New Centcom Chief Walks Tightrope on Iran as Trump Adds Troops

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie must strike a balance between sending a strong deterrent signal and provoking a war in the Middle East.

Then-Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, nominee to be general and commander of the U.S. Central Command, testifies during a Senate Armed Service Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 4, 2018.
Then-Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, nominee to be general and commander of the U.S. Central Command, testifies during a Senate Armed Service Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 4, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP

Though he is just months into the job, the new commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, is already driving a push to reinvigorate the U.S. military’s footprint in the Middle East, as the administration grapples with a fresh crisis in the Persian Gulf.

McKenzie’s aggressive posturing—condemning Iran as the “most significant threat to stability” in the region as well as requesting a surge of additional forces—has raised questions about whether the White House is pressuring the military to take a stronger stance against Tehran, and it has stoked concerns about missteps that could lead to a larger conflict. But those who know him say McKenzie, a U.S. Marine and seasoned military commander who spent the last two years as the director of the Joint Staff at the Department of Defense, is well equipped to handle the escalating standoff.

“He is the reverse of a warmonger,” said one former senior defense official, describing McKenzie as a commander who is seeking mainly to shore up Centcom’s defenses without provoking conflict.

His efforts appear to be working. In answer to McKenzie’s request for reinforcements, the United States will deploy an additional 1,000 troops to the region to address the threat from Iran, the Pentagon announced late Monday. In a statement, the U.S. Defense Department stressed that the troops are “defensive,” and that the United States “does not seek conflict with Iran.”

Shortly before the announcement, the Pentagon also released additional photos showing the aftermath of suspected attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, including some purportedly showing Iranian forces removing an unexploded mine from one of the vessels.

“The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests,” according to the statement. “We will continue to monitor the situation diligently and make adjustments to force levels as necessary given intelligence reporting and credible threats.”

Though some criticize his methods, most who know him agree that McKenzie is ultimately a temperate and thoughtful commander. McKenzie’s focus is on deterrence, not attacking Iran, officials say. The former official pointed out that the forces McKenzie has asked for are defensive in nature—Patriot missile defense batteries and ballistic missile defense-capable destroyers, to name a few.

In his new role, McKenzie must walk a fine line. On the one hand, he must oversee a combatant command that, after two decades of being the top priority for Washington, is no longer at center stage. As the administration tries to pivot to address threats from China and Russia, the president appears eager to extricate the United States from its long and costly Middle East conflicts.

On the other, McKenzie answers to a White House intent on reining in Iran’s influence. The Trump administration last week blamed Tehran for a series of suspected attacks on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf, despite a recent buildup of U.S. military forces in the region to deter threats from Iran. On Monday, Tehran threw down a new gauntlet, declaring it would increase its stockpile of enriched uranium above limits from the 2015 multiparty nuclear pact, which the United States pulled out of a year ago.

The administration bet that deploying more forces to the region could deter Iran, but the suspected attacks on the tankers cast doubt on that move. Centcom kept reporting every week “that our deterrence is working … and it’s not clear that’s happening now,” said one Pentagon official. That, plus the prospect of further low-level attacks from Iran, ratchets up pressure on McKenzie, the official said.

Above all, as the commander responsible for all U.S. troops in the region, McKenzie must protect the interests of those forces—and that means striking the right balance between sending a strong deterrent signal to Iran and accidentally provoking a conflict. McKenzie, who commanded troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, knows firsthand the horrors of war.

“He is Machiavellian,” said the former defense official. “He would take advantage of this opportunity to solve some of the losses that Centcom has had over the last few years.” For example, the United States last year moved four Patriot batteries from Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain. But last month, the Pentagon shifted at least one of the missile batteries back to the region in response to “credible” threats on U.S. troops from Iran.

In his response to the crisis, some say McKenzie is caught between hawks calling for more hard-edged military action and those urging diplomatic talks to thaw tensions. Much of how this crisis plays out could hinge on the general, who has pushed to boost the U.S. military footprint in the region in order to send a message to Iran not to escalate, according to current and former officials.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with McKenzie and other military commanders on Tuesday during a hastily planned visit to U.S. Central Command’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida to discuss “regional security concerns and ongoing operations,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus confirmed. Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan will remain in Washington, D.C., to “continue to develop options,” a defense official told Foreign Policy.

McKenzie is “under tremendous pressure right now,” said the senior Pentagon official. “He’s new, he has to send a message to his adversaries that he’s strong and tough, and he has to send a message internally that he can handle this and Iran … can be deterred.”

But McKenzie is no wallflower. With his extensive experience at Centcom and at the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, he’s well versed both in the geopolitics of the Middle East and how Washington works.

“He’d be the last person to let a good crisis go to waste,” said the former senior defense official. “He’s doing what I would expect any Centcom commander to do. … What’s different is he’s extremely skilled at it.”

Dakota Wood, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation who served for two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, described McKenzie as “sharp and really even-keeled.” He also said McKenzie is already knowledgeable about Centcom issues given his past assignments. “You could almost make the case that he grew up in Centcom,” Wood said.

At the Joint Staff, McKenzie was a big proponent of Chairman Joseph Dunford’s global integration effort, which sought to more effectively balance military resources around the world. A major piece of that effort was rebalancing forces from decades of war in the Middle East to the rest of the world, particularly Europe and the Pacific.

But now that he is in charge of Centcom, McKenzie has changed his tune.

“Now that he’s in a different seat, he sees everything that Centcom needs as pretty much existential,” the former senior official said. “Once he got down there, he began to own the problem.”

Due to the relationships he built with the Joint Staff and the White House during his time in Washington, McKenzie is able to work the bureaucratic process quickly and effectively—and he has wasted no time in doing so, the former official added.

“He’s got a direct line to people who matter,” said one U.S. government official.

Some critics say McKenzie learned to work the bureaucratic process too well in past assignments, steamrolling over a weakened and understaffed Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Under President Donald Trump, and especially since Defense Secretary James Mattis’s departure at the end of last year, important positions including assistant secretaries of defense and deputy assistant secretary posts have sat empty for months or longer, leaving the military’s Joint Staff to pick up the slack. McKenzie, critics say, perpetuated that, stoking concerns about the civilian arm of the department. “He’s a guy who has taken an expansive view of Joint Staff over the civilian side of the Pentagon—a big part of the marginalization of OSD,” said another U.S. official. “There’s some who think he just doesn’t get civ-mil relations.”

And, in an administration defined by a brash and domineering president, McKenzie has few high-powered backers left at the Pentagon to insulate him from the politicized pressure cooker of Trump’s foreign-policy making machine, where sudden lurches in policy can come from the president’s Twitter account and the president’s top advisors are eager for a win in the showdown against Iran.

Mattis, another former Marine, has left, and his successor, Shanahan, is filling the position in an acting capacity, still awaiting a long-expected formal nomination and congressional confirmation hearing. Dunford, also a Marine and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the past four years, is also on his way out the door. Other senior posts in the OSD have sat empty for months or even a year, leaving the military shouldering more of the policymaking burden.

“Right now he’s kind of at sea, because you’ve got Shanahan, you’ve got Dunford on his way out,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official. “So McKenzie is kind of in the forest on his own.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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