Best Defense

The FP transcript (Xth and last): What the last 9 segments tell us about the state of the American confrontation with Iran

The Best Defense is on Winter Break until the new year. Until then, here are some favorites from the past year. This post originally ran on Mar. 26, 2013. [Here are Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX.] Ricks: We are almost out of time. Speaking of mutually shared decisions, the ...


The Best Defense is on Winter Break until the new year. Until then, here are some favorites from the past year. This post originally ran on Mar. 26, 2013.

[Here are Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX.]

Ricks: We are almost out of time. Speaking of mutually shared decisions, the U.S. government is probably going to face one this year on Iran. How has everything we’ve been talking about shaped how we are going to be thinking about Iran down the road?

First David, then Michèle.

Crist: Well I think it’s all interrelated — issues in Afghanistan, issues in Iraq, all affect how we look at Iran and how we are positioned to be able to do something about Iran. I think it’s all interrelated. Lessons I think have been institutionalized at least within senior leaders on some of the problems we had in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially second- and third-order effects. What are the consequences of different actions we take? What are consequences of conflict in general? Is regime change a viable option? Isn’t it a viable option? If not, then how do we…? I mean, all that is in the background of all the discussions. And I think it’s been very healthy in many ways.

Ricks: One of the issues that we’ve been talking about is the quality of civil-military relations and straightforward, candid, honest advice from generals to civilian leaders — for which we have apparently just seen General Mattis quietly fired. [Ricks note: I should have said “pushed out early.”]

Crist: On the record I won’t comment on General Mattis’s views.

I will say and I can say this with a certain honesty since I’ve helped draft many of the memos: He has been very candid on what his views of what needs to be done. I haven’t seen anything like the Rumsfeldian approach to stifling alternative views, and so as a consequence while…And some people in the U.S. military — maybe the political leadership isn’t as receptive as they would like on authority issues and some other response…the dialogue is there, and frankly a lot of it gets to these ideas of what I have always thought of as one of the intangibles where you have breakdown in discourse between civilian and military leadership is as you say trust. And a lot of it is personality based. Just personalities of the individual players and how they personally get along, as well as concerns of political leadership.

Ricks: And you have seen a trusting, candid exchange?

Crist: I have from my level, absolutely. And I’ve sat in many — not as many as Michèle and some of the others here — but a number of meetings with senior leaders on both sides of it. And I have seen it be quite candid.

Ricks: My impression is that the Obama administration has been almost afraid of Centcom under Mattis and Harward — the mad-dog symptom with two incredibly aggressive guys. But I see Michèle shaking her head. Michèle, jump in.

Flournoy: I would say of all the issue areas that I was exposed to in the deputies committees process, there was none where we took a more deliberate, strategic, questioning, and very candid approach than Iran. And it really started back — this goes a few years back now when it was started up when Gates was still secretary of defense — and I think the thought that was put into exactly what words the president says to describe our objective in Iran: Is it “prevent”? Is it “contain”? That was debated, the consequences downstream of choosing one versus the other, multiple senior leader seminars, war games looking at different options, going down the road of different scenarios, very close partnership with the military in actually setting the theater so that we are now communicating a degree of deterrence to back up the policy of sanctions and negotiations.

So I actually think on Iran, probably more than on any other issue that I’ve seen, it’s been very strategic, very comprehensive. There’s no idea that you can’t bring to the table. There’s no idea that hasn’t been debated. And people may have very strong views and disagree. But this is not one where — this was one where there was a real constant coming back to what are our interests? What are our objectives? How do we make sure we are applying rigor and not just going down the road towards confrontation with no limits or no boundaries or no sense of what we are trying to achieve?

Crist: I would add one more point in having looked at U.S. strategy for a long time on Iran. One thing that I found interesting that has evolved over the last few years that I haven’t seen earlier is looking even beyond the nuclear issue. What is our long-term relationship with this country? Are we long-term adversaries? If so, how is that going to play out across the region? And how do we counteract that? And also, are there areas, I think, which despite the engagement piece, seemed to have died off, there has been a lot of thought given — are there areas where there is mutual cooperation? And what will that lead to long term? Can we have maybe not rapprochement but some kind of détente with Iran?

Ricks: So can we start to get Putin to be aggressive again and drive Iran into our hands?

Crist: Yeah, it’s tough because in my personal opinion we are for a host of reasons adversaries in the region. We have two different strategic views of what we want out of it.

But the issue is bigger than just the nuclear issue. The nuclear issue is a symptom, more than a cause, of our problems.

THE END… — or is it?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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