Between 2007 and 2012, career ambassador James Franklin Jeffrey served as Deputy National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, then, under the Obama Administration, as United States Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. Now a member of the Defense Policy Board and a prominent voice in the Washington policy discussion, he has emerged as a critic of Obama Administration policies in Syria and the Iranian nuclear accord. In our interview, he discussed his own vision for a more robust Syria policy, shifting American public opinion on foreign military deployment, concerns about Iran, and the current frontrunners in the candidacy for President of the United States.
Q: You call for the United States to use air and ground forces to create a “safe zone” in Syria. Explain the proposed plan.
A: It would be an area under the control of a combination of American, Turkish, local, and basically Sunni Arab forces from various population groups that we’re in contact with — and, I’d hope, other members of the coalition. It would be along the entire border between the Kurdish areas and the Euphrates, around 25 kilometers deep. Though that’s not deep, it would provide a refuge for people as well as serve to cut off ISIS’ links to the outside world. It would also more explicitly show that the U.S. is willing to have a military presence on the ground with a coalition, to establish a limit to what Russia and the Syrian-Iranian coalition could do.
Q: How would you assess support for such a plan in terms of American public opinion and, by extension, Congressional backing?
A: Such decisions are not held up to a Congressional vote — Bush didn’t do that with the “surge” in Iraq. But in terms of fighting ISIS, public opinion polls I’ve seen show 40 to 60 percent of Americans supportive of even ground troops in Syria, and much higher percentages urging President Obama to take a more aggressive position on ISIS. The American people don’t want to see another 150,000 troops deployed for a decade for “armed nation-building,” and they are sensible in feeling that. But Obama has managed to use a “Pavlovian dog” approach with American public opinion and the media to cause them to think that any deployment is tantamount to the Bush program in 2003 — and this is ridiculous. Is Putin in a “quagmire” with 150,000 troops? He’s got about 2000 there, and look what they are doing. He’s lost only two soldiers, and that was because of the Turks. There may be reasons not to do a safe zone, but worries about a quagmire are not the reasons.
Q: What is your reading of the coalition partners’ degree of readiness to participate?
A: I think the Saudis and the Turks see the biggest threat in the region not as ISIS but as this Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance — and I believe they are correct. I’ll go further: It’s the Turks and the Saudis who are correct and the Obama Administration is wrong. As I see it, all kinds of recent events, including the execution of Nimr al-Nimr and the recent, more aggressive Turkish actions are part of an effort to get America to wake up.
Q: Is there something you understand about Barack Obama that America’s traditional allies in the region do not?
A: Our allies still think they’re dealing with an Administration that is somewhere in between the British empire and George Bush the Elder: that it is basically deeply committed to an unchanging international order that preserves the American security position in the world. That’s never been fully correct, because the American public do not buy into imperialism as the British did. But now, this President doesn’t particularly care if the Russians are on the march. He sees it vaguely as a bad thing, like the Zika virus, but doesn’t see the utility of doing much about it.
Q: What’s your greatest short-term concern with respect to Syria?
A: I see a disaster unfolding right before our eyes: The Turks go in on their own because they feel their security is being threatened by the Kurds specifically but more importantly from unchecked [Russian] military victory. And so they run into combat with the Russians, and that invokes Article 5 of the NATO charter [compelling a collective military response].
Q: Moving to Iran, what potential significance if any do you see to that country’s forthcoming Presidential elections on February 26?
A: Elections are a factor, but the radicals have been able to manage them effectively. Consider the 2009 protests resulting from popular feelings that the election results were rigged. While the “mandate of heaven” may not be forever in the hands of the current Iranian leadership, for the moment, I still see totalitarianism. In the world in general, totalitarianism is not on its way out. And in Iran, you have totalitarianism combined with religious fervor. That’s a potent combination. It’s more than what Putin has.
Q: What’s your reading of how Iranian behavior has been affected by the signing of the JCPOA?
A: We see that they’ve just signed contracts for $8 billion in Russian weaponry, and obviously they’re on the march in Syria. The Obama administration clearly dreamed that this agreement would empower the moderates who want to be our friends, kind of like his outreach to Cuba. He supposed such change would be dynamic. But even in Cuba, it hasn’t happened — and Iran is a much tougher nut to crack. The Administration is reluctant to admit the reality that Iran is on the march. Since the agreement, the United States has sanctioned a few Iranians, but really, it’s small potatoes.
Q: What’s your outlook on the potential policies of a future Administration to be led by one of the various frontrunners in the current presidential electoral race?
A: If [Republican] Donald Trump becomes President, it would be a total game changer in American domestic and foreign policy, and nobody can predict what will happen, but it won’t be pretty. He will make Barack Obama look like a minor deviation. [Democrat] Bernie Sanders is unlikely to win, but he would also be a disaster, worse than Obama. [Republican] Ted Cruz would be problematic too, simply because of his personality, not his ideas. So that leaves, of people who are up in the polls, only [Democrat] Hillary Clinton.
Q: In the past she advocated for a no-fly zone in Syria, similar in some ways to the “safe zone” you call for.
A: As Secretary of State, Hillary was supporting a more vigorous American presence to go after ISIS more aggressively, as well as to balance the Russians and the Iranians in Syria. She didn’t get specific. We are more specific than she was. But in general, the way these things work is that parallel ideas are proposed, and there is some convergence if the ideas have merit.
Q: What more can America’s allies in the region can do to counter Iran?
A: Pursue a comprehensive political-military solution in Yemen, including co-opting the Houthis — and that is something the Saudis are very experienced at doing. In Syria, alas, there are limits to what one can do without American support given the Russian presence. But the important thing is, in 11 months, after the presidential elections, be prepared to press Washington when it has new leadership.