One factor in a bunch of Americans opting for Donald Trump in 2016 was his promise not to start a new war in the Middle East — but the D.C. establishment secretly kept troops in Syria, and lied about it to the president.By Willis L. Krumholz
Defense One, a subsidiary of The Atlantic, came out with a story last week about a man named Jim Jeffrey. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t feel bad, but he’s pretty important in Washington, D.C. Under his fancy title, he’s been appointed to oversee the U.S. fight against ISIS and what are supposed to be the limited operations of the American troops who still remain in Syria.
Jeffrey is now also a hero in D.C., because in the interview with Defense One he bragged about how he misled President Donald Trump and other top White House officials about the real number of U.S. troops in Syria. “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey told the Defense One reporter.
The Establishment Wants War in Syria
To say that the D.C. foreign policy establishment wants a U.S. ground presence in Syria is an understatement. During the Obama administration, partisan former Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan spent $1 billion from taxpayers per year trying to arm “moderate” rebels in Syria.
What Brennan got was loads of American weapons in the hands of jihadists, including ISIS affiliates. In one example, a particular program trained 15,000 rebels in Jordan and returned them to Syria. Only “four or five” recruits out of the 15,000 turned up to fight. The rest either joined jihadist forces, including ISIS, or sold their American weapons to these forces.
The futility of regime change efforts didn’t deter official Washington, however. Western media raved about “the white helmets.” They also glossed over the fact that there were few moderate rebels and that many of America’s preferred rebels to take on the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad were guilty of unspeakable brutalities.
Meanwhile, a civil war pitting Muslim Sunnis against Shias — which was partly fueled by American money and weapons and certainly fueled by weapons and money from Gulf Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia — caused a humanitarian crisis. Millions of refugees flooded Europe. Into this chaos and power vacuum stepped ISIS, which at its pinnacle had amassed a huge amount of territory in Iraq and Syria.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump repeatedly promised to destroy ISIS and then get U.S. troops out of Syria. This was a large difference between Trump and his Republican primary opponents and then later Hillary Clinton, who argued that U.S. involvement in Syria should not be limited to destroying the Islamic State and that the United States should topple Assad.
Trump’s view was that if Assad was toppled, the power vacuum would be greater, and the jihadist problem would worsen. He also argued that such a move was not in America’s interest, had no clear exit strategy, and would cause an even greater humanitarian disaster, including thousands of dead American troops.
As president, Trump routinely calledSyria a place of “sand and death.” Multiple times he attempted to pull the United States out of Syria, only to be met with Assad allegedly striking civilians and official Washington clamoring for a response. Finally, in December 2018, Trump gave a withdrawal order. This led to the resignation (or firing) of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, along with Brett McGurk, the former special envoy for Syria. Trump repeated that order in October 2019.
Jeffrey called Trump’s decision to fulfill his campaign promise and remove U.S. troops from Syria “the most controversial thing in my fifty years in government.” Each time Trump gave the withdrawal order, according to Jeffrey, Trump was“convinced to leave a residual force in Syria and the fight continued.” In reality, officials kept troops behind far above the “residual force,” unbeknownst to the president.
“What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,” Jeffrey bragged. “When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out. In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story.”
Officially, America has 200 to 400 troops on the ground in northeast Syria, ostensibly to guard the oil fields in that area held by U.S. Kurdish allies. Anonymous officials say the number is more like 900 today, however, and Jeffrey told Defense One that the number of troops in Syria is “a lot more than” the roughly 200 troops that Trump agreed to leave behind there in October 2019.
Defense One concluded its story by noting that Jeffrey didn’t support Trump but agrees with Trump’s “realpolitik” Middle East foreign policy and efforts to make North Atlantic Treaty Organization members pay more for defense. Jeffrey also said he views Joe Biden favorably. In fact, after signing a letter in 2016 that said Trump was unfit for the presidency, it appears as if Jeffrey still opposes Trump: “I know what I did in 2016, I do not disagree with that,” Jeffrey said.
While Defense One quoted colleagues who said Jeffrey is a “consummate apolitical public servant,” many others were upset by Jeffrey’s admissions. Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is furious and called for Jeffrey to be “punished.”
Who Has the Power in America?
People in Middle America should be enraged by Jeffrey’s interview. Washington, D.C., should be terrified that the American people might realize people like Jeffrey are only the tip of the iceberg. Jeffrey might be completely right about his view of the world and probably thinks he was doing the right thing, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make Jeffrey’s behavior any less abhorrent.
People didn’t elect Jeffrey to anything. They elected Trump in 2016, and one factor in a bunch of working-class Americans opting for Trump was his promise not to start a new war in the Middle East. A large majority of Americans don’t want U.S. ground troops in Syria. Even a large chunk of Democrats who abhor Trump technically agree with his Syria policy. Labeling Jeffrey a “public servant” is a sick joke. Jeffrey is serving himself, or at least serving his ideology — and he does have an ideology.
Yes, it was Trump’s fault he hired people like John Bolton, a neoconservative ideologue who thought it was his job to stop Trump from following through with his campaign promises. Yet Trump isn’t ideological, and he often filled positions based on the recommendations of those around him, many of whom were card-carrying members of the Republican establishment.
Either way, Trump took a lot of heat for his order to pull troops out of Syria. Mattis resigned, and Democrats, media outlets, and Republicans such as Liz Cheney attacked Trump. Detractors hurled constant accusations that Trump wanting to get U.S. troops out of Syria was yet further proof he was a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s differences on foreign policy compared to the D.C. establishment, including over Syria policy, was even a significant factor in the FBI’s decision to legitimize baseless conspiracy theories that Trump was an agent of Russia.
Let’s step back for a second. Millions of working-class Americans, who also voted for Barack Obama, voted for Trump in 2016 because they wanted a change to policy. Now assume Trump is gone, and, truthfully, not much has changed on a fundamental level for many of these working-class citizens. What will happen when a large chunk of the American people realize their votes don’t affect policy?
Trump was considered norm-breaking and obnoxious to these D.C. insiders. Have these insiders not considered that the same people who sent Trump to the White House to shake things up might eventually opt for someone even more norm-breaking than Trump?Willis L. Krumholz holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas. The views expressed are those of the author only. You can follow Willis on Twitter @WillKrumholz.