In the dimly lit basement of what was once a soccer stadium in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph L. Votel and Mark Green, the U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, walked through the rubble on Monday and listened to a U.S. military escort tell stories about what went on there when the city was under ISIS control.
"When you walked down at that soccer stadium and look[ed] at those rooms that were used as torture chambers," Green told reporters accompanying him on the trip, "it's a reminder of what people have been through."
But Green saw something else on his first brief tour of the devastated city.
"There's obviously all signs of gloom and terrible things that have happened. But I'm an optimist and I look for hopeful signs," he said. "Kids playing and people trying to restore some normalcy to their lives."
Much of Raqqa, once an ISIS stronghold, lies in ruins now. Last year, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by an American air campaign, cleared out ISIS, which had declared the city as the capital of its caliphate.
The U.S. has invested $875 million in what it calls "non-lethal and stabilization assistance" to Syria. It emphasizes that it's not involved in nation-building. USAID has a small team on the ground in northern Syria, working with local partners to restore basic services, provide emergency food and medicine, and clear improvised explosive devices and landmines that ISIS left behind. The Syrian government has not given permission for the U.S. work to take place.
The aim in Syria, Green said, is "basically, getting people up on their feet so they're able to take on many of these challenges themselves or be on a pathway towards doing that."
USAID has received little attention in President Trump's "America First" foreign policy. Green, a former Republican member of Congress from Wisconsin, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and longtime aid advocate, is navigating an administration that has vowed to cut back overseas spending by about a third.
Some highlights from Green's conversation with reporters about his agency's aims and challenges:
On USAID'S priorities in Syria
For our side, the work that we do ... the humanitarian assistance we do is immediate and it's now. And you know, we're not only trying to mobilize resources, but as part of that, our obligation to taxpayers and to the people that we are seeking to serve here, making sure we do it in the most effective and efficient way we possibly can.
On the stabilization side, again, as ISIS is defeated or chased from the battlefield, it leaves behind immediate needs. And if Syrians are going to return to communities, there needs to be a basic level of services and there needs to be something to return to, and that's part of what we do.
On how development fits into the Trump administration's foreign policy
If you look at the National Security Strategy, I think development fits into it very nicely. And there are a number of references in importance of development in American prosperity — importance of development in our national security, importance of development in projecting American values. So I do think it fits in very well.
On how USAID works with the Pentagon
We work very closely together. We have 27 USAID staff either at the Pentagon or in the combatant commands. They turn to us for development counsel. We work very closely together. For obvious reasons in this part of the world, it's a good relationship. Secretary [of Defense Jim] Mattis has been quite eloquent about the importance of USAID and our resources. I think that there are few people who have a greater appreciation for what development and humanitarian assistance can do than men and women in uniform or men and women who were in uniform.
On the impact of budget cuts on foreign spending
It's challenging, sure. I mean, we recognize, and it's been the case as far back as I can think of, we will never have all the resources we would like to take on every challenge in the world. I mean, it's just, we know that. .... We spend a lot of time at the agency talking to my former colleagues on the Hill. We go up there all the time trying to be very honest about what we see, about the challenges that we see.
On convincing skeptical Americans of the need to assist other countries
I think we need to be honest about things that we see, humble in the mistakes that we've made, of which we've made many over the years. But I like to talk in terms of development journeys. And if countries are willing to do what in some cases are tough things, tough choices, I for one think we should be there with them, walk with them.
I'm from flyover country. I'm from Wisconsin. My in-laws farmed down in the Midwest, back in Illinois. And when I talk to them about this idea of trying to help people to be able to take things on themselves, my farmer family says, "Yep, that's what we do."
If they think that we're falling into the stereotype that you sometimes hear, that we're giving buckets of money to bad guys, they get angry. And they should. They should be outraged. And you know, we don't. We are as cheap with every dollar as you can possibly imagine. We squeeze every dollar, as much as we possibly can. We measure to death every dollar we spend.
On blowback from President Trump's reported disparaging comment about African nations
You know, in my own view of this, at the agency, our job is to show what it is that we stand for by the actions that we do. I mean, it may sound trite, but I really believe that. So, no, I haven't personally [experienced blowback]. I've been very busy, but no, I haven't.