National Security Adviser John Bolton is heading to the Middle East this weekend, heading to Turkey and Israel to try to assure them that Trump administration policies aren’t catastrophic.
Or, as Bolton put it in a series of tweets on Thursday:
Leaving tomorrow for Israel & Turkey to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, how we will work with allies & partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, & counter Iranian malign behavior in the region. 1/2
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) January 4, 2019
I’ll be joined by #GenDunford & U.S. Amb. James Jeffrey for the meetings in Turkey. 2/2
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) January 4, 2019
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will also be heading to the region on a similar mission next week, hitting Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Quite the itinerary.
“It’s a lot…and it’s kind of interesting that he’s doing it in the middle of a government shutdown,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “Doing something that broad and expensive…maybe it’s that this Syria issue [the president’s announcement of a troop withdrawal] is so big that they have to do a comprehensive walk around the region,” he added.
What a couple of weeks!
Bolton and Pompeo have their work cut out for them, given President Donald Trump’s recent moves in the region:
December 19 – 23: Shortly before Christmas, the president abruptly announced that he’d be pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, despite an August Pentagon report estimating between 20,000 and 30,000 self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) fighters are still present in Syria and Iraq.
This led to a major crisis in military leadership, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis almost immediately resigning, followed swiftly by Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. (Since then, Trump has softened his statement somewhat, saying the troop withdrawal will be “over a period of time“).
Mattis was replaced by former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, who will head the Pentagon having neither military, government, nor foreign policy experience.
Ned Price, director of policy and communications at National Security Action (who previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama before joining the the CIA from 2006 to 2017), told ThinkProgress that “The Department of Defense has been the most reliable point of contact for many of our allies around the world, including those in the Middle East.”
But then the president had gone out of his way to diminish Mattis’ clout in recent months, and so Price said he could probably “no longer be instrumental in shaping foreign policy.”
Forget Shanahan — it’s Bolton and Pompeo who will be the big winners in this shakeup, said Price. The two men, he added, “have pretty extreme worldviews” and will have the final say on what Trump hears.
December 26: Trump insults and infuriates Iraqi leadership by failing to notify them that he was going to (finally) visit U.S. troops there.
He just sort of showed up, visited the al-Asad airbase, lied about the 10 percent raise he was getting the troops, tweeted a photo that gave away the location of U.S. Navy SEAL team, and triggered such anger among Iraqi lawmakers that they started talking about kicking out U.S. troops.
They called the president’s unannounced visit to Iraq a threat to the country’s sovereignty, saying it showed “America’s arrogance and disregard in dealing with Iraq.”
Iraq, you might notice, is not one of the listed stops for Bolton and Pompeo.
January 2: In what can only be described as a humdinger of a cabinet meeting, the president said the following:
“Syria was lost long ago. It was lost long ago. We’re not talking about vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death. I’m getting out, we’re getting out of Syria. Look, we don’t want Syria.”
The pullout from Syria has been seen as a blow to the Kurds who have been fighting ISIS alongside U.S. forces in Syria as well as Iraq. The Kurds have been under attack by Turkey at the border, and being abandoned by U.S. forces all but seals their fate. Of this, the president said:
“It’s very interesting. Turkey doesn’t like them….The Kurds, our partners, are selling oil to Iran. We’re not thrilled about that, OK? I’m not happy about it at all. But we want to protect the Kurds, nevertheless, we want to protect the Kurds.”
How the United States plans on protecting the Kurds remains to be seen, but according to The Washington Post, in a December 14 call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Trump said of Syria: “You know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving.” This is in direct contradiction to what his advisers had recommended him to say.
Erdogan happily obliged, moving weapons across the border to Manbij, drawing in Syrian military forces, setting the stage for a fresh fight, possibly including the Kurds. This, said Goldenberg, would be a disaster that could “create a new security vacuum…and a place for ISIS to grow again.”
Backing the Syrian military, of course, are Russian and Iranian forces. Now, Iran is essentially President Trump’s reason for doing anything in the Middle East (supporting Israel’s assault on Gaza and turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for instance).
So imagine Israel — and probably Turkey’s — surprise when in this same epic cabinet meeting, the president said, “Iran can do what they want in Syria, frankly.” (Perhaps if Russia approves of Iran’s presence in Syria, then the president isn’t all that bothered? They might be able to keep the Iranians in check.).
“It’s very clear that what [his advisers] say about the Middle East is very different than what the president says about the Middle East,” said Goldenberg.
“They’ve been marching around the Middle East talking about how they are going to counter Iran, and Syria was an important piece of that entire strategy — maybe the most important piece — and the president just decides to pull out of Syria without consulting in them,” he added.
In Israel, that surprise registered as more of a shock,with an unnamed senior Israeli official telling Ynet on Thursday: “We are in a state of shock. Trump simply doesn’t understand the extent of the Iranian military’s presence in the region.” The source added that Israel’s only comfort was that Trump doesn’t oppose Israel’s operations in Syria.
Goldenberg, who previously served as the Chief of Staff to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at the State Department, said that behind closed doors, “the Israelis are quite concerned right now.”
But they are at the start of a political campaign, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu leans heavily on his close relationship with President Trump and what he can get out of that relationship for Israel.
This is why as problematic as Trump’s actions are, Netanyahu has been muted about the Syria situation.
“Privately, the security establishment has been scratching its head,” said Goldenberg, saying that the Israelis are likely to step up their attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, which could lead to an escalation in violence there.
Trump is playing second fiddle
Ultimately, said Price, the fact that Bolton and Pompeo are undertaking this trip sends one clear message: “‘Don’t worry about what the president says. Watch what we do,’ essentially sending a signal to them that the president is a bystander to his own foreign policy.”
He added that the president has been “outmaneuvered” by his advisers (witness how quickly the president had to walk back his immediate withdrawal to a gradual one).
What must U.S. allies be thinking, sitting across the table from Pomepo or Bolton, knowing that in the Trump administration, one day, you’re in, next day, you’re fired (“like a dog,” as the president is fond of saying)?
“This is unprecedented in terms of what our allies must be feeling and seeing, in terms of the political and policy whiplash going on in Washington. I’m not familiar with an analogous case,” said Price.
Still, Bolton and Pomepo seem to have the president’s ear and have thus far escaped his Twitter wrath, which makes them as close to a foreign policy A Team as the United States has at this point, in terms of their clout.
But, Goldenberg said that U.S. allies are taking everything with a grain of salt.
“If I’m a Middle Eastern leader sitting across the table from Pompeo or Bolton, how do I know that anything they say is actually what they president is saying?” he said.