David Shedd is one of the most influential American intelligence officers in the post-September 11 era. During the Bush Years, serving in the National Security Council and eventually as Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Policy, Plans, and Requirements, he implemented sweeping intelligence reforms and a new “National Intelligence Strategy.” Under the Obama Administration, in August 2010, he was named Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and, four years later, took the post of Acting Director for several months before retiring from public service.
In his interview with Joseph Braude, Shedd assessed current White House foreign policies in light of his own experience in successive administrations. He flagged concerns about a narrow focus on ISIS which does not adequately take into account Iranian and Russian gains from an ISIS defeat. And he compared the legacy of an Obama administration marked by consistent indecision with a Trump administration that has proved bold, robust, and incoherent.
Q: Now more than eight months into the Trump administration, what is your reading of its execution of the war on ISIS?
A: The president has done the right thing by delegating additional authorities to the generals — that is, the decision makers on the battlefield — in terms of taking military actions against ISIS. I’m concerned, however, that notwithstanding the battlefield successes — and it’s real success in terms of Mosul and Anbar province and in Syria — that Bashar al-Assad seems to be getting stronger or at a minimum, and he’s ensuring his consolidation of power with Russian and Iranian support. In other words, his efforts to gain ground via Syrian forces have increased at the same time that there’s been success against ISIS. So while our policy against ISIS has been effective in taking back territory from their so-called caliphate, while Daesh is crumbling the regime on the Syrian side is strengthened. I’m also concerned about the outlook six months from now in Iraq in terms of the Iranian presence, as the Shiite victories are solidified in Iraq against ISIS as well. So this is a tricky one, in that the administration has loosened the rules of engagement against ISIS, which I believe is a good thing, but it’s failed yet to develop a strategic policy that fills the void, and now that void appears to be getting filled by Iranians and Russians and by extension the Syrian regime. In the case of Iraq, I’m very concerned about the Iranian militancy growing in strength and influence in terms of the territory, leaving aside the issue of the Kurds’ drive for autonomy.
Q: And what do you feel an appropriate American response to the Kurdish referendum would be?
A: With the Kurdish issue in Iraq, I don’t think there’s any good plan in terms of how to respond to their referendum, which may be going in the direction of creating an independent state, which is a de facto partitioning of Iraq. All this points to an absence of the administration really having clearly articulated policy goals in a strategic sense, even while it’s succeeding against ISIS per se. And I don’t want to minimize that success when it comes to their approach to taking on ISIS, which has been to delegate authorities for many of those decisions to commanders in the battlefield associated with making those decisions. But that doesn’t obviate the need for a comprehensive strategy in areas where Iran and its allies have been gaining strength.
Q: As ISIS “foreign fighters” flee their shrinking enclave, concerns grow about the damage they may cause elsewhere. What new opportunities may now arise to gain intelligence as they strive to escape — whether by extracting it from between their ears or scouring the territory they leave behind?
A: I’ve long maintained that there was greater value to detentions of Islamist radical terrorists that by extension would allow for interrogations within what the Geneva Convention permits, in order to acquire current and potentially perishable intelligence. Then of course, everything from pocket litter to computer hard drives and media also would be exploitable. One concern I’ve long maintained that should not surprise us is that with upwards of 40-50 thousand foreign fighters that have gone to Syria and Iraq, those returning, if not killed or captured, return to their country of origin with the intent to do harm — whether into North Africa; eastern, central, or western Europe; or potentially even back to the U.S. if we somehow miss them. And so the threat is diminished from the standpoint of ISIS operating from a physical territory, but it’s not diminished in terms of the kind of attacks we’ve seen in places like the UK, Belgium, France, and most recently in Spain. Most if not all of those attacks were inspired locally, without the perpetrators ever having gone to Syria. But my point is broader: The ISIS fighters will or are returning and will attack, and use blunt instruments like vehicles or knives instead of guns if they can get their hands on them.
Q: Some outsiders, viewing Washington from afar, wonder whether the seeming incoherence of Trump’s foreign policy has a strategic logic behind it. What is your view? And to what extent are partisan divisions blocking whatever agenda he might be trying to pursue?
A: There’s no question that when I joined the George W. Bush Administration in 2001 — February of that year — there was an adjustment to be made by the new Administration. But I’d say rather quickly — as in the first 6-9 months, and then with the major attack of 9/11— there was a cohesion built around policy objectives that I think the administration actively promoted. I don’t see that occurring under the current administration. Here’s the great paradox of the first eight months of this administration being what it is, from the standpoint of a differentiator from any administration in my lifetime and perhaps even in the history of the U.S.: You have an outsider come in as president who is a disruptor, which are his own words, in terms of “draining the swamp,” and that sentiment is also directed at the established Republican party as much as the Democratic — but President Trump is clearly an outsider. In the first eight months we have seen a very decisive president. Compared to the previous 8 years that was marked quite often by indecision, when often — with respect to Syria, for example — there was an inability to take the actions that were needed, this President has been very decisive.
The challenge built into your question about the need for bipartisanship is also the fact that the President is very quickly finding out that there are three branches of government, and the ability to get things done — to bring coherence strategically — is far more complicated than just being decisive. That’s the great paradox. Being agile and working 19 hours a day, which he appears to do as a president, he shows himself to be one of the most energetic presidents I’ve seen in my lifetime. But he falls short of being able to bring cohesion around policy objectives. So what you get are cabinet members who come center-stage and make statements on the policy direction of, pick your topic: Middle East, Iran, North Korea, Mexico, Nafta, China, Russia, NATO — but what you have is a lack of coherent messaging of direction that I think is viewed not only by a large segment of Americans as incoherent, but by our friends and allies as well. In other words, a lack of direction creates uncertainty in terms of how the US will act or react to crises it does not necessarily control. So what I hear constantly by other nations, friends, and allies that I have contact with is a concern about where is the president and his leadership team going — and again, pick your subject, they just don’t know what the overall direction is.
An example emerges from the Korean crisis, which hasn’t achieved the attention it deserves: Why at the same time that we have probably and arguably the most highlighted crisis on the Korean peninsula in decades and perhaps ever, in terms of the buildup that Kim Jung Un is doing — six nuclear tests, the latest ten times greater than the previous according to the press — and a threat over the weekend of retesting an ICBM — why at the same time would the administration, in particular the president, go after the free trade agreement with South Korea? It makes no sense at all. It may tactically make sense if you’re trying to message some segment of the US base that he has by way of his political interests, but strategically, it makes no sense. So what message does that send to Japan and, for that matter, to China, or Russia, or any of the other impacted influential parties related to the North Korea crisis? It sounds like dissonance as opposed to coherence in terms of a policy vis a vis South Korea — at the very time that president Moon is in Vladivostok meeting with President Putin. It makes no sense.
Q: Another marked departure from the Obama Administration, which occurred early on in the Trump presidency, was the latter’s warm embrace of Egyptian president Sisi. What are your views about this shift?
A: The fundamental impact [of Trump’s clear signal of support for Sisi is that it gives Sisi a sense of confidence that Washington is back in business in terms of support to his government. What’s really interesting is that what we’re seeing though is very much a singularly focused counterterrorism agenda by the administration. And I have no problem with that until it’s at the expense of the entire package, if you will. I talked earlier about the absence of strategy while being singularly focused on ISIS. Ok, that’s a great focus to have, but the impact is far greater than just that issue, as important as it is. I’m not suggesting to be soft on the terrorism, but it doesn’t fill the vacuum for the other elements of a broader set of policy objectives. And I think Egypt falls somewhat in that category.
Q: Around the time of Sisi’s visit, the administration also appeared to be interested in designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. What ever happened to that?
A: I think the Steve Bannon element of the administration very much wanted to designate the Brotherhood [a terrorist organization]. But — and this is my conjecture — Kushner and that side inside the White House found it to be very complicated to do that designation because of the secondary and tertiary effects it could have, say, in North Africa, where some of the Brotherhood — and I’m not an apologist for it in any way shape or form — have a largely if not exclusively political role. It also complicates things for the Palestinian authority, where there are divisions, and one could argue Hamas is significantly weakened in the Gaza Strip. You’d create potentially as one of the fallout effects a rallying cry in the region over that issue of the designation. Not to underestimate the reaction in Europe — as I doubt any European country would go along with it.
Q: Trump meanwhile on several occasions appeared to lend a voice to aspirations for a regional settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that is, a process by which other countries in the region play a more active role in helping the two sides find a resolution. Have you seen follow up on this idea, whether in Washington or the region?
A: I don’t sense movement on it, though I’m not privy to any side discussions about that. All I’m giving you is my sense. I think that you have Israel — particularly pleased by the fact that they have the Trump Administration after what they had for eight years — and you have frankly a Palestinian side that at the very top is quite content to have the status quo. And I don’t know — here we come full circle again, in very much the style of this administration for its first eight months. The sense that they think they can talk their way through these very complicated, complex, multi-year, multidimensional issues, like a peace accord in the Mideast — or in the Israeli-Palestinian context — without a plan. What’s the plan? If you asked me today, what is their position on occupation in the West Bank, right or wrong, whatever it is, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Is it no more construction? Some construction in Hebron, or some other part? I have no idea. And that’s independent of whether Prime Minister Netanyahu would deliver on it. It comes back to, there is no strategy virtually on any major topic that we’re talking about. There’s philosophies on some of the topics like NAFTA — like, let’s get rid of the arbitration board on NAFTA, and we’ll renegotiate the terms. But I still don’t know what their larger strategy is for NAFTA. It has to go beyond, “It’s going to create more jobs.” I don’t know what that means. It’s created hundreds of thousands of jobs. They’re just not in the same areas that the president is talking about, which by the way are jobs that are never coming back. It’s not the absence of action. It’s the absence of a strategy behind the actions toward a greater end-state of what those goals were.
I applauded his decision to use the Tomahawks after the reuse of chemical weapons. Fantastic. The next day, though, I’m asking, what is your strategy toward Syria? He was decisive and takes great credit toward having been decisive. But it doesn’t result in us or the world knowing, what does the U.S. look for as an end-state in Syria look like? You can apply it over and over to topics. And if that’s what it looks like to people of my experience and knowledge of how government works, can you imagine what it looks like to the people who have no idea how this is supposed to work?
Q: Let’s talk about rising tension over the nuclear files of two belligerents: Iran and North Korea. We wonder what lessons Tehran might be drawing from the escalation in rhetoric, at the very least, between Washington and Pyongyang.
A: I’d offer three categories of observations on this question. The first one is, Iran views itself as an ancient Persian nation-state and society that has a very rich history in terms of its role in the region. In the way that North Korea is isolationist, that is not true of Iran, and therefore its objectives are very different. So I don’t think you can just say, they’re looking at North Korea and building — euphemistically speaking — a bigger wall to the world. My second observation, tied to the first one, is, that Iran’s growing and deepening relationship with Russia is not one they want to put at risk in the way that apparently King Jong Un of North Korea is prepared to do by irritating China. I don’t think that China’s patience is infinite with North Korea. This is not by any means to suggest that Russia has a “patron” relationship with Iran. Yet it is a deepening relationship — and I think the Iranians don’t want to put that at risk. My third observation is that I think Iranians pride themselves in being very sophisticated negotiators, in terms of not only preserving but also sustaining their regime while at the same time engaging with the outside world, in a way that is incomparable with North Korea. If we were having the conversation over the actions that North Korea has taken by comparison with Iran, I truly would say, the Iranian regime is not suicidal. I’m not sure I can say that about the North Korean regime. That’s what makes the problem even more complicated. The North Korea problem is a more complex one because we actually do not know what Kim is prepared to do. In other words, there’s uncertainty because of its isolation, whereas Iran does not want to divorce itself from the international community in that way.
I’ve maintained for the last decade that Iran has made a conscious decision to not complete the nuclear cycle for its weapon program — not because it couldn’t but because the price was too high and unnecessary, and because they got a great deal for not pursuing a program they weren’t pursuing anyway since 2003.