“An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country,” English diplomat Sir Henry Wotton was quoted as saying in a 1611 book by Caspar Schoppe.
Four hundred nine years later, in a Defense One article by Katie Bo Williams, retiring U.S. diplomat Jim Jeffrey turned Wotton’s epigram on its head. Jeffrey said he and other officials lied to President Donald Trump about how many U.S. troops were in Syria to prevent Trump from withdrawing them, supposedly for the good of Syria and the broader Middle East.
“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey told Williams, though he added that there are “a lot more than” the official number.
Trump, who had won the presidency in part on a pledge to scale back U.S. intervention abroad, announced in December 2018 that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria. He was right to do so. The United States had no business involving itself in another country’s civil war, and when it did, its leaders were never very good at figuring out whom to back. Then again, how does one choose between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who formerly was praised as a valued ally of the U.S. because of his willingness to torture suspected terrorists for Washington, and the various rebel factions opposing him, all of which have their own agendas and flaws?
Besides, Congress has never authorized U.S. involvement in the conflict, although it was quick to condemn Trump for wanting to end the unconstitutional troop deployment. That the resolution passed 354-60 only goes to show that if there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it’s the need for Uncle Sam to police the world.
Trump’s announcement precipitated the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis and then-Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk. Jeffrey, Trump’s special envoy to Syria, took on McGurk’s duties as well.
Williams describes what happened next:
In 2018 and again in October of 2019, when Trump repeated the withdrawal order, the president boasted that ISIS was “defeated.” But each time, the president was convinced to leave a residual force in Syria and the fight continued.
“What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,” Jeffrey said. “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, Trump last year agreed to keep several hundred U.S. troops — somewhere between 200 and 400, according to varying reports at the time — stationed in northeast Syria to “secure” oil fields held by the United States’ Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS. It is generally accepted that the actual number is now higher than that — anonymous officials put the number at about 900 today — but the precise figure is classified and remains unknown even, it appears, to members of Trump’s administration keen to end the so-called “forever wars.”
Jeffrey considers his deception of the president to have been all to the good. By keeping troops in Syria and continuing to intervene in other wars, “Trump has achieved a kind of political and military ‘stalemate’ in a number of different cold and hot conflicts, producing a situation that is about the best any administration could hope for in such a messy, volatile region,” he told Williams. Leaving the region to its own devices is, of course, out of the question for an establishment type such as Jeffrey.
He also believes that former Vice President Joe Biden will continue to pursue his (Jeffrey’s) favored policies in the Middle East should he supplant Trump in January. In fact, he’s urging Biden, if he becomes president, “to stay the course laid out by Trump’s team,” wrote Williams.
That Jeffrey — a career diplomat and, like Biden, a consummate “swamp creature” — would cheer ongoing U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, and even celebrate his own role in maintaining it, comes as no surprise. But it once more demonstrates one of Trump’s fatal flaws: Having promised to “drain the swamp,” Trump instead peopled his administration with marsh-dwellers, including many who actively opposed his stated policies.
Trump had to have known Jeffrey would undermine him from the start. In 2016, along with other former national-security officials, the diplomat had signed a not-so-diplomatic open letter saying “Donald Trump is not qualified to be President and Commander-in-Chief” because, among other things, “he has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior.” (Jeffrey told Williams he does “not disagree with” the letter even now.) Why, then, did Trump appoint Jeffrey first as an envoy to Syria and then as McGurk’s successor?
Trump’s failure to live up to many of his campaign promises because of his personnel decisions demonstrates that some of the concerns expressed in the open letter, such as his impetuousness and incuriosity, were valid. A man who was serious about draining the swamp would have taken the time to seek out likeminded individuals to appoint to important positions in his administration, not simply hired the same old hacks the GOP bigwigs probably recommended.
Still, whether Trump leaves office in January or remains for another four years, there is time for him to redeem his legacy to some degree, especially in matters of foreign policy, where he enjoys a tremendous amount of latitude. Mr. President, just order all the troops to come home, whether they’re in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, or any of the other dozens of countries in which America has gone, as John Quincy Adams disapprovingly put it, “in search of monsters to destroy.” The real monsters to destroy — the ones who will lie to you if that’s what it takes to keep the U.S. empire going — are right here in your own administration.