In the first major policy speech since his appointment, National Security Adviser John R. Bolton put some meat on the bones of President Trump’s vaunted “America first” foreign policy, saying the U.S. was ready to sanction anyone cooperating with a global court’s investigation of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan and announcing that the Palestine Liberation Organization diplomatic office in Washington was no longer welcome.
A favorite of Washington’s conservative establishment for his hawkish stance on thorny global issues, Mr. Bolton offered a robust and expansive defense of American sovereignty during an appearance at the Federalist Society, a conservative legal advocacy group.
His speech drew strong responses from supporters and critics.
He said the Hague-based International Criminal Court had no jurisdiction to investigate U.S. officials and soldiers for their actions in Afghanistan, including on charges of war crimes involving detainees that Mr. Bolton dismissed as baseless.
“We will not cooperate with the ICC,” Mr. Bolton said. “We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”
The State Department said the closure of the Palestinian office reflected in part the organization’s refusal to engage in the Trump administration’s effort for a comprehensive peace deal with Israel. Palestinian officials immediately denounced the move and said Washington had forfeited its role as an honest broker in any peace accord.
“If the choice is between our relationship with Trump administration and our legitimate rights, we choose the latter,” Ambassador Husam Zomlot, head of the PLO office, posted on Twitter. He accused the Trump administration of acting in part “based on fear of our effectiveness in shifting U.S. public opinion in our favor.”
The International Criminal Court was created in 2002 to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. More than 120 countries are members, but major powers such as the U.S., Russia and China never signed onto the court. President George W. Bush rescinded the Clinton administration’s move to join the tribunal.
Mr. Bolton was a steadfast critic of the court while serving as a senior official in the Bush administration, first as undersecretary of state and later as ambassador to the United Nations.
The court received more cooperation from the U.S. during the Obama administration.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the administration acted on information that the court could take imminent action against the U.S. government or its allies in Afghanistan.
Mr. Bolton left little doubt of U.S. determination to resist any such effort. He said the court is a “supernational independent institution” that functions with unchecked powers to “infringe on American sovereignty.” The court, he said, is “ineffective, unaccountable and, indeed, outright dangerous.”
He zeroed in on an effort late last year by prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to start investigating whether U.S. troops and intelligence officials, in addition to U.S. allies, had committed any war crimes, including torturing detainees, during the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Mr. Bolton said the Trump administration would “use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court,” including banning its judges and prosecutors from entering the U.S., sanctioning their funds and prosecuting them in American courts.
Mr. Bolton’s comments drew swift criticism from Amnesty International, which tweeted: “John Bolton & the Trump Administration’s attack on the International Criminal Court (#ICC) is an attack on millions of victims and survivors who have experienced the most serious crimes under international law.”
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights program, said the prospect of Washington levying individual sanctions on the international court’s judges, is something “straight out of an authoritarian playbook.”
“The unprecedented threat comes as U.S. officials face, for the first time, the specter of full criminal investigation by the court for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, which is an ICC member,” Mr. Dakwar said in a statement.
Mr. Bolton said the closure of the PLO’s Washington office also arose in part from its efforts to persuade the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
His announcement, which the State Department echoed, is the latest attempt to pressure Palestinians to re-engage in peace talks with Israel.
Those tactics have moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to Palestinian organizations working with refugees and economic development in the West Bank and Gaza.
“This afternoon, we also make a new pledge to the American people,” Mr. Bolton said. “If the court comes after us, Israel or any of our other allies, we will not sit quietly.”
While condemned by the Palestinians, the move was greeted warmly by pro-Israeli groups in Washington.
“The PLO has outlived its usefulness since the creation of the Palestinian Authority,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It confuses negotiators as to who now makes decisions. Its leaders have been consistently against compromise.”
But PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi called the office closure a “form of crude and vicious blackmail,” according to a statement carried by the Palestinian Authority’s official Wafa news agency.
Senior Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat demanded that the international community intervene in what he argued were American “attacks against the international system as a whole.”
Palestinian officials said Mr. Bolton’s announcement would accelerate their campaign to get the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel.
PLO officials confirmed that they had received notice that the Washington office must close, but staffers reportedly were still working and unsure of when they might have to abandon their posts.