Foreign Policy

Did Bolton Really Contradict Trump About Syria?

It does seems so, but both men conditioned withdrawal on results, not a timeline.

Nate Jackson · Jan. 8, 2019

President Donald Trump ruffled a lot of feathers on both sides of the political aisle with his seemingly off-the-cuff December announcement that U.S. troops would soon be departing Syria. There are good arguments on both sides of the debate. Yet in typical Trump fashion, his endgame is less than clear, especially now that National Security Advisor John Bolton has apparently contradicted him.

“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton said Sunday. The U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria will occur, Bolton added, “in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and to become a threat again; and to make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured; and to take care of those who fought with us against ISIS and other terrorist groups.”

That does sound quite a bit different from Trump’s declaration last month: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home! We have won against ISIS.” At the same time, Trump’s declaration wasn’t based on a timeline but results. “We won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone,” Trump said Sunday. We suppose there’s a difference between defeated and gone. And he tweeted Monday, “No different from my original statements, 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!”

Results are what Bolton pointed to as well. Indeed, he explained, “Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see. It’s not the establishment of an arbitrary point for the withdrawal to take place as President Obama did in the Afghan situation. … The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”

No doubt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had some feedback about a total U.S. pullout, as did our Kurdish allies, whom our Turkish “allies” wish to wipe out.

So what it comes down to is that, once again, Trump used overstatements and hyperbole because he wanted to make a splash and bring attention to an issue, and then he (and White House officials) walked that back to a more reasonable position that, arguably, Trump had always aimed for. In this case, House Democrats were/are going to pull a Vietnam on Syria — snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory by defunding the efforts and then blaming the president. Trump’s gambit backed Dems into publicly supporting continuing efforts in Syria, which he can then point to when they don’t want to fund it.

This seems to be a good example of taking Trump seriously but not literally.

The Resurgent’s Steve Berman aptly sums it up: “The reality is that Syria is a mess — a Gordian knot of alliances, long-simmering feuds, ancient hatreds, and horrific violence. It’s a place where nobody is truly your friend, and everyone is potentially your enemy, and this goes triple for the United States. Trump’s instincts to get out of Syria are not entirely wrong. … But our quick departure also has consequences that hurt American interests. There’s no good answer.”

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