‘We were always playing shell games,’ says Amb. Jim Jeffrey, who also gives advice to President-elect Biden.
Four years after signing the now-infamous “Never Trump” letter condemning then-presidential candidate Donald Trump as a danger to America, retiring diplomat Jim Jeffrey is recommending that the incoming Biden administration stick with Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
But even as he praises the president’s support of what he describes as a successful “realpolitik” approach to the region, he acknowledges that his team routinely misled senior leaders about troop levels in Syria.
“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey said in an interview. 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.
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.” 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.
For Jeffrey, the incident was far less cut-and-dry — 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.
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.”
As he exits public service again, Jeffrey is hardly derisive of the divisive president.
The career ambassador’s 2018 decision to serve in the Trump administration despite his political opposition to the president — and to champion his policies on the way out the door — is on-brand for an official described by colleagues as the consummate apolitical public servant. Jeffrey offers no polemics on the president’s character, even as he says he stands by his decision to sign the 2016 open letter that said Trump was “erratic” and “acts impetuously.”
“I know what I did in 2016, I do not disagree with that,” said Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “I was following closely the situation with Iran, Iraq and Syria, and I was appalled that we didn’t have a more coherent policy. This wasn’t a political decision.”
Jeffrey now says that Trump’s “modest” and transactional approach to the Middle East has yielded a more stable region than either of his predecessors’ more transformational policies. President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech heralding the seismic U.S. intervention into Iraq and President 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,” Jeffrey said. Trump’s administration, he said, has looked at the Middle East through a geostrategic lens and kept its focus on Iran, Russia, and China, while keeping the metastatic “disease” of Islamist terror in check.
Jeffrey believes 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.
In much of Syria, the remaining U.S. troops maintain a fragile stability. Although U.S. diplomats are still painstakingly working to resettle thousands of ISIS families and relocate foreign fighters still held by the Kurdish-led SDF, Jeffrey said the humanitarian situation is slowly improving and he has no concerns that the remaining detained ISIS fighters will escape.
In Iraq, Jeffrey credits the Trump administration with maintaining relations with the central government and constraining Iranian influence in Baghdad.
“Stalemale and blocking advances and containing is not a bad thing,” Jeffrey said. “That’s what powerful countries — France, Britain, the United States — failed to do in the 1930s, and then they discovered they had to fight for their lives in really important places like Paris and the South China Sea and North Africa.”
“That’s the nature of realpolitik and great power foreign policy.”
Jeffrey’s is an unorthodox view of Trump’s foreign policy, to be sure. It comes at a moment when most mainstream national security professionals of both parties — including some former members of Trump’s own administration — are openly condemning the president’s handling of America’s military and diplomatic affairs. In particular, critics say the 45th president has damaged American alliances, perhaps irreversibly, with his combative Twitter account and occasionally punitive foreign policy. In one key example, Trump announced a troop withdrawal from Germany because Berlin wasn’t meeting defense spending benchmarks.
Jeffrey said there’s no question that Trump has demanded a lot of U.S. allies, both in Europe and the Middle East. But he rolls his eyes at the notion that U.S. alliances will crumble under the pressure from the United States to do things like pay more for their own national defense or do more to push back on Iran.
Far from undermining Middle East allies, Jeffrey said, Trump has sought “to build up our alliance system and basically stop nagging at them, show that Washington has their back including their domestic situations — they can do pretty much what they want, but they’re going to have to step up and do things.”
In the Middle East, he said, that approach has won him friends, not enemies. He points to the historic political tightening between Israel and some of the Gulf monarchies.
"Nobody really wants to see President Trump go, among all our allies [in the Middle East],” he said. “The truth is President Trump and his policies are quite popular among all of our popular states in the region. Name me one that’s not happy.”
In Iraq, he said, relations with Baghdad have remained healthy, even as he confirmed the State Department threat to shutter the embassy if Iraq didn’t do more to curtail Iranian militia activity.
“That’s an ongoing issue,” he said. “It was not a bogus threat, it’s very serious.”
The Syria withdrawal announcement was roundly condemned even by members of Trump’s own administration as an abandonment of the SDF, which did the bulk of the on-the-ground fighting against ISIS. It is often held up by critics as the ultimate object lesson of the chaos — and even cruelty — of the Trump administration.
Jeffrey disputes the charge that the United States “abandoned” its Kurdish allies to a Turkish onslaught. Although the United States gave the Kurds a military guarantee against Russian mercenaries operating in Syria, the Syrian government and ISIS, “nobody in Washington ever gave the Kurds a military guarantee against Turkey,” Jeffrey said. “I cannot put my finger on it, [but] every Kurdish leader I know thinks that he or she was given such a guarantee by people in the field, and that had an impact on how they behaved including how they behaved vis-a-vis the Turks. So it was a very complicated political mess.”
Jeffrey doesn’t dispute that there was some chaos to the decision-making process. But he compared it to troop level fluctuations in Iraq under Bush, or Obama’s surge into and simultaneous withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan.
“Look, there’s a surface chaos to every administration,” he said. “I’m not defending this gang, I’m just saying chaos is what I’ve experienced.”
If Jeffrey is complimentary of the Trump administration’s overall approach to the Middle East, he is equally sanguine about the incoming Biden administration.
“If [U.S. allies in the Middle East] had to pick somebody else to come, it would be Joe Biden,” Jeffrey said. “I can’t predict how Joe Biden would act [but] of all of his decisions that I was involved in, and there were many, he is more of a transactional guy by his nature.
“I can’t see him giving either the Bush speech or the Cairo speech. And that’s a good thing.”
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. Some things the Biden team may want to undo — like the dismantling of the Iran nuclear deal — he suggests may now be impossible. But above all, don’t attempt “transformation.” Don’t try to “turn Syria into Denmark.” Stalemate is stability.
“I think the stalemate we’ve put together is a step forward and I would advocate it,” Jeffrey said.
“I’m just telling you the reality as I saw it. I’m not trying to do favors to anybody. Because it’s very important when the new team comes in, they don’t say, if it was made by Trump it has to be bad.”