Bolton made stops in Israel and Turkey, while Pompeo conducted an eight-day tour that included a controversial speech Thursday in Cairo. He used the address to attack the alleged misdeeds of the Obama administration and rattle the saber at Iran. Pompeo then called on a number of Arab monarchies before leaving for home from Oman on Monday.
Both officials were hoping to calm the jitters unleashed by Trump last month when he declared that the United States would immediately draw down its military presence in Syria. The president, as readers of Today’s WorldView know, is keen to disentangle the United States from wars in the Middle East, even with a coterie of prominent Washington hawks among his senior advisers.
Bolton and Pompeo, both part of that group, were on missions to convince partners in Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere that Washington would stay the course.
In Israel, Bolton confidently declared that the United States would not be leaving Syria so soon — and that it would not leave at all unless it could secure safety for the Syrian Kurds who have served as U.S. proxies on the ground. That irked Turkey, which resented Bolton’s clumsy backing of militants that Ankara views as an extension of a separatist terrorist group within its borders.
“Bolton intended to refer to Syrian Kurdish rebels fighting alongside the United States against the Islamic State, but struck a nerve by using imprecise language and appearing to dictate to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” my colleagues reported, citing U.S. and Turkish officials. “The remarks immediately upended negotiations in Ankara between Turkish officials and Trump’s new special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, James Jeffrey, who was angered by the misstep, according to three people familiar with the negotiations.”
An American withdrawal from Syria will, by necessity, need to be accompanied by a comprehensive strategic understanding with Syria’s northern neighbor. But that does not seem to have been reached. Bolton was denied an audience with Erdogan and mocked on Turkish social media; images proliferated of him cornered by Ibrahim Kalin, a senior Erdogan adviser.
Pompeo was caught seemingly unaware in the Saudi capital. “We apply sanctions in many places around the world,” Pompeo said, struggling to explain Trump’s tweet. “I assume he’s speaking about those kinds of things, but you would have to ask him.”
On Monday, Trump returned to Twitter in an attempt to calm the situation, indicating that he had had a productive phone call with his Turkish counterpart. Bolton quickly hailed the conversation.
Spoke w/ President Erdogan of Turkey to advise where we stand on all matters including our last two weeks of success in fighting the remnants of ISIS, and 20 mile safe zone. Also spoke about economic development between the U.S. & Turkey - great potential to substantially expand!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2019
President Trump had an excellent conversation with President Erdogan and reemphasized the consistent U.S. position on standing by the Kurds and those who fought with the U.S.— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) January 14, 2019
But the damage seems to already have been done. “A multipronged effort by alarmed U.S. national security officials, foreign allies and Republican hawks in Congress to significantly alter or reverse Trump’s decision was effectively a bust,” wrote my colleagues.
Both Pompeo and Bolton are ideologically driven: The former sees the U.S. battles in the Middle East as part of a greater war of good vs. evil. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture,” Pompeo, a noted evangelical Christian, said in a speech at a Kansas megachurch three years ago. “Be part of it. Be in the fight.”
Bolton, for his part, has long sought confrontation with Iran. Last year, as the Wall Street Journal first reported, he alarmed Pentagon officials by requesting options for a military strike against the Iranians.
Trump, for all his demagoguery, is not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of another grinding war in the region. He has repeatedly threatened Iran but also signaled his willingness to negotiate, as he has with the reclusive North Korean regime. It emerged last week that the American withdrawal from Syria was already underway, despite Pompeo’s and Bolton’s desperate efforts to indicate otherwise.
“They don’t give him the kinds of options that he wants, and then he lashes out,” a U.S. official with knowledge of Trump’s view on the matter told The Post. “It’s not like it came out of thin air that he wanted to leave Syria. He campaigned on that. You can say it’s a bad decision, you can say it’s not helping stability, but you can’t say you’re surprised that he wanted to do it."
Things didn’t go that much better on other fronts. Pompeo’s trip drew criticism for his seeming coddling of Arab autocrats, from Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA believes ordered the operation that led to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In Cairo, Pompeo’s speech was widely rebuked for its “pettiness,” “simplicity” and tone-deafness. The top U.S. diplomat, for example, grandstanded over the presence of a Bible on his desk. The speech contained only one fleeting mention of “democracy” and none of human rights, while attacks on Iran and Obama took center stage.
“That America’s chief diplomat would give a speech in Egypt is unremarkable," wrote Edward Luce of the Financial Times. “That he would give [a speech] attacking the last US president is less normal, though not unprecedented. That he would start with a declaration of his evangelical faith is even less typical, but still pardonable. To do all three at once — attacking America’s last president in the Middle East in a speech to a Muslim audience that was aimed at Christian radicals — is in a category of one. It’s certainly not diplomacy.”
Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.