Donald Trump’s handling of the fallout from his strike against Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has created tensions with Pentagon officials who are responding to fears of an expulsion of troops from Iraq and the threat of bombing cultural sites in Iran.
The unease within the US military was laid bare on Monday as Mark Esper, defence secretary, contradicted Mr Trump’s call to target culturally significant sites in response to any retaliation from Tehran for the strike on Soleimani. Mr Esper said instead that the US would abide by the laws of armed conflict — which prohibit targeting such sites.
Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was also forced to admit that a draft letter penned by a senior military commander in Iraq pointing to preparations for a full withdrawal of troops from the country had been circulated in error — a sign of frantic contingency planning in response to Mr Trump’s sudden escalation of tensions in the Middle East.
“What we are seeing is a great deal of frustration and confusion because Trump does not abide by rules and procedures,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. “We have a potential strategic gain [with Soleimani’s killing], but the political bungling of the aftermath threatens to strip away the advantage.”
Tensions between the White House and department of defence are on the rise, according to four former officials in touch with senior leadership at the Pentagon. Some were surprised by the decision to strike Soleimani — reportedly the most aggressive and risky response presented to the president as he decided how to respond to attacks against the US embassy in Iraq and the killing of an American contractor in an earlier assault — and wary of its consequences, according to these former officials and multiple US media reports.
“There has been divided counsel inside the [defence department] over killing Soleimani for a long time, but probably the majority view has been don’t poke the hornet’s nest, because yes, we’ve got a lot of vulnerabilities out there because of the troops,” said one former Pentagon official.
“Even though Milley and Esper are more closely aligned with Trump on policy than [former US defence secretary Jim] Mattis was, all administration officials find themselves dancing on the head of a pin when the president wants to take strong action,” said Guy Snodgrass, a former chief speech writer to Mr Mattis.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to reports of tension between the defence department and the White House over Soleimani, Iran’s most revered military commander who tried relentlessly to undermine Washington’s influence in the Middle East.
Mr Trump on Tuesday said that since the law provided for the protection of cultural heritage sites, “if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law.”
“But think of it: They kill our people, they blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions,” he added. “But I’m OK with it.”
Mr Trump’s senior national security leadership will face further scrutiny on Wednesday when they brief the Senate on the intelligence that led to the strike. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said on Tuesday that while he did not have “specific knowledge” of the legal justification for the strike, he was sure the Trump administration would have conducted a thorough review.
Mr Trump’s tweets suggesting that the US might target cultural sites struck a nerve at the Pentagon, because doing so would violate international laws of armed conflict, by which the US has vowed to abide by. A violation by Washington could hurt its efforts to persuade other countries to live by the same rules.
“US policy is not to withdraw troops in Iraq or to attack cultural sites,” said another former US official. “For the secretary of defence and the chairman of the joint staff this distracts from the real job, which is trying to protect the force.”
Robert O’Brien, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, has defended the attack on Soleimani, saying that he was plotting to kill a significant number of American diplomats and soldiers “in the coming days”, according to comments on Fox News. Mr Esper and General Milley have both vouched for the classified intelligence underpinning the strike.
But some in the military fear that the consequences were not fully considered.
“The biggest frustration I hear is how does all of this add up,” said one person in contact with senior Pentagon officials.
“The whole question of are we leaving Iraq or not speaks to absence of a normal, rigorous [National Security Council] co-ordination process [and] lack of any consideration of the second or third order effects,” said Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official under Barack Obama, now at Westexec, an advisory firm in Washington.
One European diplomat suggested America’s allies shared those concerns. “Their argument is that it was operationally critical for self-defence and there was an imminent threat driving this action. It does not seem to have been part of a broader strategy,” the official said. “There are signs of seeking to retrofit the strategy after the fact and now talking up the importance of an effective military deterrent.”
The US’s Arab allies who are at risk of attack from Iran, notably Saudi Arabia and UAE, have also raced to steer the Trump administration away from action that might provoke full-blown war.
Other branches of the Trump administration have confronted similar unease in responding to the president’s abrupt policy shifts, often announced on Twitter, on issues ranging from immigration to trade with China.
“I actually don’t know if we are trying to de-escalate or we are trying to intimidate when it comes to Iran,” said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “There’s a lot of confusion on messaging, and this is very hard for bureaucracies.”