“The buck stops here”, said President Harry S. Truman, alluding to how he was ultimately responsible for making any decisions and for the fallout that could come from that same decision. One can hardly blame the vast majority of people who have a relatively casual approach to politics and governance for thinking that the US Administration is a well-oiled machine, with the President being made aware of all critical matters thanks to an army of advisors, assistants, and so on informing him on key developments in an up-to-the-minute fashion.
The truth is rather different. The US Government is so large and covers so much territory that the rise of fiefdoms, or better yet, potential and actual competing centres of power that are supposed to act in harmony with the President’s Administration, was always inevitable. Nowhere is more evident than in the 4 year long firefight between the CIA and FBI with President Trump. Others have handled this subject rather deftly, coming from both the left and the right (the centre has been rather vociferously anti-Trump and has appealed to the strength of institutions, experience and expertise in places like the two agencies listed above) so rather than discuss that I’ll rather draw your attention to an incredible admission made this week by outgoing Ambassador James Jeffrey, Special Envoy to Syria:
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.”
All of us witnessed the psychological collapse of large sections of the American public in November 2016 when Trump surprised much of the world by winning the Presidency. Where once there was a respect for the office across the board (even though partisanship had been rising for decades), that month saw vocal calls for his removal from office. Many voices openly urged the US Army to step in.
Throughout 2020 we have witnessed more purposely ambiguous hints that the Army ‘should do something’ to ensure that Trump is forced out of office. The hyperbole kicked into overdrive as Trump contests election results in several key states with many using the term coup d’etat to describe his efforts in trying to reverse results. Denounced as an authoritarian, fascist, dictator (or all three), many of his opponents seek anti-democratic tools in order to ‘defend democracy’ that has clearly not ‘died in darkness’. A flurry of lawsuits cannot be equated to a coup d’etat.
What is amazing about Jeffrey’s admission is that the Department of Defense has purposely misled President Trump in order to achieve its own objectives in the Middle East when the fact of the matter is that the President, thanks to winning the election in 2016, has the right to change foreign policy and to command that US forces act within the confines of that policy. Instead the DoD said “fuck you” and became a centre of power, independent from the Presidency, a Presidency in which the President is the Commander-in-Chief. This is insubordination. This is a rebellion against the Government and the people who elected the President. All these calls for ‘protecting norms’ go out the window when these same people calling for their protections are the ones who are violating them for their own aims.
This bodes ill for the future of the USA but is not necessarily an isolated incident. Recall that during the height of the Syrian Civil War, the CIA (sponsor of various Jihadi outfits) went into battle with the DoD (sponsor of the Kurds) as their proxies fought it out in the north of that country. This, along with the impossibility of withdrawal from Afghanistan after almost 20 years of US presence there, tells us that foreign policy is detaching itself from the Presidency, making itself an immovable object.
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