By Mark Landler and Helene Cooper
John R. Bolton found himself last weekend in a familiar but dangerous spot for any White House aide: cleaning up after his boss, President Donald Trump, announced the withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Syria — a decision that rattled allies and threw America’s Middle East policy into turmoil.
But Bolton is at least partly responsible for the conditions that led to Trump’s sudden move.
As the president’s national security adviser, Bolton has largely eliminated the internal policy debates that could have fleshed out the troop decision with timetables, conditions and a counterterrorism strategy for after the troops leave. Under Bolton’s management, senior administration officials said, the National Security Council staff had “zero” role in brokering a debate over America’s future in Syria.
Bolton, officials said, was surprised by the timing of Trump’s announcement, which contradicted his own pledge in September to keep U.S. troops in Syria. Faced with the president’s abrupt declaration, which drew howls of protest from Congress and concerned phone calls from allies like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Bolton felt compelled to talk his boss into slowing down the process, these officials said.
Then Bolton had to cobble together a withdrawal strategy that would normally have taken shape over weeks or months and laid the groundwork for Trump’s decision — not hastily followed it.
After Bolton presented the details in Israel on Sunday, Trump pushed back on reports that he and his adviser were out of sync. “We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” he said in a tweet Monday, firing at a report in The New York Times rather than at Bolton.
If Trump did not repudiate his adviser, the daylight between their words captured the tricky path that Bolton, 70, a former official in the George W. Bush administration who long occupied the hawkish fringe of the Republican Party, has walked since entering the White House in April. Bolton himself famously battled with the bureaucracy in Bush’s State Department. But the discordant messages laid bare a national security process that, officials say, has shrunk to little more than the instincts of an impulsive president.
There is not much Bolton can do to temper his boss. Trump’s erratic style and habit of undermining his advisers has already driven out the secretaries of state and defense, as well as Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster. McMaster held many more meetings than Bolton and was still routinely blindsided by Trump’s tweets.
Bolton Walked Back an Unpopular Statement on Syria His Disdain for Debate Helped Produce
“Bolton is trying to salvage the situation, but he’s unable to do so, because everyone in the region will question whether he is speaking for himself or for the president,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Bolton, officials said, has put his energy into keeping the ear of the president. His strategy has worked on some issues, like withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, but less so on others, like maintaining a presence in Syria to counter Iranian influence — something Bolton vowed to do only weeks before the president decided to pull out.
Bolton was not the only official to urge Trump to slow down on Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the same argument, as did Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., over lunch with the president and military commanders who met with Trump during his holiday visit to the troops in Iraq. Netanyahu called Trump to pass along the view that it is in Israel’s interest for the United States to maintain a presence in the region, according to an Israeli official.
Trump’s aides “have created on the back end the process that you would normally have on the front end,” said Derek H. Chollet, a Pentagon official under President Barack Obama.
“In normal times,” Chollet said, “you would have a discussion on a proposed decision that would lead to the decision, and you would discuss how to implement one. But now, the process is such that once you get policy guidance from the president in the form of a tweet, you reverse-engineer a process.”