It falls to the national security adviser to defend the incomprehensible.
It’s tempting to pity John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser.
Tempting because it falls to the irascible but experienced Mr. Bolton to try to explain, or even undo, the president’s more impulsive and erratic foreign policy decisions. Pity because of the mortifying contortions required.
This past week Mr. Bolton journeyed to Ankara to discuss the American role in the Syrian civil war with Turkish government officials, only to run smack into another autocrat with a short fuse, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader canceled a planned meeting with Mr. Bolton and then publicly excoriated him.
Such humiliations pale, however, when one considers the Gordian knot that Mr. Bolton went to Ankara to untangle. That is, how to stop Mr. Erdogan from slaughtering Syrian Kurdish forces, who have been essential in fighting the Islamic State, after the Americans leave northern Syria. Mr. Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurds to be terrorists aligned with those in Turkey who have been in a separatist battle with the state for about 40 years.
Mr. Bolton’s diplomatic mission was unusually tough because both Turkey and the Kurds are partners of the United States. The Syrian Kurds are formidable fighters, and the progress against ISIS that Mr. Trump touts would have been impossible without them.
The Turks, meanwhile, are NATO allies, bound to Washington in a formal defense pact. Incirlik Air Base, a major staging point for American military operations throughout the Middle East, is in southern Turkey.
Mr. Bolton, a conservative hard-liner with considerable self-regard, can be a hard person to feel sympathy toward. He has made his own serious errors, not least his aggressive support for the 2003 Iraq War, which destabilized the Middle East, and, more recently, his creation of a White House decision-making system that limits robust discussion.
He certainly knew before taking the position as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser that he would be serving a chaos-driven and temperamental master. Still, Mr. Bolton faces the unenviable challenge of regularly having to defend the indefensible or make corrections after the fact. In October, he flew to Moscow to explain to President Vladimir Putin Mr. Trump’s sudden and ill-advised decision to begin pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mr. Bolton’s latest Middle East visit was intended to reassure anxious regional leaders that the American withdrawal from Syria would be orderly. But the mission ran aground after Mr. Bolton demanded that Turkey protect Washington’s Kurdish allies and pledged that American forces would remain in Syria until the Islamic State was defeated, which could take months or years. That seemed to contradict Mr. Trump’s pronouncement in December that the Islamic State had been defeated and all 2,000 American troops would be out of Syria within 30 days.
Cue Mr. Erdogan, who dismissed Mr. Bolton’s remarks as a “grave mistake” and said, “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel.” A pro-government newspaper went so far as to accuse Mr. Bolton of being part of a “soft coup against Trump.”
‘This is tyranny of talk radio hosts, right?’: Limbaugh and Coulter blamed for Trump’s shutdown
So what caused Trump to flip back? Some have suggested that he bowed to backlash from high-profile conservative pundits — notably Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh — who lambasted the president for appearing to concede on the wall funding.
On his radio show Wednesday, Limbaugh said the president was “getting ready to cave” on getting money for the wall in the budget.
“It’s a textbook example of what the drive-by media calls compromise,” Limbaugh said. “Trump gets nothing, and the Democrats get everything, including control of the House.”
Coulter, during a podcast on the Daily Caller, said Trump’s White House would become “a joke presidency that scammed the American people” if he didn’t build the wall, adding that “he’ll have no legacy whatsoever.” She also wrote a scathing column about the president and launched a flurry of criticisms on Twitter.
As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.
Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.
These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?
.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.
.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.
.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.
.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.
.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.
.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not
- sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
- resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
- Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
- Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
- oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
- Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
- human rights,
- civil liberties, and
- democratic institutions, in that order.
Trump has stood all of this on its head.
He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.
He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it
.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.
.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.
.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.
And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.
Little known outside of the highest levels of Iraqi and allied intelligence agencies, the Falcons have placed a handful of spies inside the ranks of the Islamic State. Its intelligence helped oust the extremists from their last urban strongholds last year and it now aids the hunt for the group’s leaders, like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Recently, an Iraqi-American sting based on Iraqi intelligence led to the arrest of five senior Islamic State members who had been hiding in Turkey and Syria. Iraqi officials say the Falcons have foiled hundreds of attacks on Baghdad, making the capital the safest it has been in 15 years.
American military officials consider the agency as good as they get among non-Western spy services.
“It has proved to be an extremely valuable unit,” said Col. Sean J. Ryan, a spokesman for the American-led military coalition in Baghdad. The Falcons, he said, have diminished the threat of the Islamic State by infiltrating its cells, killing its leaders and terrorists, and destroying its weapons.
.. “A drone can tell you who has entered a building but it can’t tell you what is being said in the room where the men have gathered,” he said. “We can, because our people are inside those rooms.”
.. When he was young, the Sudani family had lived in Ramadi, in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland.
.. Captain Sudani’s ability to adopt the Ramadi accent would help his credibility with the group.
But as a Shiite, he was unfamiliar with Sunni rituals and prayer. So he pored over the Quran, memorizing verses favored by jihadists and learning the chants they used for praying and killing.
.. His first days with the Islamic State were filled with training on religion and explosives.
A few weeks later, a senior Islamic State official in Mosul called. He assigned Captain Sudani a key part in the logistics chain for suicide bomb missions in Baghdad. Believing him to be a Baghdad native, the group considered him crucial to get bombers past checkpoints on the outskirts of the capital and inside the city.
.. Then the Falcons would stage fake explosions and issue fake news releases, sometimes claiming large casualties — part of the effort to keep Capt. Sudani’s cover intact.