by Gary Sick
Foreign policy, to paraphrase Bismarck, is like sausage: you’d rather not see it being made. In fact, even when the final results are not particularly appetizing, the foreign policy process gains nothing by being carried out in public. But the Trump administration, more than any of its predecessors, invites the public to join it in the kitchen.
Typically, when the national security bureaucracy decides that a new policy is required, or an old policy altered, the process proceeds rather simply. A lead organization drafts a policy memo. This can take many forms, but it usually boils down to three options: Option A is the least controversial or costly, and it often resembles the status quo; Option C is the most radical or costly and involves the greatest departure from the status quo; Option B is a middle course, which alters the status quo but does so with the least cost or disruption.
Different parts of the government may favor Options A and C, and the outcome after vigorous internal debate is not predetermined. However, it is the ubiquitous and sensible Option B that often prevails. But whatever the outcome, by the time a final decision is reached, various contingencies have been discussed, policy advocates have been required to defend possible shortcomings and weaknesses in their original proposals, some adjustments have probably been made, and, above all, everyone is on the same page and singing the same melody when the new policy is announced or put into effect.
Whether they like it or not, domestic critics as well as foreign allies and adversaries know where Washington stands. They may suspect that the process of arriving at this point was messier than it appears on the surface. But if the process worked as it should, they will not be able to use the words and arguments of internal opponents to sabotage the chosen course of action before it is ever implemented.
The Syria Options
The recent controversy about U.S. troops in Syria is a useful case in point. Last April, President Trump indicated that American troops should come out of Syria since their mission of defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) had been accomplished. This was a campaign promise. But then on July 15, during the runup to Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, National Security Advisor John Bolton told ABC News in a televised interview that “the president has made it clear that we are there until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East.”
In fact, the president himself had not made it clear, but Bolton is paid to know what the president is thinking. James Jeffrey, the special representative for Syria, stated the U.S. position more explicitly in a State Department press briefing on December 3. He said, “We’re going to be present not forever in Syria but present until our conditions—enduring defeat of ISIL, as was said earlier, the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria, and an irreversible political process” are fulfilled.
The U.S. decision to remain in Syria until several conditions had been fulfilled, including the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria, was a substantial change of policy from the original purpose of defeating IS. But as of early December it appeared that this had now become settled policy. It was the new status quo, Option A.
Then, on December 14, in a telephone call with President Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to take over responsibility for fighting the terrorists in Syria, thereby permitting the U.S. forces to depart, and President Trump agreed.
This was announced to the world by President Trump on December 19 in a tweet:
…So our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now!…within another 30 days, there won’t be any of them left. Since I took office, we’ve driven ISIS out of nearly all of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq, devastating the caliphate.
Four days later, he added:
President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria….and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right “next door.” Our troops are coming home.
In effect, this was Option C, the most radical of the available alternatives, and it was presented with no advance notice and with no explanatory context. The result was a firestorm.
All of the allies who had been fighting as part of the coalition against IS were caught off guard. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who had reason to believe that the United States intended to use its troops in Syria as leverage to force Iranian forces out of the country, his highest priority, could only remark that Israel would take care of its own problems. Even observers who supported the president’s decision were left wondering what would happen to the Kurdish forces that had been fighting with great effectiveness against IS but whom Turkey regarded as terrorists. America’s Middle East allies saw it as the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal from the region. Every columnist and every national security commentator had to have their say, and journalists had a heyday.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned in protest over the way the decision had been handled, and he was followed several days later by Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.
In response to the massive reaction, the president began to alter his position. During a visit to U.S. troops in Iraq on December 26 he said:
…There will be a strong, deliberate, and orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria— very deliberate, very orderly—while maintaining the U.S. presence in Iraq to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to protect U.S. interests, and also to always watch very closely over any potential reformation of ISIS and also to watch over Iran.
This was beginning to look a bit like Option B, the more cautious middle road.
In January, both Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo were dispatched to the Middle East to confer with all U.S. allies. They began to create a new narrative that would repair some of the damage and create the impression that nothing untoward had happened. As Pompeo put it, there was “no contradiction whatsoever” in the administration’s Syria strategy. Suddenly everyone agreed that there was no timetable for withdrawal.
Searching for Option B
Part of the narrative was to claim that Erdogan had given assurances that the Kurds would be protected. Pompeo said on January 7:
President Erdogan made a commitment to President Trump as the two of them were discussing what this ought to look like; that the Turks would continue the counter-ISIS campaign after our departure, and that the Turks would ensure that the folks that we’d fought with, that had assisted us in the counter-ISIS campaign would be protected.
Bolton went to Turkey specifically to get such assurances. Erdogan reacted with anger and refused to meet him.
Even the military is proving difficult. The Pentagon has started the process of moving forces out of Syria in accordance with the president’s marching orders. When asked about the conditions that Bolton was pushing in his talks in Turkey and Israel, a military spokesman replied, “Nothing has changed. We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
This effort at crowd-sourcing a major U.S. foreign policy decision is still a work in progress. Every government institution is pushing its own position in public, and key policymakers try to keep a straight face as they proclaim that everything is perfectly under control.
In the meantime, the search for the elusive Option B refuses to conform to the narrative. It almost makes one nostalgic for the stodgy old days of sausage-making behind closed doors.
Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.