Killing Soleimani was a ‘hasty’ decision, says former defense undersecretary

The World
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A massive crowd of mourners gathers on the streets of Tehran, Iran.

Editor’s note: The broadcast version of this interview was updated to include the news that in the early hours on Wednesday, Iran said it launched a missile attack on US-led forces in Iraq in retaliation for the US drone strike on an Iranian commander whose killing has raised fears of a wider war in the Middle East. 

The United States has no plans to pull its troops out of Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday, following reports by Reuters and other media of an American military letter informing Iraqi officials about repositioning troops in preparation for leaving the country.

Longtime foes Tehran and Washington have been in a war of words since Friday, when a drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, widely seen as Iran’s second most powerful figure behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran’s demand for US forces to withdraw from the region gained traction on Sunday when Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country.

The leaked American military letter said US-led coalition forces would use helicopters to evacuate. Several were heard flying over Baghdad on Monday night, although it was not immediately clear if that was related.

“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Esper told Pentagon reporters, adding there were no plans issued to prepare to leave.

Host Marco Werman spoke with Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, to understand the details of the decision-making process that lead to Soleimani’s death. 

Marco Werman: Michèle, let’s start with that letter. What did you make of it?

Michèle Flournoy: Well, my guess is that the general in question was taking his cues from the public statements and tweets of the president and from the actions of the Iraqi parliament. It sounds like he may have gotten a little over his skis in terms of drafting a letter that would eventually be shared with the Iraqis to essentially start planning for the movements that would be necessary for the US forces to depart from Iraq in an orderly fashion. It’s not unusual to share drafts of things with close allies that you’re trying to coordinate with, but I think in this case, he may have jumped the gun and certainly, it sounded like the top brass in the Pentagon were not aware of the letter and had not seen it.

So, diplomacy with Iraq seems like a cakewalk compared to diplomacy with Iran right now. What about the decision to kill General Qasem Soleimani? Can you walk us through that process? How is that kind of decision normally made and was it ever considered during your time in office?

Well, normally you would have the question of how to respond to a series of Iranian provocations. Ultimately, in an attack by an Iranian-backed proxy that killed a contractor, you’d have a discussion about how to respond and several options would be put on the table. Those would be vetted and discussed interagency across the National Security Council at multiple levels, usually starting with deputy secretaries, then moving to principals and eventually moving to the president. But in this administration, for a very long time now, that normal process has been nonexistent. The deputies rarely meet and the principals rarely meet. Very serious decisions are brought to the president without a whole lot of vetting and exploration of second- and third-order consequences. So, they clearly presented a set of tactical options to him. Either the strategic consequences weren’t explored and explained or he didn’t care to listen to that. He made a pretty hasty decision and now we’re living with the consequences of that.

Related: Gen. Petraeus on Qasem Soleimani’s killing: ‘It’s impossible to overstate the significance’ 

Well, the administration is defending itself. Just this morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to reporters and said the system is working well. Here he is:

Mike Pompeo: Anytime a president makes a decision of this magnitude, there are multiple pieces of information that come before us. We presented that to him in all its broad detail. We gave him all the best information that came not only from the intelligence community but for those of us who have teams in the field. We evaluated the relevant risks and the opportunity that we thought might present itself at some point. And we could see clearly.

Related: Escalating conflict with Iran: What’s happening?

What you essentially described a moment goes is what happened with this decision. Trump was presented with a range of options. He chose the most extreme option that I think a lot of his advisers did not really expect him to take. So, when you look at that and you look at the system, what is working and what is not?

Well, first of all, if the majority of the advisers believe that it’s a bad option or not the best option, I question why it was put before the president of the United States. Normally, a good process eliminates bad options. On the other hand, if the options survive scrutiny, it’s incumbent on the principals who are there with the president to make sure he fully understands all of the second- and third-order consequences. All of the risks. It’s hard for me to believe that it was explained to President Trump that this would put every embassy and every US military base in the Middle East at higher levels of risk from Iran or Iranian proxies, that it would basically undermine our campaign against ISIS by violating Iraqi sovereignty in a way that would force the Iraqis to almost have to come to some decision to push us out or to restrict our movements — and that it would also lift the lid on the Pandora’s box of assassination. I mean, as horrible as Soleimani was and as legitimate he was as a target, he was also the second most powerful person in Iran and an Iranian official. So, now any US official who is traveling in the region, Iran will say, “Hey, they’re fair game. You assassinated our guy. Why can’t we assassinate yours?” So, I can’t believe that Trump would have chosen the option had that all been explained to him. If he did choose that option, fully informed of those consequences, then this is even more dangerous a situation than we thought.

Trump supporters who like their disrupter-in-chief may ask why these systems and cogent policies matter. So, let me put it to you, why do they matter?

They matter because if you want the decisions that put Americans in harm’s way and put blood and treasure on the line like no other — if you want those decisions to be fully and well informed — you have to have a process that brings multiple perspectives to bear, including dissent in order to get good decisions. When that process breaks down, you’re going to get some bad decisions.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

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