Can the drift toward an Iran war be halted?

Brian M Downing 

The White House is obviously in a state of flux. Key personnel have come and gone in the six months of the Trump presidency and more changes may follow. There’s also been change in less prominent but nonetheless important slots.

Last week, National Security Advisor and three-star general HR McMaster removed three Iran hawks from the National Security Council. The move came shortly after retired four-star general John Kelly became White House chief of staff and swiftly showed several appointees the wide-open door to Pennsylvania Avenue.

McMaster and Kelly are seeking to establish stability in the White House, but they may also be trying to ease the administration’s Iran policy. They will face strong opposition in the bureaus, congress, and media.

The present course 

The US is working with Israel and Saudi Arabia to weaken Iran, chiefly through Sunni proxies in Syria and Yemen. The three powers want events in western Iraq to unfold similarly. President Trump has been openly hostile toward Iran and suggested that despite Tehran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear treaty, a clash lies ahead.

Tensions and provocations are on the rise in the Persian Gulf. Forces are maneuvering in eastern Syria. McMaster, by removing Iran hawks, may be trying to slow down the drift toward confrontation, notwithstanding the tradition of generals following orders, not making policy.

McMaster and other generals in his cohort were midlevel officers on 9/11. They deployed into Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq two years later. Since then, the military has sustained over seven thousand casualties. Islamist militancy has increased, American security has not.

Today’s Iran policy has the same provenance as the Afghan and Iraqi wars – neoconservatism. The neocons are long on plans to deploy troops and spread enlightened rule but short on military experience and accountability for failures.

The present course is to take sides in a sectarian conflict that dates back thirteen centuries and engage in a protracted effort to weaken Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq. The effort will entail state-making with Kurdish and Arab allies. Once a taboo word in Washington, state-making forced its way back into the town’s vocabulary when Afghanistan and Iraq refused to follow the confident scenarios of think tanks and White House staffers.

Military people became, by default, chief implementers of state-making policies – a task they accepted but resented and wearied of. According to a Military Times poll, state-making is highly unpopular with troops up and down the ranks. It detracts from the military’s main mission of warfare, requires long deployments in distant lands, and has a poor track record.

Opposition to change

McMaster and his allies will face strong opposition from Iran hawks in and out of the administration. Many in the White House see Iran as a danger to the region and want it weakened or even fragmented like Iraq and Syria. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and trusted advisor Steve Bannon are avid Iran Hawks. Many military people are as well, including defense secretary and former general Mattis.

Congress is unfriendly toward Iran. This follows from the concerted efforts of the Israeli Right, Saudi Arabia, defense contractors, and America’s Religious Right. Iran has no significant supporters in congress, K Street, or the public.

McMaster is predictably being accused of insufficient support for Israel. Critics note his reference to the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem as “occupied” – low-caliber ammo and poorly aimed as well. Many parts of the Israeli Right, however, are not adding their voices to the accusations.


Prior to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, McMaster was known for his 1997 book Dereliction of Duty, which scores political and military leaders for failures that led to the Vietnam debacle. It was widely hailed for its insight and audacity, but criticizing leaders thirty some years after Vietnam is no sign of great scholarship or courage. Archives may one day reveal how much or how little opposition Colonel McMaster and his peers put up in the lead-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those two conflicts and their considerable costs might be weighing heavily on General McMaster now. They surely weigh more heavily on him than on most others in government.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.