"Don't upstage the boss" is a powerful maxim in Washington, and usually it applies to President Trump's White House. But National Security Adviser John Bolton doesn't seem to have gotten the memo.
"Bolton puts conditions on plan for withdrawal from Syria," reads one recent headline. "Contradicting Trump, Bolton says no withdrawal from Syria until ISIS destroyed, Kurds' safety guaranteed," blares another. "John Bolton says certain conditions must be met before U.S. withdraws from Syria," states a third.
Trump has been talking about U.S. troops leaving Syria for months. "We're coming out of Syria very soon," he said in March. "Let the other people take care of it now — very soon, very soon, we're coming out." By December, he'd lost his patience with those inside the government resistant to the move and abruptly announced a change in policy.
While there are certainly good reasons to proceed more methodically — and with less deference to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — than Trump's Twitter speed, the exhaustive conditions laid out by Bolton, and perennial hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would likely mean no Syria withdrawal at all for the duration of Trump's presidency. On top of that, by slow-walking the withdrawal from Syria, which the president publicly ordered, Bolton appears to be overruling his boss.
If that's the case, Trump may well come to regret his failure to heed another Washington maxim: personnel is policy. Much of his national security team is made up of the same kind of people who made many of the foreign policy decisions he campaigned against in 2016. Putting someone like Bolton in charge of winding down a war is like appointing an open-borders advocate to oversee building the wall.
When Defense Secretary James Mattis announced his departure following Trump's Syria move, the president had an opportunity: When looking for Mattis' replacement, he could have sought the counsel of professionals more closely aligned with his views. They do exist: Some of us suggested Jim Webb for the job, and there were multiple reports that the White House was actively considering the decorated veteran and former Virginia senator to run the Pentagon. But the president swatted the reports down as fake news and reaffirmed his confidence in Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
Maybe Shanahan will more reliably implement Trump's vision than Mattis did, forging it into a coherent national security strategy rather than watering it down. But so far, Trump's approach to staffing the administration has yielded more troops in Afghanistan rather than fewer, and has kept forces in Syria amid shifting rationales.
These are not issues on which Trump is isolated politically, at least not outside the Beltway. In fact, even some Democrats exploring presidential bids against Trump next year broadly share his goal of ending these wars and having a smaller footprint in the Middle East more generally. This includes Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a frequent Trump sparring partner. It should not be impossible to field a qualified foreign policy team that shares these eminently mainstream views and seeks to enact them in a responsible, strategic fashion. Even a team of rivals should contain some officials whose perspectives are closer to Trump's than the more reliably interventionist candidates he defeated.
The success of those brought in to work for the president on matters of war and peace should be judged by how effectively they are translating his goals into actionable policy rather than by their willingness to selectively defend him on cable television. Yet as long as Trump is the commander-in-chief in question, a nontrivial amount of reporting and analysis seems nonchalant — if not celebratory — about what sounds an awful lot like insubordination among his staff.
"Some analysts said they believed Mr. Trump's orders would not even be carried out — at least not on the 30-day timetable he imposed for Syria," The New York Times reported. "The Pentagon has slow-walked his orders before, and already there is talk of a more gradual withdrawal given the complications that would probably arise from a hasty pullout."
If this means the eventual withdrawal is more expertly performed, then that is good. But it is difficult to avoid the impression that some who favor an indefinite military presence in Afghanistan and/or Syria may be operating in pursuit of that objective.
Whether it is Webb or someone else, Trump needs advisers and Cabinet secretaries who share his assessment of the limits of America's role in the world — and believe there is only one president at a time.