It’s temping 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.”
While tensions over the Turks and the Kurds have been building for some time, Mr. Trump’s troop withdrawal announcement ratcheted up the crisis.
In a telephone call with Mr. Erdogan on Dec. 14, Mr. Trump ignored the talking points prepared by his aides that urged him to warn Mr. Erdogan against mounting a cross-border operation targeting the Syrian Kurds.
Instead, Mr. Trump, swallowed whole Mr. Erdogan’s assertion that Turkey could lead the fight against the remaining ISIS militants if American troops withdrew.
The Washington foreign policy establishment still hasn’t recovered from the shock of the Syria decision, which caused Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the coalition battling the Islamic State, to resign. Although Mr. Erdogan wrote in a New York Times opinion article of his commitment to eradicating ISIS, Pentagon commanders doubt that Turkey’s army has the capacity or the will to do the job.
What’s more, ISIS has never been the primary concern of Mr. Erdogan, who for years allowed militants to cross Turkey’s borders into Syria in a failed effort to strengthen forces trying to topple Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
Mr. Erdogan’s goal has long been to crush the Kurds who are trying to create autonomous towns and regions in northern Syria. He considers such areas a threat that could inspire separatist Kurds in Iraq and Turkey. He also fears that Syrian Kurds could eventually join their allies in the fight against Turkey’s government.
It may be that the Pentagon should never have allied with the Syrian Kurds in the first place, nor have relied on them so heavily, given the rift the alliance has caused between the United States and Turkey. But ISIS had to be degraded, and what’s done is done.
A precipitous American withdrawal now, without some kind of safety guarantee for the Kurds, would be disastrous for an ethnic group that has been betrayed before, and damaging for the United States, which would be viewed as an untrustworthy friend.
One possible solution is for the Kurds to seek a protection agreement with the three powers that now control most of Syria: the Assad government, Iran and Russia.
Recent statements by Mr. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have created more confusion about the direction of American policy toward Syria and the Arab world. But the two men do seem to be trying to at least mitigate the damage caused by some of Mr. Trump’s surprise pronouncements.
Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo may be running out of time on this one, though. A Pentagon spokesman said on Friday that the United States had started withdrawing military equipment from Syria. The troops may not be far behind.