MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
We are no longer the suckers, folks - President Trump's words speaking to troops yesterday at al-Asad Airbase in Iraq, his first visit to a combat zone as commander in chief. The president told the American servicemen and women gathered in a dining hall, quote, "America shouldn't be doing the fighting for every nation on Earth."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price. And sometimes that's also a monetary price so we're not the suckers of the world.
KELLY: Well, let's try to tease out what that might mean in terms of U.S. policy and ask why the president wants to keep U.S. troops in Iraq even as he is pulling them out of neighboring Syria. General John R. Allen is with me now. He's a former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He was also President Obama's special envoy to counter ISIS. And he is now president of the Brookings Institution, from where he joins me now. General Allen, welcome.
JOHN R ALLEN: Thank you, Mary Louise. It's good to be with you.
KELLY: Does this strategy make sense to you, the keeping some 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq while pulling American troops out of Syria?
ALLEN: Let me start by saying that I've been in combat zones over this period of time, the holiday period, for a number of years with our troops, and I hope all America's thoughts at this moment are turning to them. No, we're not suckers. We haven't been suckers. The United States is a transformational force in the world.
And while governance in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring collapsed and created the very crises that we're dealing with, the presence of the United States both on the ground as a stabilizing presence but also as a convening power to bring to bear the efforts of well over 70 nations to try to solve this problem - that's unique.
That doesn't mean we're suckers. That means that we are the strategic power on the planet that can bring together nations to accomplish something simply bigger than the arithmetic sum of the parts.
KELLY: You sound offended by the president's comment.
ALLEN: Well, I am because somehow in those comments he diminishes the sacrifices of our troops. All those troops who have been on the outer edge of American influence with the community of nations seeking to stabilize that region and other places in the world - somehow he has brought enlightenment to this moment and declares us no longer to be suckers. Well, I would like to think that the sacrifices that these troops have made and the contributions that America has made to the stability of the world in the post-World War II and Cold War era doesn't mean we're suckers. It means that we're transformational. And that's the reality.
KELLY: The president says he is keeping U.S. forces in Iraq. And let me put to you - is it clear to you what the U.S. mission for those troops now serving - what that mission is?
ALLEN: Well, I think that the president's intent - and I would leave for him to be a bit more specific since we don't have many specifics from him right now - would be that our presence in Iraq would continue the process of helping the Iraqis to stabilize their populations recently liberated from the Islamic State and to continue to train them and to advise them over a long period of time - over a longer period of time, excuse me - alongside our NATO partners. And NATO's coming in to do train and assist as well. Look; I don't think any of us either want or believe that we would remain either in Syria or Iraq forever. But the expectation was that we would leave on a conditions-based process and not as a result of a tweet.
KELLY: You said in your view, the president has not put a lot of details on the table. He did put this one on the table, and it caught my attention. He said among the reasons for keeping a U.S. base open in Iraq is that he could base American commandos in Iraq in order to launch missions across the border into Syria. Is that a good strategy?
ALLEN: Well, it is a strategy. Having pulled out precipitously from Syria, our reach into that particular area will be very limited. So if this president intends to continue operating special operations strike forces against the Islamic State in northeast Syria, he's going to have to position them within reach. And that would be either in Turkey or in northern Iraq.
KELLY: Is it clear to you, general, that the U.S. has a strategy to prevent ISIS from bouncing back...
KELLY: ...As they have proven very capable of doing in the past?
ALLEN: No, I don't understand what the strategy will be now that we are dismantling our presence in Syria. And if we are not in the right places with the right capabilities in Iraq to help the Iraqis over a long period of time, then we could see it emerge there.
And it's important, Mary Louise, to remember that the Islamic State is not just on the ground in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State was part of the expanded caliphate in what we called a provincial form where we found it in North Africa, we found it in the Middle East, we found it in South Asia, we found it in Southeast Asia. So the proposal that somehow it has been defeated is in fact flat wrong. The Islamic State is not defeated as an entity.
KELLY: Anything you like about the president's strategy?
ALLEN: No, not in that regard. My concern is that he's made decisions which are fully his to make as the president of the United States and the commander in chief without the counsel of his senior military and civilian leaders. Part of the concept of civilian control of the military is the inherent expectation that that civilian control will be informed by best military advice.
KELLY: I just want to make clear for people listening you are a retired four-star general. In your years in service, you served both Republican and Democratic commanders in chief.
ALLEN: That is correct.
KELLY: And you are now president of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.
ALLEN: Nonpartisan is correct. That's right.
KELLY: Asking in case people listening might wonder, does this guy have an axe to grind?
ALLEN: I don't deal with the politics, Mary Louise. I deal with the policies. And where we can, we want to help American leaders to formulate the best policies possible without becoming involved in the politics.
KELLY: General, thank you.
ALLEN: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: That is retired Marine Corps four-star General John Allen, now president of the Brookings Institution.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.