Corporate media have converged around a narrative that the president has been forced to walk back his decision. But while a withdrawal will undoubtedly prove more challenging than the president originally anticipated, this verdict simply does not reflect the facts on the ground.
When John Bolton spoke in Jerusalem earlier this month, leading news outlets reported that Trump’s national security adviser had declared that withdrawal would not be completed unless and until specific conditions had been met or objectives achieved. The New York Times announced that “Bolton Puts Conditions on Syria Withdrawal, Suggesting a Delay of Months or Years,” claiming that he “told reporters that American forces would remain in Syria until the last remnants of the Islamic State were defeated and Turkey provided guarantees that it would not strike Kurdish forces allied with the United States.”
The Associated Press story, which was picked up by The Washington Post, proved similarly categorical. “U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until Islamic State militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected,” a top White House aide is quoted as saying. The article also notes that Bolton was “signaling a pause to a withdrawal abruptly announced last month and initially expected to be completed within weeks.”
Those stories were written on the assumption that Bolton was enunciating yet another policy on Syria withdrawal. There is now good reason to believe that no such new policy decision has been made. The Wall Street Journal has quoted a defense official as saying, “Nothing has changed. We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
The Times and AP failed to provide the actual text of Bolton’s statement, much less any analysis of it in context of his statements.
Bolton’s statement was extraordinarily indirect and didn’t necessarily mean what it appeared to mean at first glance. As quoted in The Wall Street Journal, one of the few places where the text could be found, Bolton said, “Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see. It’s not the establishment of an arbitrary point for the withdrawal to take place as President Obama did in the Afghan situation … the timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
On closer examination,