WASHINGTON -- When President Barack Obama considered a military strike in Syria after its use of chemical weapons five years ago, John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador, argued against intervention.
"I don't think it is in America's interest," Bolton said in 2013. "I don't think we should in effect take sides in the Syrian conflict."
Yet for the past week, Bolton, President Donald Trump's new national security adviser, has been pushing for a more aggressive approach to Syria, illustrating that his views in the region have changed as he has become more alarmed about the rise of influence by Russia and Iran, key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Ultimately, he views the Syrian crisis through the lens of Iran and Iran's potential dominance in the region," said Mark Groombridge, a former Bolton aide at the State Department who joined Bolton as an adviser in 2005 when Bolton became ambassador.
When the United States, France and the United Kingdom launched airstrikes on sites designed to destroy Assad's chemical-weapons program in Syria, critics blamed Bolton.
The liberal group People's Action described him as "John 'Bomb 'em All' Bolton" in a fundraising appeal to supporters Saturday.
Bolton stood near Trump when he briefly addressed the nation about the airstrikes Friday night, taking notes on a yellow legal pad.
U.S. defense officials said the airstrikes could be repeated if Assad uses chemical weapons again.
But former colleagues say Bolton is focusing less on the use of chemical weapons than on broader geopolitical issues in the Middle East that have changed in the past five years.
"We're dealing with a very different situation now. Russia and Iran have saved the Assad regime," said Nicholas Rostow, who was a national security aide to George W. Bush and has long known and worked with Bolton. "Assad has showed a consistent willingness to ignore his commitment about chemical weapons and to use them."
Rostow said there's no conflict with what Bolton previously said about Syria and what he says now. "John is very smart," he said. "He'll think next steps."
Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster on Monday as national security adviser, one of a series of White House staff changes in recent weeks. Trump also nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state after firing Rex Tillerson.
Bolton and Trump met regularly during the presidential transition and at the White House to discuss foreign policy. In the past week, he has been a constant presence at deliberations on Syria and was in the Oval Office when Trump called U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets, a group that opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said it is "a clear indication of what many have warned," that with the hiring of Pompeo and Bolton, Trump has assembled "a neocon war cabinet," referring to the hawkish wing of conservatives known as neoconservatives.
Bolton's next key test will be helping Trump decide next month whether to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which he has long opposed. The 2015 agreement was designed to allow Iran to pursue a nuclear program but prevent it from producing a nuclear weapon.
Bolton, an advocate of using U.S. military might throughout his career, was one of the architects of Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.
That's why his views in 2013 on Syria were so surprising. "There's very little to recommend either side to me, and I think the notion that a limited strike, which is what the president seems to be pursuing, will not create a deterrent effect with respect to either to Syria's use of chemical weapons or, more seriously, Iran's nuclear weapons program," he said at the time.
A Section on 04/15/2018
Print Headline: Voice against Syria strike in '13, Bolton shifts gears