The Pentagon is Trump's worst enabler

The Iran crisis reveals a major problem inside the president's national security team

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images, Miodrag Kitanovic/iStock, LeandroPP/iStock)

Michelle Obama is fond of saying that the rigors of a presidency don't change a person — they reveal that person's essential character. Indeed, the Iran crisis has shown us amplified versions of President Trump's defining traits, namely his tendency to take the most extreme action available to him, and his penchant for lying prolifically. But it has also brought to light troubling problems that go beyond Trump himself, and into the heart of the Pentagon.

Over the weekend, administration officials found themselves struggling to justify America's assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on January 3 in Baghdad. Trump made their task more difficult — as usual — by doubling down on his earlier suggestions that Soleimani posed an "imminent" threat to U.S. bases abroad.

"I can reveal that I believe it probably would've been four embassies," Trump told Fox News' Laura Ingraham on Friday night.

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The big problem with Trump's belief, of course, is that there is no evidence to support it. This left Defense Secretary Mark Esper in an awkward position when he went on the news shows Sunday. How to tell the truth without contradicting the boss? Simple. Tell the truth — but agree with the boss anyway, despite the facts at hand.

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," Esper said Sunday on CBS, then added: "I share the president's view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country."

Trump's belief that four embassies were threatened appears to have been conjured out of whole cloth. It's improbable, to say the least, that his defense secretary wouldn't have seen such intelligence if it existed. And while it is not news that Trump is the anti-George Washington — he cannot help but tell a lie — it remains critical not to normalize his lies, particularly when it comes to life-or-death matters like war.

But another problem exists. The people around Trump are increasingly enabling his other notable characteristic — the tendency to make extreme choices.

The Washington Post reports that Trump had long pondered killing Soleimani, but had been held in check by his first national security team, including then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned at the end of 2018. "Former White House officials who supported the killing of Soleimani this month viewed Mattis' absence as one of the reasons the strike proceeded, surmising that Mattis either wouldn't have supported such a strike or wouldn't have presented the option to the president," the Post said.

The current team — with Esper now leading the Pentagon — had no such compunctions. When tensions started to flare with Iran at the end of 2019, Trump chose assassinating Soleimani from a list of options presented to him by "top American military officials," The New York Times reported last week.

"They didn't think he would take it," the Times reported. "In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable."

That's professional malpractice.

Any observer of Trump over the last few years should have known there would come a moment when, given a list of options, he would go for the most extreme one. Military leaders were reportedly "stunned" by Trump's choice. If so, that means they've paid very little attention to their commander-in-chief and his habits — and thus put the country at risk of wider war.

The buck stops with Trump, but this particular problem pre-dates his presidency. If the Times' reporting is correct, Pentagon officials have routinely presented presidents with extreme options they had no intention of carrying out. This suggests that military leaders have attempted to manipulate presidential decision-making by steering their commanders-in-chief to their preferred "middle" options. This subverts the democratic practice that the military defer to the choices and decisions of their civilian bosses. And it suggests those military leaders have knowingly opened the door to poor presidential decisions by offering those extreme options.

Sooner or later, that practice was bound to backfire. That it backfired with Trump in charge is not particularly surprising, given his well-documented tendencies. Voters will get a chance in November to hold the president accountable for his actions. But who will fix the Pentagon?

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.