What it was like to work with Trump on National Security

In his book “The Room Where It Happened”, John Bolton describes his period as National Security Advisor in the Trump Administration. Bolton and others were disturbed that Trump would change his mind about various issues, and advisors were constantly worried he do something dramatic (and wrong, in their view). For instance Trump asked Bolton why not withdraw entirely from NATO. I’ll concentrate in this post on the chapter “Trump Heads for the Door in Syria and Afghanistan and Can’t Find it.” Here are some quotes from the book

War by radical Islamist terrorists against the United States began long before 9/11 (bloggers note, 9/11/2001 was when Islamic terrorists flew airplanes into American skyscrapers) and will continue long after. You can like it or not, but it is reality. Donald Trump didn’t like it, and acted like it wasn’t true.

“Ironically, although the media painted Trump as viscerally anti-Muslim, he never grasped…that Erdogan (the leader of Turkey) was himself a radical Islamicist…(who) was busy transforming Turkey from Kemal Ataturk’s secular state into an Islamicist state.”

Turkey had a long war with Kurdish groups, the PKK being one of the groups. The U.S. considered the PKK to be terrorists, but the Kurds had helped the U.S. fight ISIS. The U.S. felt that abandoning the Kurds would have severely adverse consequences for any future effort to recruit allies who might later be seen as expendable.

Trump wanted “to get the hell out” of Northeast Syria, where the American presence helped deter the Turks from invading and attacking the Kurds.

Trump told Erdogan that if Turkey fought ISIS, (which was present in Syria) the U.S. would just get out. Bolton did not like this, he felt that “withdrawing from Syria was a huge mistake, because of both the continuing global threat of ISIS, and the fact that Iran’s substantial influence would undoubtably grow.”

The French President, Macron, did not like it either. He told Trump that Turkey was focussed on attacking the Kurds and would compromise with ISIS. Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer told Bolton that Trump’s decision to pull out made his (Dermer’s) day the worst day he had experienced thus far in the Trump administration.

Bolton had left the Trump administration for a month when in October 6, 2019, Trump again ordered a withdrawal. Bolton writes that “The result of Trump’s decision was a complete debacle for US policy and for our credibility worldwide.”

According to https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/sad-history-all-times-west-abandon-kurds-87911″

The presence of the U.S. special forces amongst Kurdish YPG fighters had formerly served as an effective barrier against Turkish attack. Their abrupt withdrawal, following a phone conversation between Trump and Turkish President Erdogan, gave Ankara an unambiguous green light to initiate military operations against the Kurdish forces which could not be walked back by subsequent conflicting statements from the White House.
Less than 24 hours later, Turkish jets began pounding Kurdish positions, followed by a Turkish artillery and ground attacks.
Later, the United States joined Russia in vetoing a statement supported by the rest of the Security Council condemning Turkish operations against the Syrian Kurds.

For the consequences of the pullout see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Turkish_offensive_into_north-eastern_Syria#Reports_by_the_Syrian_Observatory_for_Human_Rights.

Switching to another war, the war in Afghanistan, Trump believed he had given Secretary of Defense James Mattis all the leeway he requested to finish the Taliban. The Taliban, however, were winning. Trump had campaigned on ending “endless wars” in faraway places. Bolton’s argument was that

“we hadn’t started the wars and couldn’t end them just by our own say-so. Across the Islamic world, the radical philosophies that had caused so much death and destruction were ideological, political and well as religious. Just as religious fervor had driven human conflicts for millennia, so it was driving this one, against America and the West more broadly. It wasn’t going away because we were tired of it, or because we found it inconvenient to balancing our budget.”

Bolton adds that he is not a “nation builder”, and the point wasn’t to make Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria nicer places to live. It was about keeping America safe from another 9/11, or even worse, a 9/11 where the terorists had nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Bolton also worried that if the Taliban took power in Afghanistan again, they would destabilize their Muslim neighbor, Pakistan. Pakistan had nuclear weapons, so having it fall to terrorists would be a specially bad scenario.

Trump said in a meeting with Bolton and others:

“We’ll never get out. This was done by a stupid person named George Bush. Millions of people killed, trillions of dollars, and we just can’t do it. Another six months, that’s what they said before, and we’re still getting our asses kicked.” Then he launched into a favorite story, about how we helicoptered schoolteachers every day to their school because it was too dangerous for them to go on their own” “Cost a fortune. The IG was right,” he said….(he added:) They hate us and they shoot us in the back, blew the back of the guy’s head off, arms and legs and things (referring to a recent “green-on-blue” attack where a Utah National Guardsman was killed.) [green on blue means an Afghan soldier or policeman who is supposedly on our side turns his gun suddenly on our soldiers].

My own impression of the book is that Trump wanted to keep his promises to his base, and did not understand why “endless wars” were justified, especially wars we were losing. On the other hand, I understand Bolton’s views as well. Personally, for what its worth, I feel the U.S. is a weak power – dramatically in debt, and currently with the left in power. I do not think we have the money to fight wars, and constraints such as the need to fight door to door (this happened in Fallujah Iraq, for instance) because we don’t want to bomb civilians does mean that we lose a lot of soldiers. In the case of Afghanistan, our supplies had to travel through either Pakistan (not quite a friend), or a former territory of the Soviet Union (I’m not up to date on what the status of our presence in that second territory is now). Elements of the Pakistan military help the Taliban, and Afghanistan also borders another enemy of the U.S., Iran. It just seems like a very bad setting to put our soldiers in.

Nonetheless, we should remember that when the Taliban were the rulers of Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks from their territory, and Al Qaeda, the group that attacked on 9/11, had training camps there. We were minding our own business, when planes full of Americans were flown into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. Its a big dilemma, and when we leave, those who allied with us will face death.

Trump, at least in this chapter, does not strike me as the caricature his opponents believed in (as a fascist), here in the United States. Bolton is not a fan of Trump, but that still doesn’t change my impression.

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