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Brett McGurk on Syria and Trump’s incoherence

Octavian Report: What drove your decision to leave the Trump Administration? What drove Trump to announce a pullout of troops from Syria?

Brett McGurk: I’d served across the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations. I was planning on leaving in the Trump Administration in the spring and coming to Stanford, but what happened, really starting in the summer of 2018, was a fundamental disconnect between the objectives of U.S. policy and the resource commitment from the President. I have learned across three administrations that the fundamental element of strategy is to align your ends, ways, and means. We had an increasing misalignment.

What happened in the summer of 2018 — particularly with the arrival of John Bolton, who for better or worse has much different views of America’s role in the world than the President he serves — is that our objectives in Syria kept increasing. The objective that we had been pursuing was very clear: the enduring defeat of ISIS. I was helping to lead that campaign. I was in and out of Syria at least every couple months or so. We had a pretty good resource base for that, including one of the largest coalitions in history, but the President in the spring basically told us we couldn’t spend any U.S. taxpayer money on post-military operations in Syria.

This was a big problem. We had just retaken the city of Raqqa from ISIS. That was a real constraint on the campaign. I had to scramble to collect resources from the coalition. When Bolton came in, the objectives expanded significantly: we were going to stay on the ground until all the Iranians left Syria. I thought that was quite an ambitious objective, given the history of Syria and the fact that we had a very limited commitment in Syria. We were also going to stay on the ground until a transition away from the Assad regime began and reached an irreversible stage, which also was going to take a number of years.

Those are all fine and valid objectives if you have a real commitment from the President and the resources to actually see them though, but the President made very clear he didn’t want to be there and he didn’t want to spend any money. We had this fundamental incoherence, and I actually thought we had resolved it by early December: we had an NSC process that reviewed a lot of this, and we came up with a new campaign and a strategy. One of the key elements of that strategy was that we were going to stay on the ground at least for another couple of years. My role was leading the coalition together with Secretary Mattis. We gathered all the military members of the coalition in early December. They all signed on to this plan, so I thought it was in decent shape.

Then towards the end of the month, we had a little bit of a crisis with Turkey (which I thought was very manageable). The President spoke with President Erdoğan. That’s when President Trump announced and made the decision that we were going to withdraw from Syria entirely. I concluded that I really couldn’t continue in my role with credibility or even integrity, given that we had just told something totally opposite to all these capitals around the world.

OR: What have been the consequences of Trump’s decision, in-country and globally?

McGurk: I think it reinforced a sense of incoherence in U.S. intentions and U.S. commitments. That is true both for the way our adversaries react and also for the way our allies react. As a diplomat, when you’re overseas, you carry with you your credibility. Your credibility comes from the fact that you’re speaking for your country and your administration and the President that you’re serving. The value of a handshake from an American diplomat cannot be overstated.

What started to happen month by month in the Trump Administration was that the value of an American handshake began to significantly diminish. You could feel this with our allies in London or Paris or Abu Dhabi. There was a great deal of questioning about what the policy might be from day to day. You’re always one tweet away from a total reversal in policy. I also felt this quite dramatically with our adversaries and competitors. I led a channel with Russia on Syria for a number of years, and the fact that you had a President who could change his mind on a whim made it much more difficult. I think it’s quite damaging.

Syria is just one example. I give tremendous credit to my successor Ambassador James Jefferies and others who are continuing to carry on the mission. They’re doing all they possibly can, but we’re now in a situation where, on the orders of the President, we have significantly reduced our forces in Syria, already a very small number to begin with. If you start to go below the numbers we had you start to cut into bone of the mission.

I wrote a long piece in Foreign Affairs about the future of Syria and where we are. We basically have influence over northeast Syria. It’s a significant part of the country. The majority of the oil reserves in Syria are there. It’s the agricultural breadbasket of Syria. It houses between three and four million people. It used to be the heart of the ISIS caliphate. It is now under the influence of the Syrian Democratic Forces — a force of about 60,000 Syrian fighters that the United States and our Special Forces and our diplomats helped organize and build. It’s quite a success. It is a mixture of Kurds and Arabs and Christians in a diverse array. They’ve been quite effective and quite successful, and they now influence that third of Syria. But the backbone is the very limited U.S. presence on the ground.

As our presence recedes, that force is increasingly surrounded by very hostile actors. You have the Iranians to the south, together with the Russians and the Syrian regime. You still have a residual ISIS presence. You have a camp for displaced persons of about 60,000 people, including thousands of hardcore ISIS fighters. You have Turkey to the north. Turkey is, of course, a NATO ally, but it’s one with whom on this issue in particular and a number of issues these days we have very serious, significant disagreements. So it might look stable, but day-to-day these things can start to degrade. I’m concerned that the situation might degrade.

The United States has been trying to work with the actors in the region and on the ground to try to bring this resolution to a close. That is the big objective. But the uncertainty of U.S. commitment from the President — not from those working the file day to day, but from the President — makes it even more difficult to accomplish that objective (which was already extremely difficult to begin with). Because to end the Syrian conflict, you’re talking about dealing with the actors on the ground. Like it or not, that’s Russia, that’s Iran, and that’s the Syrian regime. I right now do not see a diplomatic path to bring the conflict to a close under the auspices of the U.N., which is the current policy.

OR: How do you assess the state of ISIS?

McGurk: ISIS was a unique and horrific phenomenon. I think we’ve forgotten what it was like in 2013 and 2014. I’ve been somewhat critical of President Trump, and I’ve also served with President Obama. I worked very closely with him on the ISIS campaign. But in 2011, he made a quite fateful announcement in which he, from the White House, said: President Assad of Syria must go. He said this, I think, without really asking how that was going to happen, what was going to come after Assad, how other actors in the region would recalculate their own activities given that that is now declared U.S. policy, or — given our own history of regime-change endeavors — how all this was likely to turn out.

The real fault here lies, of course, with President Assad and his war on his own people. What he saw happen in 2011, ’12, and ’13 was a vacuum open up. Other actors in the region saw at least what they thought was an opportunity to support an insurgency against the Assad regime. You start to have weapons and money flowing into Syria to support that insurgency, and on the back of that you had these calls from extremists — including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS — calling for all military-aged Muslims and also their families to come pour into Syria and come join what is to be a caliphate. You had preachers like Yusuf Qaradawi speaking to 60 million people every Sunday night from Al Jazeera, calling on military-aged males to go pour into Syria and fight. You had this phenomenon of 40,000 people pouring into Syria over this period. Most of them came on commercial flights. They flew into Turkey and then they went into Syria.

Fast forward to where we are now. We have done a very effective job from the summer of 2014 onwards in building an international coalition. Again, this is one of the largest coalitions in history. It’s not just a military coalition, it’s about shutting off these travel routes, shutting off their finance, making it harder for them to communicate, doing counter-propaganda and counter-messaging. We’ve pretty much stopped that flow of people from all the around the world into Syria. And it was that flow of people — many of whom are totally indoctrinated extremists, suicide bombers — that really gave ISIS this tremendous military heft. I think we’ve done a very good job at degrading that.

We’ve also taken away their physical space. They were a unique terrorist organization: a quasi-state. They controlled eight million people in Iraq and Syria. They had a billion dollars a year in revenues. They were committing acts of genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups and planning attacks all around the world.

I think we’ve done a very good job at significantly degrading what was a physical caliphate. They cannot control territory anymore. It’s not a quasi-state entity. It remains an insurgent entity, and it is not primarily the U.S. role to defeat that insurgency. It is the role of the Syrians and the Iraqis to do that, but we do have a significant enabling influence on the ground. I would very much recommend, and it seems to be U.S. policy, that we remain in Iraq.

We’re not fighting in Iraq; we’re not taking casualties in Iraq. We are helping to train and advise the Iraqi security forces who have dramatically increased in capacity and capability over the last four to five years. I think that should continue. We’re joined in Iraq by 22 other coalition partners who are carrying a lot of the burden, and that’s good. In Syria, again, I think a small U.S. military presence is quite important — as long as its consistent with a coherent strategy and plan for Syria, which I don’t think we have right now.

OR: Does Trump, broadly speaking, have a foreign policy strategy?

McGurk: Secretary Pompeo gave a speech in May saying that Trump’s foreign policy is a return to the principles of the Founding Fathers and a return to realism; he quoted John Quincy Adams saying that America does not go looking for monsters to destroy abroad. We lead by our example. It’s a foreign policy of prudence and restraint, of being careful about how we act in the world. If you look at polls of the American people in terms of where they are on foreign policy, they’re not really isolationists. They just want to be smart and prudent, to see this basic alignment of ends and means which I talked about earlier. I think there’s something to that.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that reflects Trump’s foreign policy.

If you look at his foreign policy on some critical issues, it’s all over the map. In Venezuela, we have a declared policy of regime change without any real coherence of how to bring that about. In Syria, our declared policy is to stay until the enduring defeat of ISIS, until all Iranians leave Syria, and until there’s irreversible momentum in the political process. On Iran, if you look at the declared policy, it’s pretty much a regime-change policy (though it isn’t described as such). We want the Iranian regime to fundamentally change its behavior in the world and internally to an extent really impossible without regime change.

All of that is very different from how Trump sees the world and what Trump says. On Syria, he has said repeatedly that we are leaving and that the Iranians and Russians and Syrians can handle it. On Iran, he said all he cares about is the nuclear issue and ensuring Iran can’t get a nuclear weapon. Venezuela — which his national security advisor, his Vice President, and others have really doubled down on — he almost never talks about.

There is this fundamental incoherence between the President and the Oval Office and his national security team. This is a real problem because neither our friends nor our adversaries have a clue in terms of who’s speaking for whom. I think Trump has some coherence there — he has a very Jacksonian tendency in his views. If there is a real threat to the United States, we should act. Regarding ISIS, he was very clear: we have to make sure we destroy it, which we’ve done to some extent, but otherwise it’s really not our business to be doing all this stuff around the world. That explains the way he talks about NATO, the way he talks about other allies, the way he talks about our partners in the Middle East — for him it’s a totally transactional relationship. He says that we really shouldn’t be the lead naval power in the Gulf, that other countries should come in and help do that.

I’ve never seen a situation in which the national security advisor has a fundamentally different view of America’s role in the world than the President. At some point, that incoherence is going to come to a head. In the worst case, it comes to a head because we inadvertently find ourselves in a military conflict. Otherwise, it will come to a head through personnel changes and other things we’ve seen throughout the Trump Administration. But that incoherence is still there throughout every strand of foreign policy.

On North Korea, you can see this too. It’s the one policy Trump has really taken charge of. He’s clearly in the lead and making decisions that are very contrary to his own national security advisor. It was noted that when he met with Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone, John Bolton was in Mongolia. That’s just strange. At some point I think this is going to have to give.

OR: Do you think that the U.S. global position is weaker now than it was in 2016?

McGurk: I am a realist. A fundamental test for me of any policy is the alignment of ends, ways, and means. What is the objective? What are the resources we’re willing and able to apply towards it, and how can we use those those resources to achieve the objective? If you have a misalignment there, you have a policy that’s either going to fail or that is going to carry serious unintended consequences. I’ve seen this up close in Iraq over the last decade and a half, in Syria. I could go down the line.

In terms of the means of policy, what makes America strong in the world — particularly against a strategic competitor like China or Russia — is our ability to marshal alliances and work together in conjunction with allies. Again, the one coalition that Trump has led is the ISIS coalition, which happened to have been built under the Obama Administration and which Trump carried forward. I was a part of that transition, and I think it was handled quite well. But we could not have done what we did against ISIS without all those partners working in conjunction. It was a tremendous diplomatic effort to pull all of that together. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of attention to detail, and a lot of organization and coordination to do that.

When we try to act in the world without friends and allies, we are inherently weaker. On China in particular. I was in China in the spring. I think Trump has drawn some lines on China that are appropriate, but it’s a question of how you go about it. There’s a sense in that part of the world, including with our partners and allies, that we are acting very much unilaterally. Whereas I think the better approach would be to pull allies together, build a united front, and then announce the objectives. Then you’re pursuing objectives with a much stronger resource space, where it’s not just us, it’s also our partners and allies.

Iran is another example of this. I think on Iran, you want to have partners and allies because it is going to be extremely difficult. If you push the Iranians into a corner, they are going to do things to try to get themselves out of that situation, which I think is happening now. But because we acted quite unilaterally, we don’t have all the allies that we would want under our tent. So the Administration has been trying to build a naval coalition to help protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf — again, totally the right approach. You want to gather allies and partners because this isn’t a U.S. only interest. But it seems they’re having some difficulty in that regard.

We have undermined many of our alliances — the fundamental strength of the United States, particularly vis-a-vis great power competitors like Russia and China, which cannot marshal alliances in the way that we can — and I think that does leave us weaker and leaves us with fewer tools with which to operate.

OR: How do you assess the current state of U.S. competition with China?

McGurk: I’d look to China closely in terms of what they’re doing in the Middle East. They are taking a very long-term view in the Middle East, and I think this goes to what they’re trying to do around the world. They have different tiers of diplomatic relations with countries; at the very top is what’s called a comprehensive strategic partnership. In the Middle East, and this is extraordinary if you consider just the political dynamics, they have finalized comprehensive strategic partnerships with four countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.

I was in Beijing. I talked to their Middle East team. They see these as the four pillars of the future of the Middle East. You can’t just erase Iran from the map. It’s a civilization. It’s going to continue to be one for 1,000 years. And they have now anchored themselves to Iran as a comprehensive strategic partner. They’ve done the same with Saudi Arabia — the great geo-strategic rival in the region to Iran. They’ve done the same thing with Egypt, which is the historic leader of the Arab world. They’ve done the same with Abu Dhabi, which they see as the main trading hub.

They’ve taken this very long-term view. Our recent approach seems to be, I think, much more short-sighted and short-term.

So how do we counter that? First, just because they are a rising power doesn’t mean they’re necessarily in competition with all of our interests. You have to find some interests that converge. The fact that our friends from UAE are developing close relationships with China is not necessarily a bad thing. It could be in UAE’s interest. But we have to draw the line somewhere, particularly when it comes to technology and military relationships. We have to have very serious conversations with our partners in the region, but we also want to, most importantly, strengthen ourselves at home and revitalize our own base, our own institutions. Again, consider the speech from Pompeo about John Quincy Adams: we lead by our example. I don’t think we’re really doing that right now.

If you look beyond the next two years, or the next five, or the next 10, I think the best approach would really be to strengthen ourselves at home. To set a great example in terms of democratic institutions and the rule of law, as a counterexample to what Xi Jinping is doing in China. To strengthen alliances with our like-minded partners around the world. I think that is going to be critical to this power competition that we are now very much embarked upon.

Speaking as a former State Department official and diplomat, I pointed this out in an op-ed I wrote with Kori Schake in the Washington Post. China is dramatically increasing investments in its diplomatic corps. It actually has a policy rule that with investments in military power, you have to have commensurate increases and investments in the diplomatic corps and diplomacy and diplomatic teams around the world. At the same time, the United States, and particularly the Trump Administration, is dramatically gutting investments in our diplomatic corps. I think Secretary Pompeo has tried to correct that a little bit, but he’s not in control of the budget process.

Congress has pushed back against this, which is good, but it’s hard to gear up for great power competition when we are not investing in the people who will be minding the front lines all around the world. And when I say front lines, I do not mean military front lines. It’s our embassies, it’s our diplomats, it’s our economic power, it’s opening up opportunities for U.S. business and investment. That’s what our diplomats do. That’s what our country teams do. And when you’re significantly decreasing investments in that critical element of national power, it’s hard to say you’re taking a long-term, strategic view in a great power competition. Which, actually, is the first principle of Trump’s own national security strategy. I question whether he’s internalized it. Let alone read it.