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Q&A: Brett McGurk, former envoy for coalition fighting ISIS under Obama, Trump

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Brett McGurk served as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL from Oct. 23, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2018. He was appointed to the post by former President Barack Obama, but the Donald Trump administration kept McGurk in the position until his resignation in the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. McGurk has worked in diplomacy for the past 15 years, including a stint from October 2014 to January 2016 as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran. He is currently a lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute.

The Daily sat down to talk to McGurk about his career and his thoughts on the Middle East in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Could you talk a little bit about your transition from working in the government to lecturing at Stanford?

Brett McGurk (BM): I had the unique experience of serving at fairly senior levels with President Bush, Obama and then two years of President Trumpthree very different presidents. I resigned from the Trump administration at the end of last year following his decision to abruptly abandon Syria, which was very contrary to what our established policy was. 

I started here at Stanford in March, and I’m doing a number of things here. I’m writing a book called “Three Presidents, Three Wars” about presidential decision making and my experience with these three very different leaders, but also broader lessons about strategy and America’s role in the world. That’ll be published probably in 2021. I’m teaching two classes. Right now I’m teaching “Presidential Decision Making in Wartime.” In the spring, I’ll be teaching “American Grand Strategy,” about what our role is in the world, looking at it from the Cold War to the current challenges we face.

TSD: You wrote a Washington Post op-ed on Oct. 27, right after news broke that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had died. Just over a month later, what are your thoughts on the situation post-troop withdrawal?

BM: I think everything I said in the heat of the moment has pretty much held up. The Inspectors General of the Department of State and the Department of Defense came out with a report yesterday basically saying this decision by President Trump has been a total disaster. ISIS is reconstituting. We have basically handed over our military facilities to the Russians without any kind of thinking about what would come in the wake of our withdrawal. We’ve now pretty much abandoned about two-thirds of Northeast Syria where we were present. 

The Kurds and traditional Kurdish areas now are totally under the protection of Vladimir Putin. We’ve kind of left folks that we were working with and that fought with us and suffered greatly against ISIS to the whims of presidents Putin and Erdogan. It’s dramatically decreased our ability to have any influence over the overall situation in Syria. I think we have to be honest about that, and I fear it’s going to get worse. 

TSD: Do you believe that the relationship between President Trump and Russian President Putin influenced Trump’s decision? 

BM: I can’t say that. I think Trump had a call with Erdogan similar to the call he had with Erdogan in December, which led to my resignation and Secretary [James] Mattis’ resignation. He’s not prepared for these phone calls, so he tends to believe everything that a foreign leader is telling him. It seems here that Erdogan told him that he can come in and take care of ISIS and, you know, don’t worry about it. And I don’t think Trump understood the consequences, if Turkey invades Northeast Syria, of what would happen. The entire tapestry that had been built over the years just unravels. And then who’s going to fill that vacuum as it opens up rapidly? It’s going to be the Russians and the Assad regime.

TSD: What do you think the future of the Islamic State may be?

BM: First, I think we have to be very proud as a country of what we did over two administrations against ISIS. We built a huge coalition under the Obama administration that carried forward in the Trump administration. We tried to apply all the lessons learned from the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war, these very hard lessons about endless wars and not getting over-invested, and we designed a campaign model that had a very limited U.S. investment, a lot of burden-sharing from allies all around the world and fighting being done by local people. 

I think that model was successful. I think it was sustainable. I think it’s tragic that President Trump has kind of ripped it to shreds. You don’t just declare mission accomplished and pull up stakes. You have to have something in place. You don’t leave a vacuum behind. But I think we also can be very proud of what we’ve done to ISIS. The coalition remains intact.

TSD: How would you respond to people who look at the troop withdrawal and say the goal should be to get the United States out of the Middle East? At what point do you think the U.S. could remove itself? 

BM: Nobody was saying we’d stay in Syria forever. This really started in December of last year when Trump said, “get out.” At that time, we only had 2000 American troops in Syria. In that theater, you have Bassar al-Assad, you have Putin, you have Hamani from Iran, you have Erdogan and ISIS, you have Al Qaeda, you have Shia militias, Iranian-backed militias. It’s very complicated. And when the American president says he wants nothing to do with it, it changes the incentives and the way all those actors act, and I think it increases the risk to the United States. 

In Syria, it wasn’t the model of Afghanistan or Iraq war. We didn’t have tens of thousands of American troops. We were not spending billions and billions of dollars. If you keep that force there, it allows diplomats like I used to be to sit at the table with all of these actors, and with a very strong hand. When the president announced he wants nothing to do with it, it’s very difficult to do any of that diplomacy.

TSD: Talk of Turkey joining the EU has been decreasing. What do you think about Turkey’s potential status to join the EU in the future?

BM: Turkey is a complicated country. They’re a longstanding NATO ally, so we have to continue to work with them. However, I think in foreign policy, it’s best to just to be honest about what’s happening in certain countries. I can’t speak for the EU and Brussels, but as of now, I think that trajectory [toward EU membership] is not looking positive because of the nature of president Erdogan and his leadership style, and what he has done in massively consolidating power. It has I think increased corruption in Turkey, dramatically decreased due process and basic fundamental values and freedoms that are Western values. 

And as I said in that Washington Post op-ed, Turkey has some explaining to do here. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was found in a safe house just a few miles from the Turkish border and Baghdadi’s number two was found in a town just south of the Turkish border that Turkey effectively controls.

TSD: When you served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, you led 14 months of secret negotiations with Iran to set up a prisoner swap and the release of four Americans from Tehran, including a Washington Post journalist. What do you see as the risks and responsibilities of the press right now in foreign affairs?

BM: I think we tend to undervalue the importance of journalists and particularly foreign correspondents. I think it’s important for citizens to have a healthy diet of fact-based information, and, it’s especially important overseas when we’re dealing with these very complicated endeavors. As a country, given that we are kind of a beacon for the importance of free expression and a free press, we need to kind of stand up for those values. And citizens should recognize the importance of foreign correspondents who risked their life to just inform the public of what’s happening.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Contact Jasmine Kerber at jkerber ‘at’ stanford.edu.