Syria attack response looms over Bolton's first week as national security adviser

John Bolton faces a baptism of fire on Monday, his first official day as President Donald Trump's national security a...

Posted: Apr 9, 2018 10:44 AM
Updated: Apr 9, 2018 10:44 AM

John Bolton faces a baptism of fire on Monday, his first official day as President Donald Trump's national security adviser.

The brutal chemical weapons attack in Syria presents Bolton with an immediate crisis that will highlight the biggest questions surrounding his appointment, offering an early examination of how his vision of the robust use of US power abroad will ally with Trump's own hawkish instincts.

It's a defining moment for this White House because the attack is not just a humanitarian horror, but also challenges Trump's global credibility after he fired missiles to punish President Bashar al-Assad for earlier outrages a year ago.

The frenetic, emotional hours when revulsion over a tragedy abroad turns to talk of a military response define the job of national security adviser. He or she must quickly establish facts and shape action options for a President, make him aware of the pitfalls of any decision, tease a strategy from competing military, intelligence and civilian centers of the national security establishment, and then press them to implement a presidential directive.

The Syria attack, which reportedly killed 70 people, will also test Bolton's capacity to forge trust with the commander-in-chief himself, putting their relationship - which will be crucial to his prospects - under pressure in a life-or-death environment.

And it will represent a high-pressure examination of Bolton's management style that alienated colleagues when he served as a senior State Department non-proliferation official and UN ambassador.

Bolton was planning for his new job long before the news from Syria made his first few days in office even more significant.

Contrary to many expectations, he does not plan to charge into the West Wing on a firing spree. He is likely instead to sample the temperature of the administration with a methodical approach.

Starting early

Defying his reputation for turbulence and outspokenness, Bolton slipped into the White House without ceremony, in a long coat and carrying an umbrella early on Saturday morning, two days ahead of his official start date, and then tweeted a picture of him with his predecessor H.R. McMaster, whom he hailed as a patriot.

One former senior Bolton aide said the new national security adviser's goal is not to advance his personal agenda but to win Trump's trust.

"He is the President's adviser. He works for President Trump. He is going to do what President Trump tells him to do. He's going to implement the policies that President Trump wants implemented," the former aide said.

"Most importantly, he is going to do something that President Trump hasn't been getting, he is going to get a full set of well thought out policy options. The President is frustrated that he has not been getting that."

Even now, Bolton is likely to be drawing up plans for potential military action in Syria and he will preside over a principals meeting of top administration officials on Syria on Monday in order to present options to the President, two administration officials told CNN.

Early signs are that Trump wants to act, as he tweeted Sunday about the "mindless" attack, unusually criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin for supporting "Animal" Assad and warned of a "big price" to pay.

But the Syria attack also highlights inconsistencies at the heart of Trump's foreign policy that Bolton must confront: While the President is hinting at using military force, he has recently fulminated about getting out of Syria and leaving it to regional powers to sort out.

Bigger challenges also lie in wait for Bolton, including a super power confrontation with China, a deadline on the Iran nuclear deal and Trump's summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Bolton's critics saw his appointment as the arrival of a bull in a china shop strewn with geopolitical crockery already shattered by Trump. They fear that he will not quell the President's wilder impulses - as ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and McMaster tried to do - but will egg him on and lead the United States into dangerous global confrontations. Alongside Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, he is seen as part of a potential war cabinet that could enact the President's most hawkish instincts.

"I don't expect him to be a very tempering influence," said Matthew Waxman, who saw Bolton up close as a staffer on President George W. Bush's National Security Council.

"I would describe him as being extremely hawkish, especially with regard to military instruments, but also coldly calculating and rational. He is sort of like Dick Cheney in a lot of ways."

Bolton's history

Like the former vice president, Bolton is sharply conservative. He has mooted military action against Iran and North Korea, is skeptical of negotiations with what he sees as rogue states, and has left a trail of stories about his brusque management style that infuriated past colleagues.

He's also been accused of manipulating intelligence - a charge his supporters say is unfair - and still defends the Iraq War. His failure to win Senate confirmation as President George W. Bush's UN envoy came after he was painted as a bully who victimized opponents in the intelligence community.

One critic, Carl Ford Jr., a former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, called him a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy."

Yet the image of Bolton as a mustachioed war monger does not do him justice or get at the most intriguing issues raised by his appointment.

"He has been dismissed as an ideologue, as someone reflexively, almost emotionally reacting to world events with a very narrow menu of responses," said Peter Feaver, who, like Bolton, is a former Bush national security official. "That is a gross distortion. That is unfair to him. Some of the reaction gives you the impression that he is the proverbial 3-year-old with a hammer who sees everything in the world as a nail. That is not true."

Still, Bolton's traditional skepticism about the potential of diplomacy with America's enemies could short-circuit efforts to resolve disputes peacefully and lead the United States towards more escalatory steps in foreign policy crises.

"When you are dealing with what used to be called 'pariah regimes,' he will quickly eviscerate the the more optimistic policy proposals that presume on the other side's willingness to accept win-win solutions," Feaver said.

"He will point out the flaws with those, which ends you up at the last-resort node of the decision tree. That is how he ends up being a hawk. He is not a use-force-first guy."

But Bolton's scorn for the bureaucracy of global institutions like the United Nations does not mean he spurns all diplomacy and working with allies.

He is, for example, the author of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multilateral effort to stop the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and their components which is universally regarded as a foreign policy success - and could be a model for US enforcement actions short of war if the North Korea summit fails.

Even Bolton's critics talk about his work ethic, intellect and depth of knowledge culled by ravenous reading of intelligence and newspapers and a mastery of the Washington Game of Thrones that makes him a more substantial figure than the blustery Fox News commentator he has become.

Christopher Hill, the Bush administration's former top North Korea negotiator, who experienced Bolton's willingness to undercut policy of an administration in which he served, called him a "relentless bureaucratic brawler."

One of the biggest questions about Bolton is how someone as expert as he is at pulling levers of a conventional administration will fare in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along chaos of the Trump presidency.

His renowned intolerance for those who lack his experience and knowledge also makes his relationship with Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and roving foreign policy fixer, worth watching.

And Bolton's determination to ally with the President closely could be challenged in some areas - on the potential of a North Korea summit or with Trump's determination to improve ties with Russia.

But Bolton told Fox News after his appointment that his past statements were behind him. His camp dismisses the possibility that a gulf could open between he and the President on crucial issues.

"There is no daylight between the President and Mr. Bolton on national security issues. He is a team player," the former senior Bolton aide said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 319948

Reported Deaths: 7371
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22285267
Hinds20719421
Harrison18431317
Rankin13901282
Jackson13718248
Madison10263224
Lee10059176
Jones8467167
Forrest7832153
Lauderdale7261242
Lowndes6517150
Lamar635188
Lafayette6313121
Washington5425137
Bolivar4841133
Panola4670110
Oktibbeha466198
Pearl River4605147
Marshall4574105
Warren4440121
Pontotoc425873
Monroe4157135
Union415777
Neshoba4063179
Lincoln4008112
Hancock386987
Leflore3515125
Tate342486
Sunflower339491
Pike3371111
Alcorn327272
Scott320374
Yazoo314171
Adams308086
Itawamba305178
Copiah299966
Coahoma298784
Simpson298589
Tippah291968
Prentiss284161
Leake272074
Marion271280
Covington267283
Wayne264642
Grenada264087
George252251
Newton248663
Tishomingo231868
Winston230181
Jasper222148
Attala215073
Chickasaw210559
Holmes190474
Stone188433
Clay187954
Tallahatchie180041
Clarke178980
Calhoun174132
Yalobusha167840
Smith164134
Walthall135347
Greene131834
Lawrence131124
Montgomery128643
Noxubee128034
Perry127238
Amite126242
Carroll122330
Webster115032
Jefferson Davis108234
Tunica108127
Claiborne103130
Benton102325
Humphreys97533
Kemper96629
Franklin85023
Quitman82216
Choctaw79118
Wilkinson69632
Jefferson66228
Sharkey50917
Issaquena1696
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 548657

Reported Deaths: 11306
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson810031566
Mobile42105831
Madison35690525
Tuscaloosa26173458
Shelby25607254
Montgomery25081614
Baldwin21868314
Lee16278176
Calhoun14719327
Morgan14629285
Etowah14175364
Marshall12453230
Houston10781287
Elmore10293214
Limestone10179157
St. Clair10162251
Cullman9952201
Lauderdale9603250
DeKalb8972190
Talladega8460184
Walker7338280
Autauga7241113
Blount6945139
Jackson6932113
Colbert6413140
Coffee5635127
Dale4928116
Russell454841
Chilton4476116
Franklin431382
Covington4275122
Tallapoosa4138155
Escambia401680
Chambers3728124
Dallas3607158
Clarke353061
Marion3240107
Pike314378
Lawrence3133100
Winston283472
Bibb268564
Geneva257981
Marengo250565
Pickens236962
Barbour234559
Hale227278
Butler224271
Fayette218862
Henry194543
Randolph187544
Cherokee187345
Monroe180041
Washington170539
Macon163051
Clay160059
Crenshaw155957
Cleburne153444
Lamar146837
Lowndes142254
Wilcox126930
Bullock124342
Conecuh113630
Coosa111729
Perry108626
Sumter105732
Greene93634
Choctaw62125
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