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Syria provides first test of John Bolton's sway over Trump policy

New national security adviser's views on pre-emptive strikes portend clash with Mattis

John Bolton, right, now sits closer to the president's ear.   © AP

WASHINGTON -- Hawkish new U.S. national security adviser John Bolton's differences with Defense Secretary James Mattis over pressing matters like dealing with North Korea and Iran could put further strain on President Donald Trump's foreign policy in an already volatile White House.

Bolton attended a cabinet meeting with Trump at the White House on Monday as he took up his duties in earnest. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations had said on Twitter the day before that he looked forward to "working with President Trump and his team to keep America safe and secure in these challenging times."

The new national security adviser has a full plate, especially after Trump hinted Monday at the possibility of a military response to the apparent chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians over the weekend. "Nothing's off the table," the president said.

Bolton has not rejected the idea of an attack on Syria, but his past comments suggest he is hesitant. When the U.S. conducted a missile strike against a Syrian government air base in April 2017, he warned that Washington needed a larger strategy encompassing Russia and Iran. He also spoke against a limited strike on Syria in 2013 when the Obama administration was considering the option, arguing that it "will not create a deterrent effect."

Still, Bolton's support for a pre-emptive attack on North Korea and the overthrow of its regime appears likely to clash with the more restrained and pragmatic approach of Mattis. The defense secretary has consistently advocated for a resolution through dialogue, an idea supported by fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Bolton's predecessor, H.R. McMaster.

"I've heard that you're actually the devil incarnate, and I wanted to meet you," quipped Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general whose own nicknames include "Mad Dog," when he met Bolton back in March.

Trump acknowledged Monday that the U.S. and North Korea are working toward a bilateral summit. "Hopefully, it'll be a relationship that's much different than it's been for many, many years," he said.

A former high-ranking U.S. official said the very fact that Trump appointed Bolton strengthens Washington's negotiating position on North Korea. But if the talks fail to produce a breakthrough, the kind of military response that Bolton supports may move closer to reality.

The Iran nuclear deal could become another point of contention. Trump has threatened to leave the framework unless European partners agree to revise it by May 12. Bolton has urged Trump to scrap the deal, but Mattis thinks upholding it is important for continued international cooperation.

Bolton could overhaul the National Security Council, a source familiar with the White House said. Michael Anton, the council's spokesman, was recently reported to be leaving. Reuters reported Monday that Tom Bossert, Trump's homeland security adviser, had resigned at the request of Bolton.

Bolton's appointment is only part of what some worry marks the rise of foreign policy hawks in the Trump administration.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, known for his tough stance on North Korea and Iran, awaits Senate confirmation as the next secretary of state. Whereas Mattis has been seen as having a tempering effect on the president's foreign policy, these other voices may make the administration's intentions even harder to read.

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