BRUSSELS — Pounding the table quite literally, the United States’ top envoy to the Middle East rejected Democratic candidates’ calls to withdraw from “endless wars.”
“I get terribly worried. Because this shows total ignorance of what’s going on in the world today,” said Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, in an exclusive interview with Defense One.
Jeffrey, the 73-year old U.S. special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, is known as a blunt-talking diplomat. He holds the rank of career ambassador and previously has served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Turkey, and Albania, and spent five years as a U.S. Army infantry officer.
In the past week, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont called for an end to “endless wars” in an article in Foreign Affairs; while two of his rivals, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro joined him and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in signing a pledge to end “forever wars.” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, closed his performance at the second Democratic presidential debate, by saying, “I want to be able to look back on these years and say my generation delivered climate solutions, racial equality and an end to endless war.”
In the same debate, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York said she would “make sure we do not start an unwanted never-ending war” with Iran. Even former Vice President Joe Biden, who voted for the initial invasion of Iraq, boasted that he was tasked by President Barack Obama with pulling 150,000 U.S. troops out of the country. (In fact, the Iraqi government voted to let American troops authorization expire, effectively kicking the U.S. out of Iraq, which critics say the Obama administration willfully allowed to occur.) Bided added, “I also think we should not have combat troops in Afghanistan. It’s long overdue. It should end.”
In the interview, Jeffrey stressed that he was talking about the term “endless wars,” not about any particular candidate. He was careful to say the American voters will decide on the political messages.
“All of those candidates, in fact to a degree even more than most presidential candidates, embrace American values such as democracy, rule of law, divided government, free press, all of these great things. But let me tell you what I’ve learned in 50 years of experience. All those democratic values that we have done a great deal as a country to promote and to support around the world – and that’s a good thing, was a good thing – rest on a foundation. That foundation is an American-led global collective security system to fend off the predators that want to tear the system apart. Not just the military coalition, but the values that stand behind it.
“I don’t need to name the names of those countries — they’re in the president’s National Security Strategy — but those countries are on the move and there’s no way that they’re going to be stopped without the United States supporting engagements around the world,” he said, referring implicitly to China, Russia, and Iran.
“This word ‘war’ — I’ll tell you what war to me means, at least since — in the context of post-World War II. It means endless commitments of hundreds of thousands of American troops, specifically in Korea, during the Korean War — and that’s only a limited example, but the big examples are Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to try to change societies in the midst of internal conflicts, something that is very, very hard to do and the American people understandably have little stomach for it. That is far different than what we did in the Gulf War in 1991. That’s far different than our airbridge of weapons to Israel to have it win the Yom Kippur War in 1973. That’s very different than our campaign to maintain a no-fly-zone over Northern and Southern Iraq” after 1991, Jefferey said, growing louder.
“I could go on literally for 20 minutes with literally scores and scores of American military operations that have undergird this global security regime and thus undergird the American and Western and UN values system. You start pulling the threads on that by claiming that every single time we threaten to fire a Tomahawk missile we are getting another Vietnam or another Iraq — please indicate that I’m stamping my fist on the table as I’m doing this — we are asking to go back to the 1930s. That’s the echo of what I hear in these comments, the 1930s.”
The diplomat ended with a disclaimer. “I felt it was legitimate for me as a government official and a career Foreign Service Officer to answer that first part because you were asking – because while you were drawing the context of what political candidates are saying, thus in a political context, you were making a specific question as to whether I see these things as ‘endless wars’ and I gave an answer.”
“I cannot comment on why people are using the term ‘endless wars’ or how we should evaluate that, that’s the role of the American citizenry in listening to people run for office. That’s a political process and I have to stay away from it. I’m just a technical advisor to the American people.”