Washington Wednesday: Changes in the Middle East

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 9th of January, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

The holidays brought a series of developments in U.S. foreign policy and Trump administration personnel.

It started on December 19th. Following a conversation with the president of Turkey, President Trump, announced the “rapid” withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria.

TRUMP:…And we have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land… So our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.

BASHAM: Soon after, President Trump also announced a larger drawdown of the American presence in Afghanistan.

Members of both parties expressed particular concern over the Syria decision. They said removing the 2,000 U.S. troops could lead to an ISIS resurgence.

But the president pointed to his frequent campaign promise to bring troops home.

TRUMP: So I gave notice in Syria. You know, the way it was reported was like I just pulled out. I didn’t just pull out. I’ve been talking about it for a year and a half. I’ve been telling the generals, let’s go. Go ahead take more time. Let’s go, take more time. Constantly giving them more time. Finally, I said, OK, it’s now time for others to take over that fight.

REICHARD: A day after the Syria announcement, Defense Secretary James Mattis submitted his resignation. He told the president—quote—“You have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”

A day later, the U.S. envoy overseeing the fight against ISIS—Brett McGurk—moved up his scheduled departure to December 31st.

BASHAM: Meantime, speaking in Israel on Sunday, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said American troops will remain in Syria. He said that won’t change until ISIS is completely defeated and Kurdish allies are protected.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Here now to discuss this flurry of activity is former U.S. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez. He’s the president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. It provides Arabic language news in the Middle East and North Africa.

Previously, Ambassador Fernandez spent three decades working as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department. He served in Syria and was the Bush administration’s primary Middle East spokesman during the Iraq War. He also served as Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications under the Obama administration.

Ambassador, it’s been a full career! Thank you for joining us today.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you.

REICHARD: Well, your background perfectly informs the developments we’ve seen over the last three weeks, so I’d like to start with policy here. President Trump announced the imminent removal of U.S. troops from Syria, and now we have the national security adviser walking that back. What’s the current policy?

FERNANDEZ: Well, that seems to be based on the latest information is that there is going to be some sort of phased withdrawal, but it’s contingent—contingent to some very important things happening or not happening, as it were, on the ground.

I mean, the last information we have from National Security Advisor John Bolton is that—No. 1 is to make sure that the Islamic State, that ISIS is truly defeated and not able to spring back as it did in 2010.

And No. 2 that the Kurdish population of Northern Syria, including our Kurdish allies who fought against ISIS, are not targeted by Turkey.

REICHARD: The decision to withdraw 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan has received much less attention in the media. How significant is that move, and do you think the plan will materialize?

FERNANDEZ: Well, that move is also, you know, not entirely clear. There was a surge that happened under President Trump of additional troops at the request of the Department of Defense in Afghanistan. So, you know, the removal of some of those forces would be kind of a return to the status quo before.

I think underlying this whole debate is, I think, probably a very legitimate question that President Trump is asking, which is, you know, where should we have troops, how long should they be there, the risk and danger and the problem of kind of open-ended military commitments. Those are all very good questions that he’s asking.

Others, I think, myself included, looked at the Afghan crisis—and I also served in Afghanistan 2002-2003, shortly after the liberation of that country—is, you know, what is the endgame there? This is a problem the president has inherited that others have basically kicked the can down the road without kind of really thinking it through, well, how long are we going to be there? How long are we going to writing these very large checks of billions of dollars to keep the Afghan forces fighting there as well?

REICHARD: I’d like to segue now into another topic, Ambassador. I’d like to get your thoughts on the personnel changes. General Mattis is gone, Brett McGurk is gone, and now Rear Admiral Sweeney is leaving.

The president has downplayed the significance of these departures, and in the case of McGurk, pointed out he’s an Obama appointee who was already scheduled to leave in February.

I’m wondering, what do you make of these moves?

FERNANDEZ: Well, I think I tend to agree with what General Mattis, Defense Secretary Mattis said, which is the president has the right to have the people he wants there, the people that agree with the policy.

So, I mean, sometimes these things happen. Sometimes they’re faster, sometimes they’re slower. I really don’t worry too much about it. I’m a great admirer of General Mattis. He’s an American hero. But the president has the right to pick and have who he wants. And so I do think that a bit much is made out of it.

As for McGurk, many people expected he was going to leave long ago. I think that has been something which has been a bit fabricated by the press to kind of exaggerate a certain negative narrative.

REICHARD: I want to shift now to the big picture in this fight against terrorism. In 2016 you said: “Even if ISIS ceases to exist tomorrow, this ideological challenge that translates to violence on the ground is not going to go away.”

Now here we are with ISIS only controlling 2 percent of the area it once covered. Does you think that ideological challenge stays the same?

FERNANDEZ: It does. The worldview which spawned ISIS is still very much alive and intact. It’s an ideological worldview formed by a specific interpretation of Islam, a specific reading of certain Quranic verses and a certain history. All of those things are in play, and… that’s the religious part of it—the non-religious elements, which also led to the rise of ISIS, the extreme sectarian polarization between Sunnis and Shias in the region, the despair in the region, the incompetence and corruption that exist in the region. All of those things are still there.

So, yeah, we face the challenge that ISIS is obviously in total military disarray. But the building blocks of the ideology and the building blocks of this poison are very much there for the next iteration of some kind of terrorist organization.

REICHARD: To what extent is the U.S. effectively waging the war of ideas in the Middle East?

FERNANDEZ: That’s a good question. You know, it depends what you measure, you know. A lot of what the U.S. is doing, we’re doing in partnership with others. I know this is hugely controversial, for example, but one change which has happened, which is a positive one—which… the Trump administration didn’t do it, but it happened during the term of this administration—is one of the countries that was one of the main ideological fomenters of this worldview, which is Saudi Arabia, has begun to change the way it deals with that ideology.

I know everyone’s focused on the whole Khashoggi case and all of that, but the Saudis talking about changing the way that they address the educational system and the content there, changing the way they treat and talk about other religions—including Christianity—those are actually very positive things, or could be very positive things over time, contributing to a kind of change in that worldview, which fed into the outside ISIS worldview.

REICHARD: Ambassador Alberto Fernandez is a retired U.S. diplomat and president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Ambassador, thank you for your insights today.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you.

(AP Photo/Cliff Owen) In this Dec. 13, 2018 file photo, National Security Advisor John Bolton unveils the Trump Administration’s Africa Strategy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

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