Ex-Pentagon official: Trump failed to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Syria

"Walking away from the deal (would) be essentially breaking it... Iran could walk away and push for nuclear weapons. That would not help Israel or anyone in the region."

Iran fires missiles at militant groups in eastern Syria (credit: REUTERS)
So respected is Michèle Flournoy that she not only was presumed to be Hillary Clinton’s secretary of defense in waiting, but was also offered the No. 2 position by Trump’s Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
While she declined the offer, she may still ascend to the top Pentagon job – which would make her the first woman in that position – if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020.
That, along with her years of Pentagon experience dating back to the Clinton administration, make it important to follow her views of the security issues confronting Israel and the US.
Flournoy, who rose to No. 3 at the Pentagon in the Obama administration, is quite capable of professorial- level nuance, but she can also make headlines.
Regarding the inflammable mix in Syria of the Assad regime, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, Flournoy told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that Trump has not shown up to counter Iran in Syria.
“Specifically, their rhetoric about countering Iran is very strong....
They have imposed some sanctions, but haven’t really engaged on the ground in Syria in terms of showing up at negotiations as a major player or changing any of their activities on the ground to counter Iranian influence or to counter Shi’ite militias,” she said.
Former defense undersecretary for policy Michèle Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Former defense undersecretary for policy Michèle Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Flournoy was in Israel in January at the INSS conference. She recounted how “one concern I heard in Israel is: Who is looking out for Israeli interests in negotiations about a resolution in Syria? Someone needs to think about what will be on Israel’s borders in the end.... Shi’ite militias with IRGC connections? Another Hezbollah? This would be unacceptable. So what will it look like?” She also said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent shuttle diplomacy to Moscow exposes how Russia, not the US, is “driving negotiations.”
When asked about what the US can actually do, given the complexity of the situation, Flournoy said, “we should be realistic. I think a lot of options which would have given us real leverage and maybe a lead role in negotiating an end to the conflict have been foreclosed” over the last two to four years.
Those options “are not on the table now,” but “there are still things we could do at the margins to protect those we’ve invested in.
“The US needs to show up and become a force to be reckoned with at negotiations, because we are a global power and Israel’s core ally, and we have a stake in how this comes out, and should be applying pressure both to Russia and Iran in how things are settled,” she said.
“I don’t think the US can dictate terms at this point, but it can shape them. I don’t see the level of engagement to do that effectively at this point.”
Asked if this means the US has little to do but hope for better results from more energetic diplomacy, she said, “more diplomacy, yes, and maybe there is some limited use of force to back up our concerns regarding the situation there with Israel and about what it really defines as unacceptable on its border.
“Where will all the forces end up? That is one conversation that needs to be had. There are some efforts you can imagine for trying to reinforce those lines and constraints, as groups violate them,” she said in vaguely referring to some possible use of military force.
On the Iran nuclear deal, Flournoy said that after all of the criticism of the deal, it “did succeed in putting time on the clock [in terms of] pushing back against Iran’s nuclear program, in terms of taking more time from today [for Iran] to get to an actual nuclear weapon.
“It succeeded in that in the short term, and we should give it credit where credit is due. The only thing that would be worse than a malign Iran across the region would be a nuclear-armed malign Iran across the region. For the decade of the deal, that is not going to happen,” she said with emphasis.
Asked about potential holes in the deal and the future, she responded with her own rhetorical question, “How do we go beyond the constraints of the deal, so its constraints do not expire after 15 years and also extend into other areas of concern like ballistic missiles? “In my view, walking away from the deal” the US would “be essentially breaking it, and that would be damaging. I don’t think Europe would follow. Nor would Russia, nor the Chinese. So Iran could walk away and push for nuclear weapons. That would not help Israel or anyone in the region,” she said.
Pressed that some are crediting Trump’s pressure tactics with moving the European Union toward a willingness to lean on Iran regarding holes in the deal, she said, “if Trump’s tactic is a tactic, then you could argue” whether it is wise and could have positive effects on pressuring Iranian behavior.
“But I don’t think it’s a tactic. He wants to try to get progress without having to depend on the deal.”
Asked whether she really thinks Trump intends to walk away from the deal, Flournoy responded, “I think that’s his intention, unless people around him can convince him, and unless various efforts to improve upon the deal regarding ballistic missile constraints and the sunset clause pan out.”
She said Trump’s “national security adviser and his national security principals don’t agree [with Trump]. But he doesn’t understand the details. He thinks of it as a campaign pledge. He wants to undo everything connected to Obama. He goes on and on about what a bad deal it is.”
Confronted with leaks that Trump will settle for a mid-May EU commitment to make the deal better going forward and that mid-May is not the real deadline anymore, she said, “that could be. It just really depends on where things stand and on, when they finally brief him, what is happening, what is his mood that day, what else is bothering him.
“This is a president where the timing of when and where you catch him is as important as what is being decided. I hope people are right, and that if there is enough momentum for additional constraints that Trump will decide not to upend the entire table,” she said.
THE DISCUSSION of nuclear threats then moved from Iran to North Korea.
Highlighting the volatility of the waters of the international security world that she has been swimming in for decades, in between Flournoy’s initial and later discussions with the Post, the North Korean nuclear situation had already evolved tremendously in only a matter of days.
In an initial conversation about Trump’s policy toward North Korea, especially his and other defense officials’ threats that new US stealth technology could enable a successful preemptive strike, Flournoy said, “We don’t have perfect intelligence.
Their nuclear weapons are dispersed, in many cases in underground facilities. It is very unlikely we would get all of the weapons in a military strike.”
She also counseled caution regarding Pyongyang’s massive conventional weapons.
The former defense official said Trump likes “the ‘bloody nose’ strategy of let’s hit him hard, and then he’ll come to the table to negotiate. Imagine punching someone in the nose who has a gun to your friend’s head. Any response will be seen [by North Korea] as part of the beginning of a larger conflict [initiated by the US] to change the regime, so they are likely to react accordingly.”
She said North Korea would likely act to reduce the US’s ability to intervene and to divide US allies. North Korea could decide to “strike Japan so Japan says we don’t want any part of this. You can’t use Japanese bases.... The same could happen with South Korea.... That is the most likely outcome of any limited strike.”
Regarding Trump’s North Korea pressure campaign, she said, “The unanswered question is: a pressure campaign to do what? To create an environment for serious negotiations to take place? What do we ask for? “First, a halt to get them to stop nuclear testing and ballistic missile testing.
To get an agreement [from North Korea] not to deploy ICBMs. But opening with ‘denuclearize or else’ is not a realistic negotiating strategy,” she said.
She was then asked if this meant that the US is stuck with managing a permanently nuclear North Korea.
Flournoy responded, “That is what we need to prepare for. Is it a perfect result? No. But going to war would be” like nothing “we’ve seen since the previous Korean war. Given the high costs, we need to exhaust every option before making a decision to go to war.
“If they use a nuclear weapon, we must be prepared to take out the regime.... But should we do anything preemptively? They could destroy two countries and the Asian economy, and there could be tens of thousands of casualties.... No one in the Pentagon wants to go to war today. They are ready to deal with the problem, but they are not ready to go to war,” she said.
Following Tuesday and Wednesday’s developments of a possible breakthrough toward new North Korea-South Korea-US talks on the nuclear issue, Flournoy said, “To date, the Trump administration has focused exclusively on intensifying the pressure on North Korea through tougher sanctions, leaning on China to do more, and bolstering deterrence through military posture and exercises.
“It’s unknown whether they [the Trump team] have a sophisticated negotiating strategy for achieving US objectives.
They also need to be joined at the hip with South Korea.... How they plan to approach this critical period of diplomacy and whether they have a well-developed plan remains a mystery,” she added.
PIVOTING TO the escalating drone threat and the February incident of an Iranian drone invading Israeli airspace, she said, “it’s challenging. They are cheap. There is a lot of commercial technology. They can be used to serve military purposes fairly easily.”
While Israel’s comptroller has warned that the country is poorly prepared for the drone threat, Flournoy said the threat should be kept in perspective.
She said that a successful drone attack would have a “high psychological effect.
But unless you are using them with a nuclear device or a contagious bio-weapon, something with mass effects,” its main impact would likely be “psychologically upsetting, not necessarily causing massive actual destruction.... Most drones are small, so they can only carry a small ordnance.”
She thought that a most likely worstcase scenario – and even that, only if the IDF defenses failed – would be “a number of small explosions in downtown Tel Aviv.” Without in any way downplaying such a threat, her point was that a drone attack is not likely to cause mass casualties.
The second piece of last month’s Iranian drone event was Syria’s shooting down of an Israeli F-16 – the first such incident in three decades.
Flournoy said that, “thanks to Russia, Syrian air defense systems have become more sophisticated... so in some ways it’s not surprising.” However, she added that “the F-35 should be more survivable against those defenses, due to its stealth, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare capabilities.”
SHIFTING FROM Syrian air defense to Israeli and US missile defense challenges, she addressed comments by nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis to the Post that US missile defense would be highly ineffective against a North Korean nuclear missile, let alone multiple missiles at the same time.
“That is an overly negative picture....
The Pentagon is completing some new work, and a review will be coming out in a few weeks about the US’s sea-based and Alaska-based defenses, including multiple interceptor warheads on land-based interceptors,” she said.
“This will dramatically improve [missile defense] efficiency. We are doing a lot of interesting working with allies in developing more integrated missile defense. It is not ready today. This is a major area of investment,” she said.
“We are boosting our efforts to develop boost-phase interceptors to catch missiles [shortly after they have launched] as the [missile’s] booster is firing and before the missile goes into space. We have directed energy test programs. They are a couple of years away from the system being fielded. But it is very promising for the future.”
Finally, Flournoy discussed the question of why the US and Israel have sometimes advertised their cyber abilities to disable adversaries’ forces – one such time was a June 2015 ex-IDF general’s statement reported by the Post about the IDF ability to hack some Hezbollah rockets – and sometimes kept quiet. Is remaining quiet avoiding tipping their hand too far or a lack of certainty about certain cyber capabilities? “I would say a combination of the two.
If you have a solution, you won’t necessarily advertise it. Also, there’s a big difference between the general proposition of ‘it could be done,’ [and] ‘I’m actually inside their closed network and know it well enough to compromise it. I know what cyber [elements] I need to plant and know it will be effective,’” she said.
Flournoy concluded, “it is a very long way from what could be possible” to having confidence for using the abilities for real in “given circumstances at a given time – especially with closed systems like North Korea.”