Bolton juggles muddled Syria withdrawal mess The sense and nonsense in the EPA’s mercury rule
It may wind up being the most significant decision of Donald Trump’s presidency, and it’s a muddled mess.
The administration has been bobbing and weaving on its Syria policy for two years. It bobbed again Thursday, commencing some sort of withdrawal just days after a top official signaled things might be on hold.
Late last month, President Donald Trump announced a total and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, leading to two high-profile resignations, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But then the administration seemed to backpedal a bit. The timeline was slowly drawn out and conditions were attached. It all culminated this weekend in national security adviser John Bolton declaring that the withdrawal would be conditioned on certain “objectives” being met: the complete defeat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and an agreement by Turkey not to target the U.S.’s Syrian Kurdish allies once the U.S. was gone.
“We’re going to be discussing the president’s decision to withdraw, but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and to make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured, and to take care of those who have fought with us against ISIS and other terrorist groups,” Bolton said Sunday in Jerusalem.
Bolton added: “There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal. The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
Those conditions have not been met – or really anything close to it. Turkey,
Whenever the Trump administration proposes to eliminate a regulation, many people are tempted to give it a standing ovation. Many others are tempted to boo and hiss. Sometimes it’s right to do one or the other. But with respect to the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision to rethink its controversial mercury regulation – well, it’s complicated and unusually interesting.
The story begins in 2012, when the EPA finalized that regulation under President Barack Obama. (I was administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the time, and involved in the discussions that led to the final rule.) The EPA’s analysis proceeded in two stages.
In the first stage, it concluded that regulating mercury was, in the words of the Clean Air Act, “appropriate and necessary” in light of mercury’s adverse effects, especially on children (who, among other things, lose IQ points as a result of exposure to mercury in fish, ingested by their mothers). In the second stage, it concluded that its final rule would have benefits far in excess of costs.
To be sure, compliance with the rule would be unusually expensive, with annual costs of $9.6 billion. But it would which helped persuade Trump to withdraw in the first place, has roundly rejected the U.S. condition that it leave the Kurds, whom it regards as terrorists, alone.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declined to even meet with Bolton during his visit to the region and called Bolton’s comments “a serious mistake.”
“The message that Bolton gave in Israel is unacceptable,” Erdogan said in a televised address to his political party Tuesday. “It is not possible for us to swallow.”
It’s also not clear the Islamic State is close to handled. As my colleague Liz Sly reported last month,” Signs that the Islamic State is starting to regroup and rumblings of discontent within the Arab community point to the threat of an insurgency.”
Reporting indicates that, despite Bolton’s comments, the Pentagon has not received any updates on its withdrawal plans from last month and is moving forward with Trump’s plan. One anonymous defense official told the Wall Street Journal: “Nothing has changed. We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
It’s not impossible to square what Bolton said with a partial withdrawal. His comments never actually said there would be no withdrawal of troops without the conditions being met. Perhaps he was simply saying the United States wouldn’t completely withdraw until those conditions were met. Perhaps the speed of the withdrawal is what is contingent here.
National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said that Bolton joined with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Syria envoy Ambassador James Jeffrey in Tur- also prevent up to 11,000 deaths annually. In monetary terms, its benefits would be $37 billion or more a year – far in excess of the $9.6 billion annual expenditure.
Importantly, the EPA emphasized that by themselves, the quantifiable benefits of reducing mercury emissions would be modest ($4 million to $6 million). The overwhelming majority of the quantifiable public health benefits, including those 11,000 prevented deaths, would not involve mercury at all; they would be “co-benefits.” The technologies used to reduce mercury would simultaneously reduce emissions of particulate matter, another air pollutant, which produces serious public health problems.
States and private companies immediately challenged the EPA’s regulation in federal court. The Supreme Court sided with them on an important but relatively narrow ground: When the EPA decided, at the first stage, that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury, it looked at benefits only and failed to consider costs, or to undertake any kind of balancing. The justices sent the regulation back to the EPA to do exactly that.
Under Obama in 2016, the EPA responded with two arguments. First, it said that the provisions of the Clean Air Act that govern hazardous air pol- key to convey “the Administration’s five coordinated principles for implementing the President’s guidance on withdrawal.” Among them, according to a senior administration official, were that the withdrawal would happen “in a deliberate, orderly and strong manner” and that “the U.S. will defeat the remaining ISIS caliphate on the way out.” That suggests Bolton’s conditions could still be in-play, even with a withdrawal in progress.
But if you’re Turkey, and you see the United States is already pulling out – at least to some extent – you have to wonder how ironclad Bolton’s demands were. We’ll see if the full withdrawal was truly conditional on Turkey acquiescing, because that doesn’t appear likely to happen.
And either way, there is just so much confusion here, completely of the administration’s own making. As The Washington Post noted Thursday night, there’s no real clarity on whether Bolton’s conditions are operative. Even the five principles laid out in Turkey were more aspirations than demands. Instead of making sure the safety of the Kurds was “absolutely assured,” as Bolton required, they say, “The U.S. wants a negotiated solution to Turkish security concerns,” and “The United States opposes any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with the U.S. against ISIS.”
Trump has made a point to say that he doesn’t like telegraphing military moves, which is understandable from a strategic standpoint. But in this case, he telegraphed the whole thing upfront. And if you’re going to attach conditions to something, you need to be abundantly clear about them. That has simply not been the case here, and we seem to get a different indication about this withdrawal every week or so. lutants, such as mercury, are primarily concerned with public health, not cost. For that reason, the EPA said that it would go forward with its regulation even if the quantifiable health benefits were low and the monetary costs were very high.
Second, the EPA said that even it was required to balance benefits and costs, it would nonetheless go forward. Because of the sheer magnitude of the co-benefits, it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury, because the total monetized benefits were so much higher than the total monetized costs.
Last month, the EPA proposed to reject both of the previous administration’s conclusions, and sought public comments on a radically different approach.
First, it denied that it would “appropriate and necessary” to list a pollutant if the costs were much higher than the benefits. Second, it announced that it would not consider co-benefits at all. It emphasized that separate provisions of the Clean Air Act are specifically designed to control particulate matter.
But the EPA did not propose to eliminate its mercury regulation. A federal court has ruled that in order to do that, the EPA must go through a specific process. With the court’s ruling in mind, the EPA said that it did not intend to take its regulation off the books.