Gen­er­als’ suc­ces­sors push Trump to­ward war

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

TAMPA, FLA. | Pres­i­dent Trump’s brain trust of re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cers has dis­ap­peared just as ten­sions with Iran, Venezuela and North Korea heat up — and critics say the White House is in danger of rush­ing to the brink of war un­der a mostly civil­ian and in­creas­ingly hawk­ish lead­er­ship team.

The cadre of of­fi­cers who once sur­rounded the pres­i­dent — which Mr. Trump early in his term proudly re­ferred to as “my gen­er­als” — made its fi­nal exit Jan. 1 when re­tired Marine Corps Gen. James Mat­tis handed the reins of the Pen­tagon to Pa­trick M. Shana­han, a 30-year cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive from de­fense con­trac­tor Boe­ing. The de­par­ture fol­lowed that of White House Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Gen. H.R. McMaster and White House chief of staff Gen. John F. Kelly, re­placed by for­eign pol­icy fire­brand John R. Bolton and for­mer Repub­li­can law­maker Mick Mul­vaney, re­spec­tively.

Mr. Trump still has reg­u­lar coun­sel of mil­i­tary officials such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford, but ob­servers and mil­i­tary in­sid­ers say the end of the gen­er­als era in the White House could not have come at a worse time as the ad­min­is­tra­tion grap­ples with in­creas­ingly com­bustible crises in South America, Asia and the Mid­dle East.

“I think it’s now pretty clear that all the hand-wring­ing about Trump be­ing ‘sur­rounded by gen­er­als’ early in the ad­min­is­tra­tion was much overblown,” said re­tired Air Force Gen. Charles Dun­lap, now ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter on Law, Ethics and Na­tional Se­cu­rity at Duke Univer­sity. “I be­lieve that his­tory will show that the na­tion was very well served by each of these re­tired of­fi­cers.

“It is pos­si­ble for never-served civil­ians to gain sig­nif­i­cant ex­per­tise if they are will­ing to invest them­selves in the de­mand­ing and, re­ally, never-ending task of ed­u­cat­ing them­selves about mil­i­tary his­tory, strat­egy, weaponry and more. Un­for­tu­nately, I’ve come to be­lieve that too few make that in­vest­ment, much of which in­volves te­dious self-study,” Mr. Dun­lap said. “I worry that they don’t know what they don’t know. Even the best-in­tended civil­ian can­not repli­cate what some­one learns about se­cu­rity is­sues in decades of uni­formed ser­vice all over the globe.”

Korean shift

Early in his ten­ure, Mr. Trump ratch­eted up mil­i­tary ten­sions with North Korea with his “fire and fury” tweet, warn­ing Py­ongyang not to con­tinue test­ing nu­clear weapons and long-range mis­siles. But just when ten­sions seemed to peak, the pres­i­dent and his team of gen­er­als em­barked down a path of un­prece­dented diplo­macy that led to Mr. Trump’s two land­mark sum­mits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Now, with a de­nu­cle­ariza­tion deal be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Py­ongyang stalled, the sit­u­a­tion again seems volatile, with North Korea hav­ing con­ducted mul­ti­ple mis­sile tests in just the past sev­eral weeks.

In Venezuela, the U.S.-backed plan to oust so­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Nicolas Maduro has stalled as Cuba, Russia and other Amer­i­can ad­ver­saries have stepped in to prop up the em­bat­tled regime. The U.S. and dozens of other countries rec­og­nize Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion leader Juan Guaido as the coun­try’s right­ful pres­i­dent, but Mr. Guaido has been un­able to seize con­trol of the coun­try.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s for­eign pol­icy team, led by Mr. Bolton and Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, has said re­peat­edly that the U.S. is pre­pared to use mil­i­tary force against the Maduro regime if nec­es­sary, though pri­vate an­a­lysts warn that any con­flict could be messy and pro­longed.

The de­par­ture of Mr. Trump’s gen­er­als, ob­servers say, could have its big­gest im­pact with Iran.

Tehran has threat­ened to restart key por­tions of its nu­clear weapons pro­gram and is sus­pected of at­tack­ing Saudi oil tankers near the Strait of Hor­muz after the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion moved to up­hold a near-global oil em­bargo on Iran. It was an ef­fort to starve the Iran’s econ­omy and, in Mr. Trump’s words, to force Tehran to the bar­gain­ing ta­ble.

As the sit­u­a­tion heated up, Mr. Trump tried to strike a diplo­matic tone by of­fer­ing re­peat­edly to meet with Iran’s lead­ers. But he returned to the kind of fiery rhetoric he em­ployed to­ward North Korea two years ago.

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the of­fi­cial end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

The string of defiant re­sponses from Iran wor­ries lead­ing fig­ures such as Bri­tish For­eign Sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt that the two sides may find them­selves in an in­ad­ver­tent war that nei­ther planned to start.

Fo­cus on Bolton

Re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cers also have cau­tioned against the war­like talk and have taken di­rect aim at Mr. Bolton, whom many view as the ar­chi­tect of a more con­fronta­tional pol­icy to­ward Tehran. Al­though Mr. Bolton is a sea­soned for­eign pol­icy hand, critics say nei­ther he nor other top po­lit­i­cal lead­ers over­see­ing Iran pol­icy ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fi­culty and com­plex­ity of a shoot­ing war with Iran.

“Please note the ab­sence of war­riors in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. None of the top de­ci­sion-mak­ers in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion have suf­fered war,” re­tired Army Gen. Paul Ea­ton said last month. “Any shows of force or ‘bloody nose strikes’ may set off full-fledged sec­tar­ian war in the re­gion, at which point the United States would have to commit a sig­nif­i­cant ma­jor­ity of our armed forces, at far greater risk than com­mit­ted in ei­ther Iraq ven­ture. The Ira­ni­ans have demon­strated in pre­vi­ous wars a far greater tol­er­ance for pain than any Arab state.”

Mr. Ea­ton is now an ad­viser to the lib­eral po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee VoteVets.

Other re­tired gen­er­als ar­gue that while some hard-lin­ers in the ad­min­is­tra­tion may want war with Iran, the sit­u­a­tion is far dif­fer­ent from the run-up to the 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq. Mr. Trump has of­ten cited the Iraq War as a mas­sive strate­gic mis­take he has no in­ten­tion of re­peat­ing.

“In Iraq, there was a real momentum to go to war with Iraq, and there was in­tel­li­gence, how­ever flawed it turned out to be, that was gen­er­ally as­sumed to be cred­i­ble by the pol­i­cy­mak­ers,” re­tired Army Gen. and for­mer CIA Di­rec­tor David H. Pe­traeus told ABC’s “This Week” pro­gram. “There was al­most an ar­ti­cle of faith that Iraq did have weapons of mass de­struc­tion of some kind and means to de­liver them. I just don’t see this at all sim­i­lar to that.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif has been trad­ing Twit­ter threats with Pres­i­dent Trump. Cit­ing the pres­i­dent’s doubts about past U.S. mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions in the re­gion, Mr. Zarif said, “Never threaten an Ira­nian. Try re­spect — it works!”

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