As commander in chief, the president has a sacred responsibility to the nation’s men and women in military uniform. Their lives and honor depend on him — they are not toys to be played with by schemers who like to draw lines on a map. Donald Trump won the White House four years ago with a message of putting our troops at risk only when there were clear and necessary strategic goals. No more endless wars.
But Washington is full of unelected bureaucrats who love to play wargames with living pieces, and there is no one they won’t betray — including the president and the American people — to keep the game going.
Take James Franklin Jeffrey, a career Foreign Service hack who signed a scathing NeverTrump letter in 2016, then got a post as President Trump’s “Special Representative for Syria Engagement” anyway, and went on to sabotage the president’s plans for keeping Americans out of the Syrian mess. On his way out the door to a cozy retirement, Ambassador Jeffrey publicly boasted that he had lied to the president about troop numbers in Syria.
“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” he told Defense One.
After the defeat of ISIS, the president gave orders to withdraw our troops — but the likes of Jeffrey simply defied them. Twice, in fact: in 2018 and 2019. “What Syria withdrawal?” There was never a Syria withdrawal,” Jeffrey told reporter Katie Bo Williams. “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.”
The president was led to believe only a skeleton force remained. In fact, there were hundreds more troops that Deep State officials like Jeffrey never disclosed: not to President Trump nor to any other elected official.
Unaccountable to anyone, least of all the public, these mandarins enjoy the privilege of making what amount to life-or-death decisions for service members — and war-or-peace decisions for the whole country. Is this how a democracy runs its foreign policy? No wonder Americans are surprised when body bags start coming home from places like Niger.
Yet the really dirty truth is that most politicians don’t care — they are happy to leave the hard work of, say, Syria policy to bureaucrats who never have to face the voters. They trust the Pentagon to know best, and if they can’t seem to win any wars, at least they lose them slowly, drip by drip, so that the public never gets outraged all at once.
This is why the war in Afghanistan stretches toward its 20th year, and it’s why President Trump faces condemnation from so many different directions when he makes moves to end America’s longest wartime deployment.
The mandarins defend their turf, while the go-along politicians fear to take responsibility for any real change. Yet the result is not only strategic inertia — the forever wars and not-quite-wars of the last two decades — but also the subversion of self-government here at home. Voters elect a leader like Donald Trump to end failed policies and attempt new ones. The public’s choice is meaningless if career bureaucrats thwart the duly elected president.
Or, as happened this week, leak every private meeting they have with a president — rushing to stop the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For four years, they thwarted Donald Trump, and now they look forward to getting back to business as usual with Joe Biden. He too promised an end to forever war — but there can be no end, and no winning, until a president clears out the lifelong losers in the State Department and other bastions of the mandarinate, including within the bloated “intelligence community.”
Donald Trump took on the dragon, and he got burned. Our desk-jockey Lawrences of Arabia feel so safe in the system of irresponsibility and unaccountability that they’ve created that a James Jeffrey can openly admit to putting his own judgment above the duly elected president’s, and lying to make certain he gets his own way. But the election of Donald Trump four years ago, and the more than 73 million Americans who supported his re-election, are a warning that sooner or later the public catches on — and the mandarins’ brazen abuses will catch up with them.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age and director of journalism fellowships at The Fund for America Studies.