For the past three years, the conventional wisdom has been that the United States and the Trump administration have been fortunate in not having to face a national security crisis. The killing of Qassim Suleimani is Trump’s first (self-inflicted) crisis, and his national security team has failed in every aspect. Since his inauguration, Trump has committed major blunders—leaving the Iran nuclear accord and the Paris climate accord; weakening the European alliance and deserting the Trans-Pacific partnership in Asia; and separating families at the border with Mexico. The unconscionable assassination policy directed at Iran has exposed failure at every level: national security personnel; national security process; and national security policy.
PERSONNEL. Trump’s national security team has gone from bad to worse over the past several years. The initial team was dominated by retired general officers: Michael Flynn, currently facing a possible prison sentence, was the national security advisor for less than a month; John Kelly headed the Department of Homeland Security and clumsily handled Trump’s crackdown on immigrants before becoming chief of staff; Jim Mattis faced a series of embarrassments as secretary of defense before resigning, ostensibly to protest the announced troop withdrawal from Syria; and Mike Pompeo, who challenged intelligence assessments that concluded authoritatively that Tehran was adhering to the Iran nuclear accord.
Ironically, the civilian replacements for the general officers in Trump’s second year have given him the “war cabinet” that he was seeking. The shared experience and background of the original group, the anointed generals, revolved around one issue: the global war on terror. The current civilian leaders promoted the assassination policy and favored a military solution to the problem of Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper were classmates at West Point; now, they are civilian teammates favoring the use of military force. Director of CIA Gina Haspel strongly recommended the killing of Suleimani, although the CIA director should not be a policy advocate in any circumstance. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, a former hostage lawyer, has no relevant strategic and geopolitical experience to inform his primary task—overseeing the conceptualization and implementation of national security policy.
The personnel situation cannot be easily corrected in view of the huge number of vacancies among the top positions at the National Security Council and the Department of State; the use of “acting” secretaries and deputies throughout the national security community; and the inability to attract seasoned and serious civilians to central national security positions. Trump’s impulsive and bellicose manner is not a recruitment tool at a time when he is undermining American ideals at home and abroad.
POLICY. The killing of General Suleimani has not only worsened America’s Iran policy. It has added a new dimension to strategic instability in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf; enhanced Russia’s efforts to gain credibility in the region; caused controversy within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European community; and substituted anti-Americanism for the opposition to Iran that was dominating discussion in the Iraqi government. The major winner of Trump’s policy is the Islamic State as the U.S. military presence is now preoccupied with force protection because of the threat of war between the United States and Iran. The major loser is the global community, which faces the renewal of Iran’s nuclear program; Tehran’s thirst for revenge; and a Trump administration that sees military power as a first, and not a last, resort.
The best indicator of Trump’s policy failure is the current Iraqi effort to seek the withdrawal of American forces, which is one of Iran’s highest priorities in the region. In Baghdad, “death to America” has superseded “death to Khamenei.” The American embassy, one of the country’s largest and most expensive embassies, is now occupied by very few political and economic officers. Any reduction of U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Iraq will complicate U.S. policy throughout the region, particularly in Syria. U.S. allies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates now must face a more hostile Iranian entity, which means more difficulties in Yemen and Bahrain. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden visit to Damascus and his high-level talks with Turkish and Iranian officials point to Moscow’s efforts to capitalize on U.S. isolation in the region.
PROCESS. When the Bush administration used deceit and disinformation to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the principal members of the administration sang in unison from a false script prepared by the White House Iraq Group: “the smoking gun should not be a mushroom cloud.” This phrase became a mantra for President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Rice, beginning on the Sunday morning talk shows in September 2002. The president’s State of the Union speech in January 2003 and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s spurious UN speech in February 2003, prepared by CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, used similar language. It is noteworthy that Bush and Powell cited Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction as justification for the invasion; Trump similarly cited Iran’s “pursuit of nuclear weapons” as a threat to the “civilized world.”
The Trump administration’s rationale for the killing of Suleimani is far more random and convoluted. There is no White House effort to craft a public propaganda campaign so every principal member of the administration, including the president himself, is free to craft his own rationale. Trump emphasized that Suleimani’s Revolutionary Guard was targeting at least four U.S. embassies; Pompeo cited previous activity of the Revolutionary Guard; Esper made the strongest case for the “imminence” of an Iranian attack against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, but—like the others—cited no evidence and urged the Congress not to press for any.
Now, we have learned that the killing of Suleimani was part of a larger plan that also targeted a senior Iranian official in Yeman. This suggests that there was no issue of imminence regarding the assassinations, but that Trump was pursuing a larger campaign to stymie Tehran’s proxy wars in the region. The unsuccessful strike in Yemen targeted an official with Iran’s Quds Force that was led by Suleimani. Senior Pentagon and State Department officials have acknowledged that there was no intelligence that indicated any unusual threat.
In any event, the National Security Council played no role in debating the case for military force, let alone the preparation of declarative policy to use with allies and with a domestic audience. National security adviser O’Brien’s predecessor, John Bolton, removed the National Security Council from the process game. He rarely convened his cabinet colleagues, which was responsible for Mattis’s resignation from the Pentagon, and prepared no policy papers for dealing with Congress or the press. Bolton never appointed a deputy director to manage the NSC, and spent most of his time in overseas travel. O’Brien rarely addresses policy issues in public and appears totally out of his element.
Trump and his national security team have racked up a series of policy failures. Iran is free to resume its nuclear activities; U.S. forces may have to leave Iraq; U.S. forces in Syria are more vulnerable; the Islamic State has greater freedom of action; and the United States has sent more troops to the region to conduct force protection. Washington’s unwillingness to withdraw forces from Iraq—even if that is demanded by a sovereign state—will give China, Russia, and North Korea more propaganda leverage against the United States.
On the basis of judging presidential leadership, such as political skill, cognitive style, vision, public communications, organization skill, and emotional intelligence, Donald Trump is certainly the worst president in U.S. history and most definitely unfit to serve. There has never been a more incompetent or deceitful national security team in the service of a president. When Professor Richard Hofstadter wrote about the “paranoid style in American politics” because of his apprehension about the rise of right-wing extremism after World War II, he could not have imagined the rancid syndrome that now characterizes U.S. national security policy.