| by Eva Gudbergsdottir

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Brett McGurk speaking in the Irvine Auditorium
Brett McGurk served in the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. He shared his insights into the decision making process and management style of these three Presidents with a full Irvine Auditorium on Tuesday, December 3rd as part of the CTEC Speaker Series.

Brett McGurk heard the news about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York on 9.11 from Chief Justice Rehnquist. At the time he was a law clerk for the Chief Justice and he was also with him when it had become clear that the U.S. was under attack and the Supreme Court had to be evacuated. McGurk shared his experience in the years following, working closely with three presidents on policy and strategy in relation to the global war on terrorism, at a public talk at the Irvine Auditorium on Tuesday, December 3.

McGurk, who served in senior national security positions in the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald J. Trump, gave his talk “Three Presidents at War” as part of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) Speaker Series. 

McGurk began his talk by sharing what he characterized as the “ideal” way to create a strategic framework and the importance of aligning ends, ways and means. He explained the definitions of limited war and unlimited war and compared the methods (ways) and resources (means) of the Kuwait war versus the Iraq war in relation to the different objectives (ends). 

Brett McGurk with Jeffrey Knopf and Jason Blazakis
Brett McGurk with Jeffrey Knopf, chair of the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies degree program at the Middlebury Institute and Jason Blazakis, professor and director of the Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC). (Credit: Kathleen Farnam )

After being recruited in the fall of 2003 to help Iraqis with their constitutional and political process, McGurk landed in Baghdad in January 2004, eight months into the war. He told the audience that when he arrived in Iraq he was confident the U.S. “would figure this out.” It turned out, he added, that “I was pretty naive. We were naive.” The next year or so he spent talking with stakeholders, getting information from soldiers on the ground and working on improving the situation. He shared that people with ties, like him, tended to look at it as a security problem, while the military saw the issues in Iraq more as a political problem. 

Back in Washington, McGurk worked in the White House where he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In the last years of his Presidency, McGurk remarked, President Bush became very hands on and focused on making progress in Iraq. McGurk and others in the administration advocated strongly for a new strategy to reset the trajectory of the war. Each day began with a briefing on Iraq in the Oval Office, and every Monday at 8:45 am President Bush convened a meeting of the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room. 


Brett McGurk interacting with audience
McGurk spoke with members of the audience after the conclusion of his talk in the Irvine Auditorium on December 3. (Credit: Kathleen Farnam )

McGurk describes the transition from the Bush to the Obama administration as very orderly and professional. It was important to all parties, he said, to put politics aside and make sure there was a continuity in policy to maintain the positive trajectory they were on regarding Iraq. That trajectory would not hold however, because of other factors, such as the rise in sectarian violence after the election of Al-Maliki, and the civil war in Syria. 

In 2013, McGurk became the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. He was in Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq when ISIL fighters took over the nearby city of Mosul. He took on a leading role in the U.S. response to ISIL, building a coalition of nations, leading negotiations, and visiting the battlefields regularly. He said Obama was determined never to “overpromise and underdeliver.” The Obama administration took the slow and deliberate approach of building coalitions, offering military support in the form of training and weapons, but limiting the number of U.S. troops on the ground.


In his talk, McGurk shared insights into the decision making process of each of the three administrations, along with some of his frustrations and appreciations.

McGurk said the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration was very different from the previous transition he had experienced. Partly, he said, that could be explained by the fact that Trump probably did not expect to win so it took time to get organized. In the end, he said, in terms of military operations and strategy it turned out to be orderly and smooth, in large part because of General Mattis coming in as Defense Secretary and continuity in military leadership. He stayed on as Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL until he resigned a year ago at the same time Mattis left the administration.

Unlike Bush and Obama, “two seasoned presidents,” who were in the last years of their eight year presidencies when McGurk worked closely with them, he worked with Trump in his first two years in office. Despite high turnover in the White House and stories of chaos he describes a relatively “normal” work environment. On a side note he mentioned though, that he did not know President Trump to ever have convened a National Security Council meeting while he was in the White House. It came as a total shock when President Trump announced on Twitter that the U.S. was withdrawing all troops from Syria after a phone call with President Erdogan of Turkey. Only a week prior, McGurk and Mattis had met with partners in the broad multi-national Coalition to Counter ISIL and assured them that the U.S. was committed for the long term. “There was no warning,” McGurk says.

Without the backing of the President, and when decisions are made on a whim after phone calls with foreign leaders such as Erdogan and Putin, the word of diplomats representing the U.S. become meaningless McGurk told the packed Irvine Auditorium. If the counterpart in any negotiation does not like what the U.S. representative is presenting or demanding, he went on to say, they can simply ask their leaders to pick up the phone and call Trump.

In his talk, McGurk shared insights into the decision making process of each of the three administrations, along with some of his frustrations and appreciations. He gave his insights into the situation in Syria today, the fight against the Islamic State, global war on terror, and U.S. policy towards Iran. He answered questions from the audience and engaged with many audience members who wanted to continue the conversation after the event ended. 

Middlebury Institute Professor and CTEC Director Jason Blazakis said the talk “provided a rare insightful glimpse into Presidential decision-making in the Middle East. I have no doubt Brett inspired future MIIS makers to serve their government.”

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Eva Gudbergsdottir