities in Syria and Lebanon. Eventually, Jerusalem will need to take decisive military action, unless Iran and Hezbollah do so first.
Yet Washington, which has the ability to counter Iran's aggression to avert this destructive outcome, has effectively done nothing of consequence since 2011 to contain and deter further Iranian expansion in Syria. Obama sought reconciliation with Tehran and was willing to cede Syria to the ayatollahs in order to broker the nuclear deal. Trump has talked about countering Iran's imperial ambitions in the Middle East, but has done little to halt Tehran's march on the ground.
With Bolton, there is at least a chance that the United States will take steps to alter the status quo in Syria to avert a coming war. The United States is more likely, for example, to launch limited military strikes against the IRGC, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-backed militias in Syria to draw clear U.S. red lines. These targeted attacks—against bases, weapons, and convoys—would deter Tehran from becoming bolder in its efforts to attack Israel, thus lowering the chances of war.
U.S. military strikes are unlikely to risk direct conflict between Washington and Tehran (or Moscow). The U.S. targeted pro-Iran forces in Syria several times in 2016 and 2017, without Moscow, Tehran, or Hezbollah taking retaliatory actions. In fact, such strikes have caused Iran and Hezbollah to change their operational plans to avoid U.S. forces, because their leaders do not want war with the United States. Neither does Russia, which has not escalated when the United States attacked Syrian government forces, nor when it killed dozens of Russian contractors last month.
Moreover, history shows that Iran tries to avoid direct military confrontation with more powerful foes, even if Iranians are killed. Tehran knows it is far weaker than the United States, so it may choose to respond indirectly—ordering its proxies in Iraq to target U.S. forces there, for example. Such threats have existed for years, however, and such tactics should not deter Washington, but rather motivate it to push back.
Striking Iranian forces has significant benefits. Beyond deterring an Israel-Hezbollah war, targeted U.S. attacks would give Washington more leverage in diplomatic talks with Russia over Syria's future. More importantly, the strikes would have the long-term effect of hindering Iran's broader efforts to form a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut, which creates an Iranian sphere of influence that reaches from its Afghan borders to the Mediterranean Sea.
Officials in Washington often discuss political solutions in the Middle East—worthy conversations, to be sure—but political solutions are mirages when the United States lacks a credible military deterrent. For its part, as the West discusses political solutions, Iran has expanded its reach by focusing on military ones. And as the United States sits, Tehran is seizing physical land and spreading its influence.