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The Pentagon And The President

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump is ready to bring U.S. troops home from Syria, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We were very successful against ISIS. We'll be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it's time to come back home.

INSKEEP: The president says he's also ready to send U.S. troops to the border with Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Until we can have a wall and proper security, we're going to be guarding our border with the military. That's a big step.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's consider these two very different statements about the United States military with former Navy Admiral James Stavridis. He's been watching all this. Admiral, welcome back to the program.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Great to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: It's tempting to wonder if we're seeing a demonstration of a shift in priorities here.

STAVRIDIS: I think not. I think what we're seeing in terms of putting troops on the southern border is simple political reaction. I think Trump is frustrated by the lack of funding for his border wall. He's trying to appease his base. He's making a bad choice.

INSKEEP: And, of course, he also saw a story on Fox News about a caravan of migrants the other day, which seems to have brought him back to this issue. Well, what about the Syria announcement, though? This is a bit unusual. And the president says or has hinted that he wants to bring troops home, but Pentagon and other officials seemed to be speaking very differently about staying the course in Syria. What do you make of that?

STAVRIDIS: The Pentagon is fully cognizant that we need to remain in Syria. Now, we don't need 150,000 troops like we had in Iraq at peak or 160,000 troops like we had in Afghanistan when I was the supreme allied commander at NATO. But we do need, you know, kind of 5,000 to 10,000 troops in order to maintain a presence there and to block the Russians, Syrians and particularly the Iranians, Steve, from creating kind of a land bridge that runs all the way from Baghdad to the Mediterranean.

INSKEEP: Although the president can point out Raqqa, the ISIS capital, has been taken, and ISIS is said to be on the run.

STAVRIDIS: Those are both true statements, but there is a difference between on the run and threat is gone. We need to be there tactically to continue to go after ISIS, but we need to be there strategically to stand against Iran, which continues to try and expand throughout the entire region.

INSKEEP: Let me circle back to the border. You didn't seem very impressed with the president's move of wanting to bring National Guard troops to the border. But we should point out that previous presidents have done this from time to time, that the U.S. military has sometimes been part of the solution in some form or the National Guard has sometimes been part of the solution or an effort at a solution at the border. What is an appropriate role for the military to play there at this time?

STAVRIDIS: There really isn't a significant role for the military to play in that border, Steve. And before I was the NATO commander, I spent three years as commander of U.S. Southern Command, in charge of everything military south of the United States. And, frankly, the choice of active duty military National Guard on that border is an opportunity cost in the sense that we can no longer train and prepare for the actual mission of those troops, which is combat.

Secondly, these are combat troops. They're trained to apply lethal force. That's not what you want to do on the border. And thirdly, they don't have the linguistic training necessary. They really can't be culturally attuned the way Border Patrol agents are. So if there is a legitimate need for more people, which I don't think because immigration levels are declining, not rising, and are at the lowest level in almost four years, then I think it makes more sense if you absolutely want to put more people on the border, put more Border Patrol agents there.

INSKEEP: More border agents. Got To stop the discussion there. Admiral James Stavridis is the former supreme allied commander of NATO and is currently dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Admiral Stavridis, thanks very much.

STAVRIDIS: OK. Always a pleasure, Steve. Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.