Almost all coverage of last weekend’s Munich Security Conference focused on the activity in the main hall. The U.S.-European rift was on public display. Vice President Pence lectured the mostly European audience to get tougher on Iran. Former vice president Joe Biden called current U.S. foreign policy “an embarrassment.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood up to Trump’s “America First” policy while Ivanka Trump looked on from the audience.
But the true insiders know the real diplomatic action was not in the public sessions but in the private rooms where the bilateral meetings and diplomatic interactions unfolded. Several members of the U.S. congressional delegation told me the most consequential of these meetings was the one in which lawmakers confronted Shanahan about Trump’s withdrawal from Syria.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the leader of the main congressional delegation, pressed Shanahan on whether he was telling European officials in Munich that the full U.S. withdrawal from Syria was a done deal.
“Are you telling our allies that we are going to go to zero by April 30?” he asked Shanahan, according to Graham.
“Yes, that’s been our direction [from the president],” Shanahan replied.
“That’s the dumbest f---ing idea I’ve ever heard,” Graham responded.
Graham then launched into a list of consequences he feared would result from a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Syria without a follow-up plan: The Islamic State would return, Turkey would attack Kurdish forces, Iran would gain the advantage. Graham asked Shanahan if he disagreed with that analysis.
“That could very well happen,” Shanahan said.
“Well, if the policy is going to be that we are leaving by April 30, I am now your adversary, not your friend,” Graham told the acting Pentagon chief, according to Graham. (Several other lawmakers confirmed this exchange.)
Graham’s alternative idea, which he spent the weekend pitching in Europe, is for European countries to contribute hundreds of new troops to build a safe zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. This zone would keep the Islamic State from returning and provide a buffer between Turkish troops and the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces that the United States trained and armed (but now seems poised to abandon).
The fact that Shanahan was telling European officials the United States was planning a full withdrawal undercut Graham’s parallel message that a deployment of European troops would motivate President Trump to leave a couple hundred U.S. forces there to help. Graham said later this is how Trump can avoid owning what could be a real disaster in Syria after most U.S. troops leave.
Inside the meeting, after Graham confronted Shanahan, several other lawmakers from both parties chimed in, warning Shanahan of what they believed were the risks of Trump’s Syria withdrawal plan. They implored Shanahan to persuade the president to change course. Several lawmakers told me Shanahan stood silent, like a “deer in the headlights.” They said he failed to articulate a substantive response — other than to reiterate these were Trump’s instructions.
“[Shanahan] got a chorus of voices that basically said, ‘This is not going to work, there is a bipartisan resolve not to let this happen, and you need to send a message back to the president that there’s a combined, unified view this is not the way to go and he should change course,' ” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Robert Menendez (N.J.) told me after the meeting. “[Shanahan] basically said he got the message.”
Menendez said the Europeans likely won’t commit any new troops to Syria until or unless Trump commits to leaving some U.S. troops there first. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said that if Trump does decide to leave some troops in Syria, he could get not only European help but also broad bipartisan congressional support.
“What we saw in virtually every one of our bilateral conversations on the subject was very strong bipartisan support for seeing to it that our departure from Syria does not cause a crisis that spirals into a very deep, dark abyss,” said Whitehouse. “And if the cost of that is an American presence as part of an international force, we should be prepared to step up with the other countries to whom we are making this ask.”
A government official, responding to requests for comment, declined to comment on Shanahan’s private conversations with lawmakers but said it was a constructive and positive meeting. The official, speaking on background, said Shanahan was not agreeing with Graham’s depiction of what will happen if Trump withdraws, but simply acknowledging it was one possible outcome. Shanahan also told Graham the Pentagon is currently generating multiple options for Syria, the official said.
Regardless, several lawmakers said they were unimpressed with the acting defense secretary’s performance. “Shanahan did not have a good meeting,” Whitehouse said.
“If this was an audition for the job full time, he failed,” a Democratic congressman told me.
In a normal environment, the defense secretary or secretary of state would be the one leading an important U.S. policy drive at a major international conference. But this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was absent following the previous “Peace and Security in the Middle East” conference in Warsaw — which many subsequently referred to as a diplomatic “dumpster fire.” There is no permanent defense secretary, and Shanahan does not have the mandate nor the intention to make policy.
That’s why Graham, as the head of the U.S. congressional delegation, is taking the initiative upon himself. Having studied at the feet of the master, the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Graham is trying to build consensus around an idea that he knows is a hard sell — keeping some U.S. troops in Syria. But he believes the alternative is too dangerous to allow.
On the plane ride home, Graham said he was optimistic he had gotten the Europeans to a place where they might join in, but only if he could convince the most important and hardest target: President Trump. His pitch to Trump is that mitigating the Syria withdrawal is a way for the president to avoid a likely disaster if the Islamic State returns or a new war breaks out — either of which would reflect badly on Trump as he ran for reelection.
“After Iraq, not only would this be a mistake, this would be almost an unpardonable sin, in the sense that you know what can happen. This can risk his whole presidency,” Graham said. “Now, if he adjusts his policies and he does what Obama didn’t do and he holds this together, he’ll be looked at as the guy who finally got it right.”