At points of acute geopolitical crisis, it’s generally a good idea to listen to people with practical experience. Theory is one thing; real-world decision making is another. And too few commentators know what it means to make quick calls with imperfect information in such high-stakes moments.
For years, Matt Pottinger was an observer: a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in China. But then, in 2005, Pottinger joined the Marines, serving as an intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. The move, he has written, was inspired by a video of an American being beheaded by a terrorist in Iraq. In 2017, he joined the Trump administration and helped craft the defining geopolitical pivot of our era: the identification of China as a strategic competitor. Pottinger would rise to become Trump’s deputy national security adviser, putting him in the room for some of the 45th president’s big foreign policy decisions. (He was also one of the first officials to raise the alarm about Covid-19.)
It was because of this firsthand experience of White House decision-making that I was keen to talk to Pottinger about the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
All the evidence points toward close Iranian involvement in Hamas’s preparations for the attack on Israel earlier this month. But the Biden administration seems very reluctant to admit this. Why?
The Biden administration’s case of the Voldemorts is rooted in a misunderstanding of the nature of the Iranian regime and of deterrence. Totalitarian regimes—particularly one running an international terrorism franchise—don’t respond well to inducements, goodwill, or mood music. They see those things as expressions of weakness. The Iranians will only be deterred when we demonstrate our will and capacity to impose severe costs when they challenge us and our allies.
Some suggest that the U.S. right now is embracing Israel in a bear hug, holding Israel tight in part to constrain the Israeli response. Do you think that is right?
Well, the leaks from the Biden administration that have accompanied their expressions of support for Israel suggest that they are trying to delay action by Israel and that would support, to some extent, that bear hug hypothesis.
Why would the administration be trying to do that?
Because I think this administration is very reluctant to use force, and there’s a time and place for that kind of reluctance, right? We need to be really thoughtful about our actions. But you have a situation now where we have failed to deter Russia’s assault on Ukraine. We have failed to deter action by Hamas against Israel. We have failed to deter numerous strikes on U.S. military positions over the past couple of weeks in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxies who are armed, instructed, and commanded by Iran. And we’ve even failed to deter, or even punish, recent attempts to kill Americans on U.S. soil by the Iranian regime. The attempts fortunately failed, but it wasn’t due to deterrence. It was simply poor planning and execution that by the grace of God, some former officials like John Bolton and private citizens like Masih Alinejad are still alive right now.
The main priority, if you listen to what the Biden spokespeople say, is that the U.S. is trying to prevent this escalating from a local conflict to a regional conflict. But don’t we already have a regional crisis on our hands?
I think if you zoom out even further, you see that it’s already going from local to regional to global. We have China taking new risks just over the last week to try to humiliate the Philippines and to discredit its ally, the United States, in the South China Sea. You’ve seen Beijing insert itself into the Taiwan presidential election by threatening the business of one of the candidates for president as a way to force him out of that race. You’ve seen these attacks on the United States in Syria and Iraq that I mentioned. And you have the highly suspicious incident this month in which a Chinese ship inflicted damage to undersea gas and telecom pipes between Finland and Estonia.
These things are all connected. That’s the part that I think the Biden administration has struggled with. They want to silo these things off and deal with them in isolation, when in fact our adversaries are all interpreting signals irrespective of where we think we’re sending those signals.
I’ll give you an example: President Biden rightly drew a red line for Xi Jinping in March of 2022, just a couple of weeks after Putin’s invasion. And what President Biden said was, “if China provides weapons to Russia, the U.S. will have to pursue sanctions against China.” That was a good red line to draw, but Iran began providing suicide drones and other equipment that’s been quite consequential to Russia’s war effort against Ukraine. And they’ve done so with impunity. So what conclusion do you think Beijing will draw about President Biden’s red line when he’s shown reluctance to enforce the red line on a much weaker foe, namely Iran?
What are the things you think the Biden administration should be doing that they aren’t doing right now?
Look, when it comes to the Iranian regime, we need to respond to their attacks with force in order to brush them back. The U.S. air strikes on Iranian proxies in Syria last night are a start. But we need to impose costs on the head of the octopus, not just the tentacles. Let’s finally wage political warfare against Iran. The Biden administration has pursued a policy of maximum deference when it should be enforcing maximum deterrence. Cut off the flow of money and start giving the Iranian people the tools they need to take on the totalitarian butchers running Tehran. The Iranian people would build a just, great nation if we gave them a chance. When it comes to the situation in the South China Sea, we need to escort Philippine resupply ships using our Coast Guard vessels so that they can resupply their military position on Second Thomas Shoal, which is a feature just off the coast of the Philippines that China’s trying to control.
A lot of the distortions in the Biden administration’s foreign policy were down to their eagerness for another Iran deal, right? Do you think that is off the table now? Has Biden learned from his mistake?
One can only hope. The Biden administration showed an ability to adapt its policy from the Obama years when it came to China, but it has so far been unable to pivot from the Obama policy toward Iran, even though that policy has been a failure.
Oliver Wiseman is an editor and writer at The Free Press.
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