Hard Truths in Syria: America Can’t Do More With Less, and It Shouldn’t Try

Wednesday, May 8, 2019
1:00 PM - 2:30 PM
William J. Perry Conference Room
Encina Hall, Second Floor, Central, C231
616 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: Sound strategy requires alignment of ends, ways, and means. A significant gap in ends (the objectives to be achieved) and means (the resources to be applied towards that objective) result in risk and likely policy failure. Few policies over the last decade have had a wider gap between ends and means than Syria. Declared U.S. objectives – “Assad must go” – were not matched by the resources for achieving that objective nor considered thought as to how it might realistically be achieved. This situation has worsened in the Trump administration as the declared objectives have increased but the available resources and political commitment have decreased. McGurk will discuss Syria policy across both administrations based on his own experience leading the U.S. response to ISIS. He has traveled to Syria extensively and calls for an urgent realignment of ends and means to drawn down risk to the United States. The lessons to be drawn are then applied to other foreign policy challenges and offer a ready formula for assessing the declared objectives of U.S. policy.  The talk will be based on McGurk’s recent article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.


Speaker's Biography: Brett McGurk is the Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute and Center for Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.


McGurk’s research interests center on national security strategy, diplomacy, and decision-making in wartime.  He is particularly interested in the lessons learned over the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump regarding the importance of process in informing presidential decisions and the alignment of ends and means in national security doctrine and strategy.  At Stanford, he will be working on a book project incorporating these themes and teaching a graduate level seminar on presidential decision-making beginning in the fall of 2019.  He is also a frequent commentator on national security events in leading publications and as an NBC News Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst. 


Before coming to Stanford, McGurk served as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the U.S. Department of State, helping to build and then lead the coalition of seventy-five countries and four international organizations in the global campaign against the ISIS terrorist network.  McGurk was also responsible for coordinating all aspects of U.S. policy in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and globally.


McGurk previously served in senior positions in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, including as Special Assistant to President Bush and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan, and then as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran and Special Presidential Envoy for the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State under Obama.


McGurk has led some of the most sensitive diplomatic missions in the Middle East over the last decade. His most recent assignment established one of the largest coalitions in history to prosecute the counter-ISIS campaign. He was a frequent visitor to the battlefields in both Iraq and Syria to help integrate military and civilian components of the war plan. He also led talks with Russia over the Syria conflict under both the Trump and Obama administrations, initiated back-channel diplomacy to reopen ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and facilitated the formation of the last two Iraqi governments following contested elections in 2014 and 2018.


In 2015 and 2016, McGurk led fourteen months of secret negotiations with Iran to secure the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezain, U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, and Pastor Saad Abadini, as well as three other American citizens.


During his time at the State Department, McGurk received multiple awards, including the Distinguished Honor Award and the Distinguished Service Award, the highest department awards for exceptional service in Washington and overseas assignments.


McGurk is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


McGurk received his JD from Columbia University and his BA from the University of Connecticut Honors Program.  He served as a law clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist on the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Denis Jacobs on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit, and Judge Gerard E. Lynch on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.