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Obama Administration General Discusses Trump's Proposed Arab Force


It's been a week since American, British and French planes made targeted missile strikes in Syria. The bombings were in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma. Despite the military action, the Trump administration is looking for ways to leave Syria once ISIS is defeated. President Trump had this to say last Friday night when announcing the attack.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region, including contributing large amounts of money.

CHANG: Besides money, the White House wants the region to contribute an Arab force. The plan would replace the 2,000 American troops where they're now with forces from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. This isn't the first time an administration has considered using an Arab force in Syria. The Obama administration considered putting one together as well. General Martin Dempsey was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Obama administration, and he joins me now. Welcome, General.

MARTIN DEMPSEY: Hi, Ailsa. How are you?

CHANG: When you were chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, didn't you try to reach out to the Arab states exactly for this purpose?

DEMPSEY: I did, more than once.

CHANG: And what happened?

DEMPSEY: Well, generally what happens is there is a certain amount of enthusiasm for the concept, in particular among the military leaders of the countries that have the capability to do it. Not all of them have that capability, but the ones that have it are generally amenable to using it. But when it gets into their internal domestic politics, we found that the enthusiasm would dissipate pretty quickly. And this issue of Syria in particular is one that's just been really challenging to find consensus about how people want it to turn out.

CHANG: So President Trump wants to pull out all 2,000 American troops from Syria when ISIS is defeated. Is that a good idea - to remove all U.S. troop presence?

DEMPSEY: Look; to answer that question, you've got to have a conversation about, are we there now because it's in our national interest? And incidentally, if we're not there in our national interest, then absolutely, we should leave. But we are there in our national interests. You know, we have interest in the stability of the region. We have allies and partners in the region. We have corporations that operate in the region. And so there's many reasons we should be there. And therefore, I think a withdrawal, absent some reconsideration of our national interests, would be ill-advised.

CHANG: What would you recommend if you were still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, given that there are divergent interests there - the U.S.'s interests, Iran's, Russia's, the divergent interests among the different Arab countries. What's the path forward?

DEMPSEY: Well, you know, back to national interest. The first thing is you want to make sure that a safe haven doesn't exist from which some of these more capable extremist organizations like ISIS can reach out and touch our U.S. persons and facilities in the region, our NATO allies and even in our homeland. So you've got to have a certain amount of capability present there to make sure that doesn't happen.

And then, secondly, you want to contribute to the resolution of this Syrian civil war. You don't want to take ownership of it, but you want to contribute to the resolution by finding capable partners in the region. So that - the Arab force is a good idea. I'm just suggesting that absent American leadership - this is not something where you're going to form a force of Arab partners and wish them luck as you steam back to the United States. This is one where if we do that, it won't work absent American leadership.

CHANG: But I guess I'm trying to visualize the end of all this. You've been through all these wars - Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. How do we bring these wars to an end?

DEMPSEY: I think that, you know, there's some principles you can look back on in history about how these conflicts ends. One of them - one of the principles is that, you know, the objectives at the beginning of these prolonged conflicts are never - not almost never, but never the same as the objectives at the end. And so you've got to be agile and adaptable as you - and you have to have stamina and perseverance.

You know, these are not the kind of issues you can take on for a year or two, you know, drop the mic and head home to celebrate. I think we should only do those things that only we can do. And they're pretty easy to identify those. And one of them is leadership, logistics, intelligence. We do training and advising better than anyone in the world. But we don't have to be those that are out there enforcing a ceasefire if that's what it comes to.

CHANG: Retired General Martin Dempsey was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Obama. He's the author of the book "Radical Inclusion." Thanks very much for joining us.

DEMPSEY: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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