Generals’ successors push Trump toward war
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.”
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.”
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!”