A properly functioning National Security Council would never have let it happen, for good reason.
The targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani and four others in a precision strike by an MQ-9 Reaper drone at Baghdad International Airport was an impressive display of American military prowess. And it liquidated a destabilizing figure: The general was the commander of the Quds Force, which is responsible for Iran’s covert and extraterritorial military operations. In the scheme of things, he had it coming. Yet killing him made little strategic sense for the United States. In some ways, the most significant thing about his death is what it shows about the breakdown of American foreign policymaking.
President Trump ordered the strike directly, prompted by the death of an American contractor on Dec. 27 in a rocket attack by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shia militia. Mr. Trump did not bother to consult congressional leaders. As with his other displays of martial fiat, his immediate impulse was probably to shock the liberal domestic audience, vicariously make himself feel tough, and assert raw executive power by going around the normal channels of decision making.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had considered taking out General Suleimani but rejected it — not for lack of nerve, but for fear of undue escalation and an unnecessary war with Iran. The fundamental facts on the ground have not changed, and in the kind of robust interagency, national security decision-making process that the National Security Council staff is supposed to supervise, such concerns would have been systematically raised, dissected and discussed, and a consensus reached to inform presidential action. No such process seems to have occurred here.
The Pentagon has claimed, facilely, that General Suleimani was hit because the Revolutionary Guard was planning attacks on American targets in the region. But in a proper interagency review, the intelligence community could have pointed out that “decapitation” is a patently unreliable means of pre-emption — particularly when the organization in question is the Revolutionary Guard, an integral part of a well-honed security state with considerable depth of command talent.
In addition, the State Department might have noted that next to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, General Suleimani was arguably the country’s most powerful and venerated figure, and that when the target was such a senior and esteemed official, his countrymen were likely to perceive his killing as outright assassination. The State Department would also have emphasized that assassination was a flagrant casus belli, or provocation for war.
Had the Justice Department argued that targeted killing is distinct from assassination, which has long been proscribed by executive order, a raft of other government agencies might have noted that perceptions matter, perhaps anticipating Mr. Khamenei’s response to the deadly strike: “His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”
The National Security Council would have undoubtedly asked the intelligence community for a detailed assessment of Iran’s possible responses to the strike. Analysts would have underscored the inevitability of lethal attacks on Americans and American interests: terrorist attacks on embassies or other civilian or military facilities in the Middle East and farther afield, military escalation on the ground in Syria or Iraq, cyberattacks, the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, Hezbollah attacks on Israel, further operations targeting Gulf States’ oil infrastructure, and accelerating movement toward nuclear breakout.
Drilling deeper, intelligence analysts could have stressed the possibility that the strike on General Suleimani might encourage a new strain of transnational terrorism. While acknowledging that the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in the Middle East, has largely resisted venturing outside the Middle East for the past 25 years, they would have stressed that it is considered the most capable nonstate armed group in the world, the A Team to Al Qaeda’s B Team — a force that was shaped and nurtured by General Suleimani himself.
What’s more, such an official would have warned, Hezbollah has fiercely demonstrated its willingness to prosecute Iranian interests, against Israel and in Syria. If Iran so asked, the assessment might have continued, Hezbollah would turn outward, as it did in 1992, when it bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and killed 29, and in 1994, when it bombed a Jewish community center there and killed 85.
An appropriately functioning National Security Council would have asked: How does this fit in the administration’s overall foreign policy?
The State Department would have underlined that a chief objective of the administration’s Iran policy, including its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, was to roll back Iran’s nefarious regional activities — in particular, intervention in the Syrian civil war, political intrigue in Iraq and support for the Houthis in Yemen — and that General Suleimani oversaw them.
In response, the C.I.A. would have observed that taking out the general would deprive Iranian moderates, like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, of any leeway for compromise, enabling hard-liners to co-opt them. Thus, the agency would have reasoned, the killing of a hard-line national hero would most likely dissolve any hope — dim even beforehand — that Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach would move the Iranians to renegotiate the nuclear deal; it might instead stir vengeance in the Iranian leadership, which would intensify rather than subdue those activities in his name.
Had there been a distinguished senior career State Department officer on hand — there used to be many, but their numbers have dwindled in this administration — he or she might even have provided the big strategic picture: that the Trump administration’s one major contribution to American foreign policy has been to refocus attention on great-power competition. And while Russia and China are great powers, Iran really isn’t one. Pick your fights, they’d have said.
A discreet official, of course, would have elided the fact that Mr. Obama’s rebalance to Asia and diplomatic approach to Iran appreciated this reality, cutting straight to Mr. Trump’s own antipathy to committing military resources to the Middle East. But that official might well have commented, for emphasis, that the former national security adviser, John Bolton, was dismissed in part over his hawkish insistence on coercive regime change in Tehran.
That adviser could have argued that for an administration looking to manage great-power competition, it is patently illogical to elevate a regional spoiler to great-power status, antagonistically martyr one of its leaders, gratuitously invigorate nonstate militants, and set the United States on a path toward war in a region it had hoped to calm.
And a really enterprising confidant might have intimated that a sensational military operation could scan as a cynical effort to divert attention from impeachment, as well as an example of the same brand of self-interested autocracy with which the House’s articles of impeachment charge the president.
It seems like none of these points were carefully considered, revealing the abject dysfunction and deterioration of the national security process under Mr. Trump. The killing of General Suleimani arose outside of any coherent policy context, and without adequate contemplation of near- or long-term strategic consequences. Mr. Trump’s move looks like either an impetuous act of self-indulgence or, somewhat more probable, a calculated attempt to bury his domestic political troubles. Whatever the precise reason, the act itself is irreversible, and will have serious consequences — precisely why it merited the systematic deliberation that it clearly did not receive.
Ex-Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos wasn’t helpful to the special counsel’s investigation, hurt investigators’ efforts to detain a Russian intermediary and should face at least one month in prison, special counsel Robert Mueller said in a filing late Friday.
.. Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors said Mr. Papadopoulos’s lies hurt investigators’ ability to “effectively question” the professor, Joseph Mifsud, who has been previously described as an honorary director of the London Academy of Diplomacy.
Mr. Papadopoulos admitted he lied about the timing of his meeting with Mr. Mifsud and played down his own assessment of Mr. Mifsud’s connections to high-ranking Russian officials, according to documents filed in connection with Mr. Papadopoulos’s plea agreement.
.. The filing said the FBI located the professor in Washington soon after Mr. Papadopoulos’s January 2017 interview with FBI agents, but didn’t detain or challenge the professor before he left the country on February 11, 2017, because Mr. Papadopoulos had lied to the FBI about him.
“The defendant lied…early in the investigation, when key investigative decisions, including who to interview and when, were being made,” prosecutors said in the filing.
An FBI agent told him at the voluntary interview: “The only thing, we don’t want dis-information” because that would “make…our job a lot harder,” Mr. Mueller’s office said.
.. “The defendant did not provide ‘substantial assistance,’ and much of the information provided by the defendant came only after the government confronted him with his own emails, text messages, internet search history, and other information,” Mr. Mueller’s team said.
.. “the record shows” that he was “attempting to secure a job with the Trump Administration” at the time of the interview and “had an incentive to protect the Administration and minimize his own role as a witness.”.. They cite communications Mr. Papadopoulos had in which he sought to obtain a position with the National Security Council, the State Department or the Energy Department.
For months, the White House under President Trump operated with few real rules, and those were barely enforced. People wandered into the Oval Office throughout the day. The president was given pieces of unvetted information, and found more on his own that he often tweeted out. Policy decisions were often based on whoever had last gotten Mr. Trump’s attention.
.. In two memos sent to the staff on Monday he began to detail his plan, starting with how he wants information to get to the president, and how Mr. Trump will respond.
.. Mr. Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, sent some similar guidelines around early in the administration, according to two officials, but they were never taken seriously. Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general, has been treated with a different level of deference
.. Mr. Kelly has made clear that one thing he will not seek to directly control is the behavior of the president, and there is a good reason for that.
.. Mr. Trump has a history of lashing out at advisers who have publicly conveyed their attempts to impose tighter procedures on him. Just before Election Day, for example, Mr. Trump blew up publicly after a New York Times report that his aides had succeeded in keeping him off Twitter for the final stages of the campaign. He tweeted several times to enforce the point.
.. Despite Mr. Kelly’s fairly deft touch at approaching the president, Mr. Trump has shown signs of rebelling
.. That included his news conference at Trump Tower in which he doubled down on his blame for “both sides” in the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va., and his campaign rally speech in Arizona
.. Mr. Kelly had urged Mr. Trump to deliver a more somber, traditional statement the day before. And he and other advisers had urged the president to avoid taking questions from the news media at Trump Tower, a request that the president ignored.
.. In one of the memos, White House aides were told that all materials prepared for the president must go first to Mr. Porter for vetting and clearance. Then Mr. Kelly must sign off on them before they go to Mr. Trump’s desk.
.. given the propensity for some of Mr. Trump’s staff to slip him news accounts from dubious sources that shape his thinking or prompt him to cite unreliable or inaccurate information.
.. Mr. Priebus had tried to take firmer control of that process after Mr. Trump’s first week in office, when Stephen K. Bannon, the recently departed chief strategist, and Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser, pushed across the president’s desk two orders redesigning the National Security Council, and putting in place the first, court-contested travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries.
.. That process is expected to curtail freelancing and hijacking of decisions by West Wing aides. Mr. Bannon was often accused of taking advantage of the loose process, but Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, who both work in the West Wing, have also frustrated their colleagues for months by going directly to the president on specific issues.
.. “Let’s assume for the moment that Trump has learned the first big lesson of his first six months, which is that you have to empower the White House chief of staff to be a real gatekeeper,”
.. “What he hasn’t learned, what he has shown no sign of learning, is that governing is completely different from campaigning,” Mr. Whipple said.
in mid-March, General McMaster tried to fire Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council. Mr. Cohen-Watnick, a holdover from Michael Flynn’s aborted stint as national security adviser, complained to Mr. Bannon and Jared Kushner, who prevailed on Mr. Trump to have him reinstated.
The idea that the 30-year-old Mr. Cohen-Watnick should be senior director for intelligence programs — a position held by senior career C.I.A. officers in the Obama administration and others — is dubious. Furthermore, General McMaster’s decision to get rid of Mr. Cohen-Watnick was well within his pay grade.
.. A few days after his reinstatement, Mr. Cohen-Watnick was one of three White House staffers who facilitated a briefing to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on the “incidental surveillance” of Trump campaign staff members, which Mr. Nunes used to distract news media and public attention from the committee’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
A little unpacking revealed how artlessly pretextual this distraction was: Mr. Nunes professed the need to learn new information about surveillance to warn the president, yet that very information was in the possession of the White House and accessible to Mr. Trump without Mr. Nunes’s intervention.
.. One defensible inference is that Mr. Trump wanted to keep a pliable ally as the White House’s principal liaison with the intelligence community.
To arrange Mr. Trump’s reversal of General McMaster’s dismissal of Mr. Cohen-Watnick, Mr. Bannon required no formal position on the National Security Council. Indeed, Mr. Cohen-Watnick’s other inside patron — Mr. Kushner — had no such position.
.. Rex W. Tillerson blithely channeled buzz phrases like “win-win solutions” and “mutual respect” in describing United States-China relations. The phraseology seemed to signal United States capitulation to China’s sphere-of-influence geopolitical stance
.. Matt Pottinger, the senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, had warned in a memo against using such language. The fact that no one seems to have paid him any heed suggests how little the council matters in the Trump White House.
.. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, implied it would be “silly” to advocate regime change due to the absence of practical alternatives. The next day, Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, in an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, struck a very different chord by condemning the regime and saying that the United States could take unilateral action should the Security Council fail to respond effectively. (Mr. Trump then dialed up his own language, saying his attitude toward Syria had “changed very much.”)
In each case, the stated position of one national security player did not mesh with that of another.
Among the National Security Council’s key tasks is to help the president arrive at a consensus on a given foreign policy issue by soliciting the views of different agencies and orchestrating compromises in formulating a clear and integrated approach.
.. And perhaps a lack of policy coordination is just the way it is in the Trump administration. But if that is the case, the situation calls into question the National Security Council’s very utility.
But for the institution to have real value, regardless of who the players are, Mr. Trump himself needs to respect it more than he apparently does.