Published January 14, 2019
Recent news reports on Trump’s Syria pullout make one thing crystal clear: Someone inside the administration is leaking against national security adviser John Bolton. Determining who and why is important going forward, especially for conservatives concerned about President Trump ceding too much ground to our adversaries.
First, consider a report in The Post that quotes unnamed administration officials, who disparage Bolton’s recent visit to the Middle East to speak with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the president’s withdrawal from Syria. A second report in the Wall Street Journal, again citing unnamed administration officials, contends that Bolton requested the Pentagon to produce military options to strike Iran last year after three mortar blasts exploded in Baghdad’s diplomatic quarter. That report also cast Bolton in a negative light, with one former official quoted anonymously as saying, “It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
It’s good practice in Washington never to take anonymous leaks at face value. Anyone involved in such practices is doing so for a purpose: They want to use the resultant story to influence internal personnel or policy decisions. It’s like that scene in “Casablanca” in which a man warns visitors about vultures and thieves while picking a gentleman’s pocket.
I’ll let those whose profession it is to follow the administration’s foreign policy in minute detail try to speculate who is behind the leaking. But there are a few clues from the reports that suggest what they are trying to accomplish.
The first report seeks to portray Bolton as a bumbler whose undiplomatic attempt to soothe both Netanyahu and Erdogan made the withdrawal harder to implement. This could be the work of someone trying to diminish Bolton’s influence within the administration. When the president asks why his administration has yet to fully withdraw from Syria, these people can use the report as evidence that Bolton is the problem.
In particular, note that a key issue at stake in the withdrawal is the Turkish reaction to the Kurdish forces within Syria, whom Turkey views as tied to anti-Turkish Kurdish terrorist groups. Since the president has apparently acceded to internal requests to slow the withdrawal to ensure these allies’ safety, any delay that can be attributed to this concern now arguably lies on Bolton’s doorstep.
The second report appears to address Iranian policy, but this, too, affects the speed of the Syria pullout. Bolton has reportedly said that troops will remain as long as Iran and its proxies are present in Syria, which could delay the pullout much longer than the president initially wanted. Presto! This article reinforces the long-standing charge that Bolton is unnecessarily hawkish on Iran. Again, any slowdown in the pullout that’s attributable to concern about Iranian presence in Syria is now arguably on Bolton’s doorstep.
Perhaps, whoever is responsible for the leaks simply wants to rise in the president’s favor by taking his side on the Syria pullout. It might also be the case that some longtime internal foes of Bolton are trying to weaken him using these instances as pretexts. Or it might be an indication that there are some people in Trump’s orbit who actively want a less militarily aggressive foreign policy across the board and are trying to weaken Bolton’s influence over future policy debates.
Whatever the motive, conservatives who favor more robust U.S. involvement abroad should sit up and take notice. One of their strongest allies within the administration is under attack. Whether Bolton’s influence wanes or even whether he remains is crucially important for anyone who worries that the president’s impulses that deviate from past American foreign policy will weaken American security.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.”