Trump, His Generals, and the Iran Crisis: An Interview with Author Peter Bergen
America is on the brink of war with Iran, largely as a result of President Trump’s reckless decision to assassinate Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani. An excellent way to understand how and why this happened is to read Peter Bergen’s new book, Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos (Penguin Press). The book chronicles the first three years of the Trump administration’s national security and foreign policy follies, as well as the sordid, outlandish story of Trump’s romance with the hard-ass experienced generals who initially staffed his administration: retired Marine generals Mattis and John Kelly, and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. After a brief honeymoon period during which Trump swooned over them, all three went down in flames, humiliated in tweets and forced out by an ignorant, impulsive, childish commander-in-chief who didn’t want anyone around would tell him how to play with his tanks and rockets.
Now, after the killing of Soleimani, Bergen’s book reads like an all-too prescient guidebook of how Trump would take America to war in the Middle East.
Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN and vice president at New America, has the chops to tell this story with authority and bravo. He has been reporting on the Middle East for more than two decades. (He produced the first television interview with al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in 1997.) His previous book, United States of Jihad, mapped the spread of domestic terrorism and the rise of home-grown American jihadists.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Rolling Stone: Here we are on the brink of war with Iran, with a president who has alienated every general and Pentagon official around him who disagrees with him or challenges him. Do you feel like this was inevitable?
Peter Bergen: Yeah, maybe it was inevitable in the sense that if you look at the people who’ve replaced [Secretary of Defense] Jim Mattis, [National Security Adviser] H.R. McMaster and [Chief of Staff] John Kelly, all of whom served in Iraq, you have Mark Esper, Robert O’Brien, and Mick Mulvaney, none of whom have any expertise at all in the region. And the one person who could claim some sort of expertise is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is a huge Iran hawk and has been for years and seems to believe that God has put Trump in this place for reasons that are… [Pompeo] is a fundamentalist Christian so his view of the Middle East is influenced by that.
This is exactly the situation that Mattis was fearful of. Mattis either stonewalled or slow rolled military options on Iran because he didn’t want to have a war with Iran. And we’re headed in that direction. I doubt that we will have a full-blown war with Iran because it’s not in our interest — it’s certainly not in Iran’s interest. But we’re going to have some kind of elevated version of conflict with them going forward. And this thing is looking increasingly like a reckless gamble rather than a kind of bold move that might pay off. You look at the Iraqi Parliament setting in motion the set of events that may push American troops out of Iraq. You look at the Iranians suspending big portions of the Iran nuclear agreement. You look at the fact that the protests in Iran are now anti-American, whereas before they were anti-regime. You look at the fact that there were protests in Iraq that were anti-Iran that are now anti-American. It’s not a pretty sight.
Rolling Stone: What is the relationship like between Pompeo and the Pentagon? You talk in your book about a longstanding fear in the Pentagon about escalation of conflict in the Middle East.
Peter Bergen: Well, I think it’s complicated by the fact that Mark Esper and Pompeo have known each other since they were at West Point and are very, very close. So Mark Esper I think in a normal administration would be a second-tier official. Here, he’s been elevated to this role and he’s very close to Pompeo, so I think he’s going to go along for the ride.
Rolling Stone: In your book, you suggest that what Trump really wanted with Iran was not war, but a new set of negotiations and a new deal to replace Obama’s nuclear deal, which he of course pulled out of.
Peter Bergen: Trump has tremendous belief in his own capabilities to sort of personally negotiate anything, and he’s offered to talk to the Iranians without preconditions. But I think at this point, that time has passed. Why would they sit down to negotiate? Presumably the moderates in Iran sacrificed considerable political capital for the Iranian nuclear deal and they look like a bunch of idiots now.
Rolling Stone: In your book, you write about Trump calling off of the strike after the Iranian shot down the surveillance drone a few months ago. You had Bolton there at the time urging war. And you described that as one of “the better moments” of Trump’s presidency because it stopped escalation. So why launch this attack now?
Peter Bergen: Well, I think one thing is Trump has a red line, which is Americans being killed. When he called off the previous attack, it was in response to an unmanned U.S. drone being brought down. But this time, it was really the rocket attack on a base in Iraq that killed an American contractor that put him over the edge. And then, I gather from the New York Times, it was watching all the coverage of the U.S embassy being attacked that kind of put him in this kind of frame of mind to have to authorize a strike on Soleimani.
But when Jim Mattis was on the job, he went out of his way not to provide these kinds of military options because he was always concerned that Trump would act impulsively. And in this case, it could have been a gamble worth taking, but I think with every passing day it looks like a gamble that was probably not that smart. And I don’t think Trump’s war cabinet is following a typical process where they’re presenting “here are the of the 10 different scenarios about what can happen if you do X or Y.” And they obviously didn’t think this one through, because it was pretty predictable that the Iraqi Parliament might turn around and try to throw American troops out of Iraq. It was pretty predictable that the Iranians might withdraw from what remains of the Iran nuclear agreement. Were those possibilities discussed when Trump made this decision? I don’t know, but I have the impression he just sort of made the decision.
Rolling Stone: After reading your book, it’s pretty clear that this whole crisis with Iran was precipitated by Trump’s decision to tear up the nuclear deal, right? That was really the destabilizing act for all of this and all these increments since then. Is it too much to say that this whole crisis that we’re at right now is a result of Trump’s weird psychological need to destroy Obama’s accomplishments?
Peter Bergen: I think that that is a strong component. Why did he pull out of the Trans Pacific partnership trade deal within days of being inaugurated? He actually publicly said that the deal favored China. Well, quite the opposite. The deal was designed to contain China and the administration quite rightly is I think taking kind of a skeptical approach to China. So why tear up this one deal that you’ve kind of come up with, if you are really trying to contain China? It makes no sense except in the context of sort of “anything Obama has done, I’m going to undo.”
And the same with Iran deal. As I say in the book, Jim Mattis testified publicly that the Iran deal was working and also privately said this deal was negotiated with our partners — our closest partners: the British, the French and the Germans. And yeah, we keep our word and we shouldn’t pull out.
So I think his desire to just do the opposite of what Obama did is part of the story of his presidency. Daniel Dale at CNN has been tracking Trump’s tweets about Obama and they’ve gone up like almost 170% in the last year or so. He seems to become more obsessed with Obama rather than less obsessed.
And terming the Iraqi embassy attack as the anti-Benghazi, there’s so many differences between the two. The Iraqi embassy is one of the most secured buildings in the world, and Benghazi was a completely unsecured, essentially CIA listening post. So there’s really, there’s no comparison except to just stick it to Obama, which is something that he seems to really want to do.
Rolling Stone: Well, of course the other theory about Trump’s motivation for the attack is the wag-the-dog idea, that it was to distract from upcoming impeachment trial…
Peter Bergen: I don’t buy the wag-the-dog idea for the following reasons. I think the information that they had about where Soleimani was at what time, it’s so precise. It’s not like you have that information all the time. I think Trump just took the shot because because he could. I just think he’s got a very simple kind of view of things, which is: “This guy has a lot of American blood on his hands. We’re going to kill him.”
Rolling Stone: Trump has been tweeting about going after cultural locations in Iran as well as military targets. And it occurred to me in your book you talk about how Mattis and others — when Trump had crazy ideas that were just clearly dangerous or stupid — the generals would either ignore them or slow-walk them.
Peter Bergen: Or push back against them.
Rolling Stone: Or push back. Right. But my point is, targeting cultural sites is a war crime. Do you imagine that there will be pushback within the Pentagon on this kind of thing?
Peter Bergen: I think if it was an unlawful order, I think there would be pushback. An unlawful order would be targeting cultural sites. And I think Trump is sitting in Mar-a-Lago coming up with these tweets with his social media director who, isn’t he a former golf caddy of Trump’s? [Editor’s note: White House social media director Dan Scavino was at one time an employee at Trump National Golf Club Westchester.]
They literally have no idea about any of this. They’re sitting around and they’re just kind of kibitzing and they’re coming up with these ideas which are clearly not vetted by anybody.
And one of the ideas that Trump had on the campaign trail is “we should kill the family of terrorists and we should torture them.” And in fact that idea hasn’t happened. Trump hasn’t sent any alleged terrorist to Guantanamo, which was another thing he said. So the system does push back, and so I think in the case of an illegal order, I don’t think the Pentagon would fulfill it.
Rolling Stone: Despite all Trump’s ignorance and impulsiveness, until now, he had miraculously avoided a foreign policy crisis —
Peter Bergen: Yeah, well this is it, right? And here it’s largely self-created by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, by pushing and pushing them. They’re pushing back against us.
I think the Iranians face a dilemma of their own, which is they obviously don’t want war with the United States, but they have to do something because it’s a regime based on fear. And if they do nothing, it makes them weak. So how do they respond in such a way that is supposedly deniable but sufficiently plausible that it … It’s sort of like what Putin does when he tries to assassinate former Russian spies in Britain. It’s obviously him, but it’s not completely clear that it’s him. And it’s possibly deniable. So that’s what we’ll see with Iranians.
Rolling Stone: How do people you know in the Pentagon and military feel about the killing of Soleimani?
Peter Bergen: Well, I think a lot of people on the military side are happy that Soleimani is dead. Because if anybody fought in Iraq knows that the exposure to the foreign projectiles that killed hundreds of American troops were made in Iran and were supplied to Shia militias in Iraq. So I think there’s quite a lot of happiness about that.
Rolling Stone: Do you think Putin’s happy?
Peter Bergen: Interesting question. Putin is happy whenever the United States is not doing well. So I think the answer is I’m sure he’s, yeah, I’m sure he’s pretty happy. I don’t think Putin has some particularly grand plan other than to make life difficult for the United States, try and chip away at NATO, try and increase the sphere of Russian influence in the Asian opportunities.
Rolling Stone: And when you hear Pompeo saying the world is a safer place now, what do you think?
Peter Bergen: Well, I think in a very narrow sense that’s true. But in a larger sense, it isn’t true. Why are we evacuating all Americans from Iraq? And by the way, if I was a student at American university in Beirut, or if I had a business that had some American link in Lebanon, I’d be very worried right now.
Rolling Stone: Where do you think Iran is most likely to strike back at the U.S.?
Peter Bergen: Well, I think Lebanon would be top of the list because Hezbollah owns the country, and it’s essentially a branch of the Iranian government. And there are plenty of American targets in Lebanon. In Iraq, there are obviously some American targets. They tend to be better defended. Lebanon is not like Iraq. And in Syria there are obviously some American targets, but they’re also very few in number and also better defended. And I also would be looking perhaps in Afghanistan. Again, Iran has huge influence in Afghanistan and, because of their opposition to the Taliban, has generally played a kind of neutral role in Afghanistan, but it’s somewhere where they could easily turn the pressure up on the United States.
For instance, if they started giving these very effective IEDs [unconventional bombs] to the Taliban in Afghanistan, that would be pretty game changing. They never chose to do that before, even though they could have. But maybe the rules change now. Finally, the supreme leader Khameni has, according to The New York Times, told his cabinet he wants to seek revenge using conventional Iranian military units, rather than working through proxies. That would represent a significant escalatory response.
Rolling Stone: How concerned are you right now about this whole thing spinning out of control?
Peter Bergen: I don’t know. Trump’s so mercurial he could … This is one of the themes of the book is his kind of consistent inconsistency. We’re going to pull out of Syria 100% then no, we’re going to stay, 50% of them, we’re going to pull out 100%, then we’re going to stay 50%. We’re going to talk to the Taliban, then we’re going to not talk to the Taliban. Every day for him is a new day and whatever happened in the past is irrelevant … It’s impossible to predict. He is mercurial to a fault and suddenly he could release a video touting all the great beach front properties in Iran for development. Who knows? That’s the world we live in now.