Bolton, a key Trump adviser, changes his views on Syria
By BY ANITA KUMAR, FRANCO ORDONEZ AND TIM JOHNSON | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: April 14, 2018
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — When President Barack Obama considered a military strike in Syria after its use of chemical weapons five years ago, the former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton argued against intervention.
“I don’t think it is in America’s interest,” Bolton said in 2013. “I don’t think we should in effect take sides in the Syrian conflict.”
Yet for the past week, Bolton, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, has been pushing for a more aggressive approach to Syria, illustrating that his views in the region have changed as he has become more alarmed about the rise of influence by Russia and Iran, key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Ultimately, he views the Syrian crisis through the lens of Iran and Iran’s potential dominance in the region,” said Mark Groombridge, a former Bolton aide at the State Department who joined Bolton as an adviser in 2005 when Bolton became ambassador.
When the U.S., France and the United Kingdom launched airstrikes on sites designed to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons program in Syria, critics blamed Bolton.
The liberal group People’s Action described him as “John ‘Bomb ’em All’ Bolton” in a fundraising appeal to supporters Saturday.
Bolton stood near Trump when he briefly addressed the nation about the airstrikes Friday night, taking notes on a yellow legal pad.
U.S. defense officials said the airstrikes could be repeated if Assad uses chemical weapons again.
But former colleagues say Bolton, now one of the most influential foreign policy voices in Trump’s administration, is focusing less on the use of chemical weapons than on broader geopolitical issues in the Middle East that have changed in the past five years.
“We’re dealing with a very different situation now. Russia and Iran have saved the Assad regime,” said Nicholas Rostow, who was a national security aide to George W. Bush and has long known and worked with Bolton. “Assad has showed a consistent willingness to ignore his commitment about chemical weapons and to use them.”
Rostow said there’s no conflict with what Bolton previously said about Syria and what he says now. “John is very smart,” he said. “He’ll think next steps.”
Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster on Monday as national security adviser, one of a series of White House staff changes in recent weeks. Trump also nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state after firing Rex Tillerson.
“He’s going to be much more hands-on, much more managerial,” said Douglas H. Paal, a former staff member on the National Security Council under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Bolton and Trump met regularly during the presidential transition and at the White House to discuss foreign policy. In the past week, he has been a constant presence at deliberations on Syria and was in the Oval Office when Trump called U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets, a group that opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said it is “a clear indication of what many have warned,” that with the hiring of Pompeo and Bolton, Trump has assembled “a neocon war cabinet,” referring to the hawkish wing of conservatives known as neoconservatives.
James Jeffrey, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, said Bolton was wrong to say that the U.S. shouldn’t take sides in the civil war, but he said that was also before Russia got involved.
And then there was the politics. Bolton is political, Jeffrey said.
“Remember when Bolton made that comment, it was the Obama administration,” Jeffrey said. “So whatever the administration is announcing to do, as a pundit on the other side, you roll out all the arguments against it.”
Bolton’s next key test will be helping Trump decide next month whether to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which he has long opposed. The 2015 agreement was designed to allow Iran to pursue a nuclear program but to prevent it from producing a nuclear weapon.
Bolton, an advocate of using U.S. military might throughout his career, was one of the architects of Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
That’s why his views in 2013 on Syria were so surprising. “There’s very little to recommend either side to me, and I think the notion that a limited strike, which is what the president seems to be pursuing, will not create a deterrent effect with respect to either to Syria’s use of chemical weapons or, more seriously, Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” he said at the time.
“I don’t think what Bolton has said in the past on this is so relevant, frankly,” said Paul B. Stares, who worked on the Iraq Study Group and the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federal institution that is involved in conflicts around the world. “People change their views, especially those who get read into new sensitive information. They can claim that, ‘I said that when I was ignorant of the facts or not briefed on the facts,’ ” said Stares, who is now at the Council of Foreign Relations.
What was once a civil war in Syria grew into a broader battle against armed Islamic radicals under the umbrella of Islamic State and its quest to establish a caliphate. Now that those extremists largely have been defeated, Syria is occupied by military forces from other countries that oppose the U.S.
“What’s changed in Syria is the significant influence of Iran, of Hezbollah and of Russia,” said Zuhdi Jasser, a Syrian-American who is founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. “It is no longer a civil war,” Jasser said. “It is a regional proxy war in which the Shia radical Islamists based in Tehran are seeking to homogenize the crescent through Iraq, through Syria and into Lebanon.”
“This is a totally different calculus now,” said Jasser, who has frequently served on panels with Bolton, including Feb. 23 at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservatives.
Asked at the White House last week about Bolton’s past views, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed them. “The point of view that matters most here at the White House, as you well know, is the president’s,” she said.