Brett McGurk


Brett McGurk is the Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute and Center for Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.  He is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

At Stanford, McGurk’s research interests center on national security strategy, diplomacy, dispute resolution, and decision-making in wartime.  He is working on a book project and teaching a graduate level seminar on presidential decision-making.  McGurk is also an NBC News Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst and regular commentator on national security affairs.  His recent articles on topics ranging from Syria to China in the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and Atlantic. 

Before coming to Stanford, McGurk served as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, helping to build and then lead the coalition of seventy-five countries and four international organizations in the global campaign against the ISIS terrorist network.  McGurk was also responsible for coordinating all aspects of U.S. policy in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and globally.

McGurk previously served in senior positions in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, including as Special Assistant to President Bush and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan, and then as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran and Special Presidential Envoy under Obama.

McGurk has led some of the most sensitive diplomatic missions in the Middle East over the last decade. His most recent assignment established one of the largest coalitions in history to prosecute the counter-ISIS campaign. He was a frequent visitor to the battlefields in both Iraq and Syria to help integrate military and civilian components of the war plan. He also led talks with Russia over the Syria conflict under both the Trump and Obama administrations, initiated back-channel diplomacy to reopen ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and facilitated the formation of the last two Iraqi governments following contested elections in 2014 and 2018.

In 2015 and 2016, McGurk led fourteen months of secret negotiations with Iran to secure the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezain, U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, and Pastor Saad Abadini, as well as three other American citizens.  This sensitive assignment – the first serious engagement between the United States and hardline elements of the Iranian system – led to his label as a “doer” and national security problem solver in the New York Times.

During his time at the State Department, McGurk received multiple awards, including the Distinguished Honor Award and the Distinguished Service Award, the highest department awards for exceptional service in Washington and overseas assignments.

McGurk received his JD from Columbia University and his BA from the University of Connecticut Honors Program.  He served as a law clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist on the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Denis Jacobs on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit, and Judge Gerard E. Lynch on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Recent Publications:

Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019, Hard Truths in Syria: America Can’t Do More With Less, and It Shouldn’t Try


Washington Post, January 18, 2019, Trump said he beat ISIS.  Instead, he’s giving it new life


The Atlantic, China’s Risky Middle East Bet, April 29, 2019