On Friday, an article at Defense One about the military aspects of Trump’s Middle East policy burst across social media with a boom produced by these incendiary words in the headline: “Outgoing Syria Envoy Admits Hiding US Troop Numbers.”
What veteran diplomat Jim Jeffry acknowledged, in comments written up by Katie Bo Williams, was that the Syria team, for which Jeffrey had filled the roles of special envoy for Syria and special envoy for the counter-ISIS fight, had “routinely misled senior leaders about troop levels in Syria.”
The going-in language is daunting: “’We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,’ Jeffrey said in an interview.”
That’s certainly not good. “The actual number of troops in northeast Syria is ‘a lot more than’ the roughly two hundred troops Trump initially agreed to leave there in 2019,” according to Jeffrey.
Williams continues: “Trump’s abruptly-announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria remains perhaps the single-most controversial foreign policy move during his first years in office, and for Jeffrey, ‘the most controversial thing in my fifty years in government.’”
Indeed, “The order, first handed down in December 2018, led to the resignation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. It catapulted Jeffrey, then Trump’s special envoy for Syria, into the role of special envoy in the counter-ISIS fight when it sparked the protest resignation of his predecessor, Brett McGurk.”
But … “For Jeffrey, the incident was far less cut-and-dry … ” and here it comes: “… but it is ultimately a success story that ended with U.S. troops still operating in Syria, denying Russian and Syrian territorial gains and preventing ISIS remnants from reconstituting.”
I want to stipulate this at the outset: it was wrong for the Syria team to keep things from the president. There’s no question about that. But there’s a more profound point to be taken here, and the focus really needs to be taken off of that very basic point so we can step back and see it.
The more profound point is this: it’s not as clear as you might think, what we’re being told in this article. And that matters.
To help put that in perspective in the briefest way, I’m copying in a tweet thread I sent on this article on Friday morning.
"Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo proclaiming a 'new beginning' with the Muslim world represent an approach to the Middle East that 'made things worse' and 'weakened us.'” 2/6
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) November 13, 2020
"In the Middle East, he said, [Trump's] approach has won him friends, not enemies. He points to the historic political tightening between Israel and some of the Gulf monarchies." 4/6
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) November 13, 2020
"Asked how he would advise the Biden administration when it takes over his portfolio, Jeffrey said he would urge the President-elect to stay the course laid out by Trump’s team." 6/6
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) November 13, 2020
The emphasis in that thread is on the positive things about Trump’s policy that make up the overwhelming majority of the comments offered by Jim Jeffrey. Jeffrey does not say that Trump was some kind of idiot who had to be kept in the dark about what the military was doing in Syria. In fact, the U.S. was executing Trump’s policy in Syria. Mattis didn’t like the policy, something that was immediately evident at the time. That, to my eye, was clearly why he wasn’t willing to work with Trump to execute the policy with the appropriate number of troops. That appeared to be McGurk’s conflict as well.
The number of troops in country is an inherently important issue, of course. But it would be a far, far graver disconnect if the military and the State Department were lying to Trump about whether his actual policy was being carried out.
One measure of how big the lie was is the simple numbers we’re talking about. Numbers are a rough and often silly measure to focus on, especially when they matter less than the nature of the policy. In the case of Syria, what Williams discovered is that instead of the 200 Trump spoke of, the Syria team managed to keep around 900 in country (and that seems to be as of a fairly recent count; it’s not clear what it was on average in the nearly two years since the drawdown was announced).
That may sound like a major difference, but it’s not nearly as major as, say, the difference between 900 and 4,000 troops, or between 900 — or 4,000 — and 15,000 troops.
I don’t pick those numbers at random. They represent force levels we’ve had in Iraq and Kuwait, respectively, at various times in the last decade. The size of a footprint goes with the nature of the task, and the tasks are typically going to be a lot more similar for ground footprints of 200 versus 900 than for the much broader-scope tasks that go with much larger footprints.
The point here is that the Syria team, with up to 900 instead of 200 troops, couldn’t have been exceeding the president’s policy intentions by all that much. In fact, when we heard that our troops would be securing oilfields in northeastern Syria, I was pretty sure we’d have to have a contingent of more than 200 for that — especially since we were also going to have a presence at Tanf and al-Bukamal. My thinking at that time was that Trump may have gone in with a troop level in mind and a major objective or two, and his advisers would have to tell him it would take more than he was thinking, but not so many more that it was a whole different scope of footprint and political problem-set.
But from what Jeffrey says, it sounds as if the Syria team, and the top-level advisers, chose to differ with Trump on policy, and incur a mistrustful situation, rather than just accepting Trump’s policy and being straightforward about what it would take to execute it. It’s very doubtful, in my view, that there would ever have been a need to “hide” the number of troops if his execution team had simply accepted the task he ordered, and told POTUS what it would take to accomplish it.
Taking readers through that brief thought exercise has this point: no one who has commented on this from a political angle — no one I’ve seen so far — has understood that that’s where the disconnect was. Assuming Jim Jeffrey has been straight-up, what appears to have happened is that people resigned their positions, new players accepted the president’s task with bad grace, and in an atmosphere of friction and mistrust, Trump probably didn’t want to hear from subordinates who were marshaling forces to resist his tasking that the tasking he preferred would take a few hundred more troops than he had in mind.
That scenario evokes a military-force paradigm on autopilot for at least the last 3o years — i.e., going back to the end of the Cold War — and probably more, from at least some perspectives. It’s a box people can’t think outside of. I didn’t like it either, when it looked as if we were about to abandon the Kurds we’d been working with in northeastern Syria. But Jeffrey acknowledges that the dire predictions about that never came to pass, and I’ve had to acknowledge the same thing.
Jeffrey is in the best position to know what kind of diplomacy was being married up with the deployment of force in Syria, and he characterizes it as more “transactional,” and in his view more effective, than what we were doing in the Obama years. His bottom-line recommendation is to continue on the track Trump has put us on.
The media are never going to frame these matters so that readers will see that. They’re going to lead with scare words and arresting phrases that make it sound as if Trump is a wildly exotic problem. Think about the fact that that is essentially also how the entrenched national security thinkers saw the Syria problem at the time: as if there’s no sane way to think outside the post-1945 box.
That makes us sclerotic, overly predictable, and vulnerable to destabilization for our posture at any time, if something unexpected erupts. If “Biden” takes over in January, we’ll go right back into our old ruts in important ways — and frankly, we can’t expect to see clearly from either Biden or Harris what policy outlines will be drawn. You know what that will mean? It will mean that everyone in the Middle East — everyone in the world — except the United States will be in the driver’s seat. Trump has had them reacting to us for the last four years — yet without the U.S. heaving more troops at every situation. We’re kidding ourselves if we think our position won’t immediately start to erode again if Trump’s vision for momentum and navigation goes out the door.
This is one of the biggest downsides of the “Deep State”: national security policy that isn’t adaptable, doesn’t respond to truly different thinking, and motors along complacently in corridors decked out in psych-ward hues that you need three badges to get into. I’ve wished from the beginning that Trump did just a bit more talking about U.S. national interests and his strategic intentions, because when done well, that rhetoric doesn’t leave you with throbbing red lines to defend, nor does it give away all your secrets or your factor of surprise. It sets up channels of expectation for both allies and opponents. The right rhetoric, backed up by bona fides demonstrated even in non-military ways, can be worth whole divisions, strike groups, and air wings in terms of shaping your allies’ hopes and your opponents’ fears.
I still wish that. But Trump has done things even more important than that, such as with a single stroke separating the North Korea problem from leadership by China, and completely resetting it. In the Middle East it took three or four strokes to hack back the mangrove swamp for the breathing space in which the Arab nations are now pursing a better peace with Israel. If Trump had gone with the conventional thinking of the swinging badges in the corridors of Washington, D.C., none of that would have happened.
The article at Defense One, and the reaction to it, are evidence that it still wouldn’t. That is what we need to take away from it. We’re not ready to continue Trump’s policies, and break out of the brittle, encroaching codependence and dysfunction of our post-Pax strategic posture, without Trump.