WASHINGTON - Over the past three weeks, ever since U.S. President Donald Trump surprised the world by announcing the American withdrawal from Syria, two of his most senior advisers have been jumping through hoops in an attempt to explain what exactly is the current American policy regarding Syria.
National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both embarked on trips to the Middle East, in which they tried to convince local leaders that the U.S. under Trump’s leadership isn’t about to detach itself from the region.
Bolton was in Jerusalem and in Ankara (where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan humiliated him by claiming he refused a meeting requested by the Trump adviser), and Pompeo is wrapping up a week-long trip to the region which included visits in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf states.
The explanations and promises offered by Bolton and Pompeo during their visits were lengthy and sometimes contradictory. Bolton said that the U.S. won’t leave Syria unless it's assured that Turkey won’t harm the Kurdish population in the north (which is what angered Erdogan); Pompeo assured that the U.S. is definitely withdrawing from Syria, but that it is still broadly committed to securing its allies in the Middle East.
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The problem for both Pompeo and Bolton is that leaders and public opinion shapers in the region have a hard time trusting whatever the two senior advisers have to say. Trump’s policy-by-tweet handling of the Syria withdrawal has undercut the credibility of his senior staffers, who spent the weeks and months prior to his announcement advocating against the move.
“Bolton came into this administration with very strong views of his own, particularly on the Middle East, and those views weren’t aligned with the views of the president,” says Tamara Cofman-Wittes, a former State Department official in charge of Middle East policy, who is currently at the Brookings Institution. “He tried to persuade Trump to adopt a particular approach on Syria, but that policy didn’t match the president’s inclination to pull the U.S. out of Syria.”
Bolton, who served as UN ambassador under George W. Bush, is considered one of the most hawkish and interventionist figures in Washington’s foreign policy circles. His alignment with Trump, who railed against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq during the 2016 election, was never based on foreign policy preferences or ideology.
Trump already stated during the election campaign that as far as he’s concerned, Russia can take over Syria and do whatever it wants there. Bolton, who spent the Obama administration years as a prominent right-wing “talking head,” offered the exact opposite policy in his speeches and media appearances.
What brought the two of them together was politics, not policy. Bolton’s criticism of Obama’s foreign policy was fierce and angry. Even when such criticism was justified and came from both sides of the political aisle, Bolton’s choice of words and lines of attack were among the most harsh and extreme. This has made him a favorite of some of Trump’s most important donors and supporters, including casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Bolton replaced General H.R. McMaster, who angered Trump by consistently refusing to tailor his recommendations as National Security Adviser to the president's political needs. This also made McMaster a target of a smear campaign by far-right supporters of Trump who accused McMaster, among other things, of being “anti-Israel.”
Ever since he entered the administration last April, Bolton has supported some of Trump’s wishes that McMaster opposed, such as pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal without a clear alternative outlined. But Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria highlighted something which was obvious from day one: Both he and Bolton agree that Obama’s policies were horrible, and disagree on what should replace them.
“This administration is split between senior officials who are Republican hawks, and a president who is an isolationist,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “People like Bolton and Pompeo would have been perfectly comfortable in a Republican administration like that of George W. Bush, whereas Trump ran against that administration’s policy during the Republican primary.”
The challenge for Middle Eastern countries who work with the administration, Ibish said, is that “at any given moment, it’s impossible to know who is going to win the day – the isolationist president or his hawkish advisers.”
Syria is an obvious and recent example – Trump promised to pull out of there, and ever since he made that promise, Pompeo and Bolton have been trying to reassure allies in the region that the withdrawal would be gradual, cautious and based on concrete parameters. Can their words be trusted?
“These officials can have their way on policy decisions as long as Trump isn’t paying attention,” says Ibish. “Once he becomes interested in a specific issue, he’s going to have his way. Everyone understands this is the dynamic, and the words of his advisers have limited credibility.”
Some policy analysts in Washington have accused Bolton of making statements on Syria that aren’t coordinated with Trump. Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official under Republican and Democratic presidents, wrote that Bolton is “semi freelancing” on the issue.
One person who worked with Bolton in the Bush administration told Haaretz that “Bolton is always working on his own to some degree. Under Bush, he also promoted some of his own ideas, that didn’t necessarily go through the regular decision making process. No one would be surprised if he’s doing the same thing today, especially with a president like Trump, who doesn’t follow the small details and is busy with political fights all day long.”
A number of news stories in the U.S. media over the past two weeks have described Bolton and Pompeo as fighting a last-ditch battle to at least convince Trump to slow down the Syria withdrawal. The Washington Post reported on Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined the effort by telling Trump he was concerned by the withdrawal’s impact on Iran’s access to Syria and Lebanon. Yet at this point, it’s impossible to say if their effort was successful. The administration is refusing to offer an official timeline for the pull-out.
For Bolton, however, the withdrawal could have one positive impact. By leading to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, the Syria ordeal could strengthen his position in internal debates over Iran. Mattis, who was considered an Iran hawk when he was commander of U.S. Central Command under the Obama administration, transformed into a “moderate” and “responsible adult in the room” in his role as Trump’s Secretary of Defense.
With the retired four star general out of the administration, Bolton may face less resistance for ambitious plans against Iran – such as his request, first reported over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal, to strike Iranian targets in reply to terror incidents in Baghdad.