Trump’s New National Security Team Made Fast Work of Iran Strike
| le 10 January 2020
White House advisers were cohesive and less inclined than their predecessors to push back against the president’s wishes
WASHINGTON—President Trump and his senior national-security advisers waited anxiously in the White House Situation Room Tuesday night after intelligence warnings that Iranian missiles would hit two bases the U.S. military uses in Iraq.
When it became clear Iran had inflicted no casualties, there was relief, according to administration officials.
At a press conference the following morning, the president spoke of new sanctions on Iran but no new military strike, moving the two longtime antagonists, for the moment, back from the brink of war.
Days earlier, the U.S. had killed the leader of the foreign wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The speed at which events unfolded shows the influence of the new team of senior national-security and military advisers now surrounding the president.
The group, including new Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and new national security adviser Robert O’Brien, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, backed the president’s decision to kill the top Iranian military commander and moved swiftly to carry it out.
The new team was cohesive and less inclined than its predecessors to push back against the president’s wishes, according to administration officials and others consulted by the White House. They also were less likely to consult in advance with other administration, Pentagon or State Department officials, congressional leaders or foreign allies, some of these officials said.
The targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani is the most decisive military action of Mr. Trump’s first term, and removes a longtime enemy of the U.S.
Now the national-security team must manage the consequences. Those include the disruption of the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and demands by Shiite politicians that the 5,300 U.S. troops leave the country altogether. Still another challenge is Iran’s decision to lift limits on uranium enrichment and take yet another step back from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, which Europe, Russia and China want to preserve but the Trump administration has disowned.
Mr. Trump’s supporters say the Soleimani killing resulted in a weaker adversary that has so far made only a token response, and gives the U.S. potentially greater diplomatic leverage with Tehran to roll back Iranian power in the region, curtail its missile program and halt Tehran’s nuclear program.
The move has stoked some dissent on Capitol Hill. The White House’s failure to consult more broadly with members of Congress has strengthened support for measures that would limit further military action against Iran without congressional authorization. The Democratic-controlled House passed a largely symbolic resolution Thursday that would require Congress’s authorization for such action except to defend the U.S.
More broadly, the strike on Gen. Soleimani has changed U.S. posture in the Mideast, with consequences likely to unfold over years.
In the past, Pentagon officials have highlighted the risks of taking military action they feared might spiral out of control and lead to retaliation against its troops in the Middle East. Mr. Trump himself has been conflicted about using force in a region where he has sought to shrink the American military footprint and avoid what he has called “endless wars.”
Though the Trump administration has previously included Iran hawks such as former national security adviser John Bolton, relations between the president’s senior advisers were frequently discordant, according to officials.
This time, senior advisers were more like-minded about directly confronting Iran after months of skirmishes with Iranian proxies, administration officials said. The drawback, some administration critics say, is that the team appears less willing to challenge Mr. Trump.
Mr. Esper is a West Point classmate of Mr. Pompeo’s and is in lockstep with him on his push to roll back Iranian power in the region.
Mr. O’Brien, a lawyer who became national security adviser on Oct. 1 after serving for 16 months as a presidential envoy on hostage affairs, enjoys a smoother relationship with his colleagues than did Mr. Bolton, who brought decades of deeply held policy positions to the White House, according to officials. Messrs. Bolton and Pompeo became increasingly distant over the summer.
Gen. Milley, who took over as chairman of the joint chiefs in September, has proven more willing to accept the risks in directly taking on Iran than his predecessor, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, according to officials. Mr. Trump cited Gen. Dunford as a voice of caution after he reversed himself at the last minute and opted not to retaliate after Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had challenged some of Mr. Trump’s policy inclinations, including withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. He eventually resigned over Mr. Trump’s 2018 decision to remove troops from Syria, which the president later reversed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), a Trump confidant who played golf with him when he was considering the strike, said the new advisers “understand the president. They have chemistry among themselves.” Gen. Milley, he said, “is the biggest surprise. He is much more willing to take a risk to achieve a goal.”
The national-security team’s shared assumptions facilitated an audacious strike.
“The important point that’s been established is that Iran is once again scared of the United States,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.).
Critics said the action may have backfired and that the administration lacks a larger strategy to get Iran to meet its demands.
“I don’t see anything that resembles a reasonable policy in terms of the goals we can achieve with the tools that are at our disposal,” said Andrew Kim, a House Democrat from New Jersey who served as the director for Iraq policy on President Obama’s National Security Council staff.
Mr. Trump has demonstrated a tendency to personalize foreign policy, blowing hot and cold on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons for the second time during the Trump administration, Mr. Trump told some confidants that the U.S. should kill the Syrian leader.
Gen. Soleimani had long been a nemesis for U.S. generals in Iraq by overseeing the arming of Shiite militias in the country that attacked American forces. He also had spearheaded Tehran’s support for Mr. Assad in Syria. The U.S. holds him responsible for years of attacks on U.S. interests in the Mideast.
In the days after a Dec. 27 militia rocket attack killed U.S. contractor Nawres Hamid, a linguist for Valiant Integrated Services LLC, at a base in Kirkuk, Iraq, and the temporary siege of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Mr. Trump was told Gen. Soleimani was planning more attacks against the U.S. The president made it clear to his advisers that he believed the general had gotten away with too much for too long and that he should have been eliminated years ago, according to people familiar with the matter.
The way the strike was handled has drawn scrutiny from Democrats and some Republicans. Critics say the decision was hasty, considering the risk of all-out war. They also question whether the intelligence that prompted the action was as clear-cut and alarming as the White House has said, and see the move as doing little to further U.S. interests in the region.
Mr. Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said.
At first, White House officials said, there wasn’t unanimity among advisers over the wisdom of targeting Gen. Soleimani. Intelligence, however, pointed to the prospect—initially described as “imminent” by administration officials—of more Iranian-backed attacks on U.S. military personnel in the region, the officials said.
U.S. intelligence showed Gen. Soleimani would be visiting Baghdad on Jan. 2. Some officials had cautioned against targeting him there for fear of damaging relations with Iraq, where the U.S. and Iran are vying for influence.
The advisers argued for a strike when Gen. Soleimani was traveling near Baghdad International Airport and could be targeted without hitting Iraqi civilians and in a place where the U.S. largely controls the airspace.
That was one of “a few options” presented to Mr. Trump over the weekend after Christmas, all of which were all backed by the team, a senior defense official said. Other options may have been less provocative but would have resulted in more casualties, the official said. The final go-ahead was given to the Pentagon on Monday, Dec. 30, officials said. “The operation was planned very quickly,” said another U.S. official.
The planners didn’t follow the same consultation process used in previous strikes, according to officials.
Options for missile strikes on Syria in early 2017 were crafted in consultation with lower-level members of the Joint Staff and U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, defense officials said at the time. Pentagon and White House officials said they told allies and Russia, which backs the Syrian government, about the strikes beforehand.
As two ships began launching those missiles, advisers notified members of Congress. In a nationally televised address that evening, Mr. Trump explained his rationale for approving the attack.
In the strike on Gen. Soleimani, some high-ranking officials who ordinarily would be consulted in advance—and leaned on to later explain it publicly—said they learned of the action from news reports. That evening, Mr. Trump retweeted a picture of the Stars and Stripes.
On Wednesday, six days after the strike, Messrs. Pompeo and Esper gave classified briefings to House and Senate lawmakers on the threat from Iran and the intelligence that underpinned Gen. Soleimani’s killing.
Some GOP legislators said the intelligence clearly showed a justified threat. Some Democrats said they were unconvinced. Republican Mike Lee of Utah called the consultation with Congress, and what he said was the top administration officials’ demand that lawmakers not debate Mr. Trump’s military action in Iran, “insulting.”
Both houses are considering legislation that would direct Mr. Trump to cease hostilities against Iran unless authorized by Congress or to defend U.S. personnel. If the law passes, Mr. Trump could veto it.
Administration officials have said the killing of Gen. Soleimani protected U.S. troops and accelerated the administration’s strategy to squeeze Iran, militarily and financially, to the point where it abandons its nuclear ambitions, stops funding violent proxies in the Middle East and ceases attacks on U.S. and allied interests.
More U.S. troops are headed to the region amid the heightened tensions, despite Mr. Trump’s oft-stated goals of withdrawal.
After the strike, Iraq’s parliament, in a nonbinding resolution, voted for the removal of all U.S. troops from Iraq, a move that Mr. Trump’s critics said symbolized how the action stoked anti-U. S. sentiment that could benefit Tehran in its efforts to influence its neighbor. The U.S. has paused counter-Islamic State operations with Iraqi forces and the training of those Iraqi troops to concentrate on protecting themselves.
Iran, where sanctions have tanked the economy and political divisions are brewing, united in mourning the slain military leaderTehran said it would stray further from the conditions imposed on its nuclear-development program by a 2015 agreement with major powers from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018.
Tehran has signaled that it is looking to lower the temperature of the hostilities after its retaliatory missile attack on bases in Iraq on Tuesday—the first attack on U.S. troops it has publicly taken responsibility for.
In his press conference Wednesday, Mr. Trump described Gen. Soleimani as a “ruthless terrorist” and said new sanctions would be imposed on Tehran.
Based on what the Iranians have said publicly as well as American intelligence assessments, the U.S. believes the Iranians have stood down for now, the senior defense official said Thursday.
A rogue militia group or even an attack directed by Tehran against the U.S. remained a possibility, the official said.