The Legend of P 45: How America’s 45th President Succeeded Where His Predecessors Had Failed Against Iran

AP/Vahid Salemi

As we saw in Part One of this series, the new President, the 45th in our nation’s history, was determined to try new solutions in the fight against old enemies, and he made his position clear to his national security team in their very first meeting in the White House Situation Room.

The President, soon to be nicknamed “P 45,” said to his advisers, “So we’ve covered some of the new ideas I’ve had about using new technology in the Middle East.   So now let’s turn to Iran.   And if I may, let me make five points, because I want us all to see that the Iran issue, central as it is, needs to be addressed in a larger strategic context ”  Then the President pulled out a piece of paper from his breast pocket.  And as the 45th President spoke, it was clear that he was saying something of enormous importance; it was out of such history-changing moments that the legend of “P 45” was born.  Indeed, in the robust debate that was about to ensue, a new approach to policymaking was found.   And so the P-45’s Five, as it was called, was soon recorded into history.

Said the President:

“Number One, we all realize that the Obama deal with Tehran has collapsed; there’s really nothing to talk about on that score.   Aaron David Miller, who is no conservative, headlined a piece a while back, ‘How Iran outfoxes U.S.’  And I agree—the Iranians outfoxed us.    As an American, I hate to see headlines like that, but as the President now, I am afraid that Miller is probably right.   But it’s a moot point now, because we’re not going to let the Iranians into our henhouse.

P-45 looked around the room, reading everyone to make sure that they were getting his points.  He figured that they didn’t have to agree with him on everything—but they did have to obey his new policy line.   And to obey it, they would have to at least know it.    And so it was his duty to explain himself.

“Number Two, I don’t believe in negotiations for the sake of negotiations.”

The President continued scanning the room.   He realized that some of the people on the NSC staff were “career,” and thus were holdovers from the previous administration.   So the 45th President knew that he had to bring them along, too, so that they could get with the program.  And that mean he had to be patient and let anyone with an objection talk it out.  Moreover, the President knew that he had a lot to learn; he would have to be flexible on specific details, even as he was resolved to be firm on general principles.

“Number Three, I don’t want just to kick the can of the Iran nuclear issue down the road for a few years.   I want a plan that truly makes the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel not, in fact, a threat.”

P-45 looked down at his notes.

“Number Four, I think it’s clear that the so-called ‘Long War’ is going to be really long.   Like maybe, just about forever.  So we need a policy—and perhaps a new defense configuration—that will help us defend our friends in the region, including Christians, whom Obama has so cruelly neglected.”

The President studied his subordinates further.   He could see that not everyone in the Sit Room was entirely comfortable with his points as he was laying them out.

“Number Five, I want to put America, and its allies, on a path to military superiority in the region, and, for that matter, in the world.   In a manner, I might add, that is both true and obvious—that is, fully manifest.  I don’t want America to be a bully, but I do want people to be a little bit afraid of us.”

The President paused to take the measure of the men and women in the room.

“So those are my five points: First, make no dumb deal with Iran; second, carry out no negotiations for the sake of negotiations; third, truly solve the Iran issue; fourth, realize that nothing will get solved quickly or easily and that we will need some new thinking; and fifth, put the US on a course toward true military superiority.”

After hearing these five points, the Secretary of State spoke first for the national security team.  “Mr. President, as to your ‘Number One,’ we all realize that the Obama nuclear deal with Iran has collapsed; there’s really not much to talk about on that score.   I think that the concern of some of us is the idea of putting the US on a course that leads to inevitable military confrontation.   So some of us feel that we have little choice but to continue, in some form or fashion, on the diplomatic track with Iran.”

The President didn’t like the sound of the Secretary of State’s ‘diplo-speak’ response; it sounded to him like talking points developed by the Foggy Bottom FSOs, who were justifiably famous for creating a fudge-factory of folderol and obfuscation.  Madame Secretary had not been his first choice for the job; political considerations during the campaign—including an off-the-cuff pledge for “diversity” that he instantly regretted—had made her selection a foregone conclusion during the Transition.   And now, already, P 45 was getting the feeling that the new Sec State was “going native.”  That is, she was seeing issues through a Foggy Bottom lens, taking the bureaucrats’ side on issues.

During her career, the new Secretary of State had hardly been known as a diplomat; the word “ballbuster” was heard more often about her.   But as they say in Washington, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”    And it hadn’t taken her long, not at all, for her to embrace the State Department view.   And so, the President thought to himself, if she had developed a sudden predilection for difference-splitting and parleying, funneled up to her by the striped-pants lifers at State, that reality would have to be factored in.    That is, he would have to bear in mind that when she spoke now, it would be with the voice of the “permanent government” at Main State, the folks who had gained control of just about every Secretary in history.   The President wasn’t happy about this development, even if he wasn’t surprised.  He would just have to work around the problem, that’s all.     After all, it would be at least two years before he could push her out.

“You’re right, Madame Secretary,” he said.  “I want to be a strong president, for sure, but I don’t want to be a War President.  I don’t want to get stuck in fighting as did, say, George W. Bush, or, for that matter, Barack Obama.”

Warming to this topic, P 45 continued, “The American people don’t want to get back in the war business.   But of course, we also don’t want to be weak, or be pushed around.   We must always protect both our national security and our national honor.  It pained me, for example, when ISIS took over Ramadi a few years ago—a city that so many Americans died to liberate, just swallowed by the terrorists.

“But, as one wise old observer put it it me, we have to be realistic about what might happen.  As he phrased it, the American people give a president the equivalent of an expense account for foreign military operations.  What this means is, you can charge up to a certain amount—and that’s okay, no questions asked—but if you go above a certain amount, you get resistance, pushback, and, ultimately, the voters cancel your charge card.  I’m afraid that George W. Bush, well-meaning as he was, overdrew his account.”

P 45 paused to pivot slightly as he explained himself.  “I have just as many ambitions for American security as W., but I want to be more careful about running up ‘expenses.’”

The President stopped, just to make sure that he had everyone’s attention: “But at the same time, let me be clear: It will be the policy of the United States not to negotiate with Iran.” 

From the wounded expression on the Secretary of States’s face, the President could see that Madame Secretary didn’t very much like that flat declaration.   And he could envision the headline in The Washington Post the next day—planted, no doubt, by one of his ‘loyal” aides: “PRESIDENT DECLARES WAR ON IRAN.”

So P 45 had to be careful.   But at the same time, he knew, he had a job to do.   And so he continued: “So I think we need to identify new ways to proceed.   I think you’ll all get a better sense of what I am thinking about as the meeting progresses.”  The Secretary of State managed a weak smile of condescending superiority, as if to say, Okay, Mr. President, I’ll give you a chance to dig your way out of this.   Yes, the President thought to himself, she really has embraced the State Department’s legendary smugness.     But he couldn’t just worry about her and her feelings, he knew; if he did, he’d be no better, and no more effective, than she.   He had a new government to run, and old policies to change.   That was his real mission, and he was nothing if not mission-oriented.

The Commander-in-Chief continued: “So now, if I could, let me move on to my second point: I don’t believe in negotiations for the sake of negotiations.  If we have a chance for real breakthroughs, that’s great.    But just as I don’t want to negotiate with Iran so long as that country is implacably hostile and obviously uninterested in any sort of rapprochement, no matter how tentative, I should also say that I feel the same about certain other negotiations.”  Here the President decided, as he liked to say, to “let ‘er rip.”  He hadn’t planned on getting into the issues of the Palestinians or global warming in this meeting, but he decided,  as they say in football, to call an audible at the line of scrimmage.  That is, adjust the play.    So the President charged ahead:  “Just as I don’t want to see us spend any time on no-yield negotiations with Iran, neither do I want us to spend even one second of time—not one—thinking about ‘shuttle diplomacy’ with the Palestinians, trying to push some bogus ‘peace agreement’ between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

The Secretary of State looked stunned and hurt: After all, for half a century, going back to the Rogers Plan, the State Department had seen it is a prime objective to broker a Palestinian deal, or at least try to do so.  Indeed, working the “Palestinian Account” was a major way-station in the career of many a FSO.  And so the bureaucrats went to work to sell their view to every new Secretary of State, and they usually succeeded—they certainly had on this one.

The President knew how powerful this sort of “bureaucratic creep” could be, and he knew couldn’t afford simply to ignore it.   And so, instead, he would have to explain himself so that his top players would fully understand what the new policy was and, as a result, could better fend off the bureaucrats as they pushed their old nostrums.  Yes, he was the boss, but as a leader, he needed to bring his people along with him. They didn’t have to agree in their heart of hearts, to be sure, but they did have to know the new line and implement accordingly.

“Yes,” the President declared, “I actually meant what I said during the campaign about no ridiculous no-win negotiations.”  But lest he get completely hammered in the Post and the Times the next day, he figured he’d better soften that hard line just a titch. “Now of course, I want us all to be alert to every genuine opportunity.  As JFK said, ‘Let us never fear to negotiate.’   But at the same time, let’s wait till both we, and the Israelis, agree that there’s a suitable ‘partner for peace’ on the Palestinian side.”

The President felt strongly about this issue, and he was convinced that his pun-nish campaign line about “No more Kerry-ing on” had been a vote-getter for him during the election season.  Yet he knew, now, that it would be a constant struggle to restrain the yakkety-yak impulses of the State Department.  So he figured he’d better restate the issue one more time, and add his other campaign cheer-line, too:

“And of course, in addition to my policy of no—that is, zero—negotiations with the Palestinians, I meant it when I said that I want no—that is, zero—negotiations on ‘global warming.’”

The Secretary of State thought she saw an opening: “Mr. President, are you okay with us discussing ‘climate change’ with our partners?”

P-45 wanted to glare at her, but he caught himself—You have to stay civil, he told himself.    “No, Ma’am.  Not ‘climate change,’ either.” Thinking ahead to the objections that the Secretary would hear when she got back to her Seventh Floor office, the President continued: “No more of this futility.  I don’t care what the career staff at State, or wherever, might say about the importance of ‘preserving the process’ or ‘upholding continuity.’  None.  Nada.”

The President felt that he had made his point.   So he continued:

“Number Three, I want to envision a plan that truly makes the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel and to the West disappear.   I am afraid that the deal that my predecessor worked out, before it collapsed, would have let Iran get right up to the threshold of nuclear power, and stay there.”

Once again, the President paused.  In theater, including the theater of politics, he had learned the power of the dramatic pause.  “So while some people say that the best way to stop Iran is to get the sanctions regime back in place, I say that we can do better, a lot better.   I don’t just want to be remembered as the president who kept Iran from going nuclear for four or eight years, or for however long the good Lord gives me in this job.    That is, through some combination of carrots and sticks—and yes, I meant that when I said carrots—I want to change the thinking of the Iranians.  I want them to see that they have more to gain by recognizing Israel, becoming a normal power in the region, and not having nuclear weapons.”

The National Security Adviser jumped in: “Mr. President, we have already been working on your ideas for increasing US energy production—including coal, using that new de-carbonizing process—and driving down the price of oil, thereby undercutting Iranian revenues and power.   We will have some Options Papers for you to review soon.”

The President liked the National Security Adviser, whom he had known for years.     As had happened with Henry Kissinger and Condi Rice, he could see the adviser moving up, and over, to the State Department soon enough.   But that was for later; there was work to be done now.   So P 45 continued:

“As I’ve said, I would like to do things that change the way the Iranians look at the world.  So that might require us to think outside of the box.”  The President then reached into his pocket and pulled out his smartphone; he fiddled with it to pull up a file.

“Here’s a new item that I have been saving for almost two years: It’s an AFP story from April 7, 2015, ‘Rebels kill eight Iran soldiers on Pakistan border.’   It details an attack on Iranian border guards from the Jaish-ul Adl, or Army of Justice, in Pakistan.  Now what do you all make of that?”

The Secretary of State answered, “I think it reminds us, sir, that terrorism is a problem all over the Middle East.  And so we have called upon all parties in the region to act responsibly.”

The President frowned a bit; he didn’t want to hear any of that State Department fiddle-faddle in his NSC meetings.  “But Madame Secretary, does terrorism against a terrorist state, like Iran, really count as ‘terrorism’?  Shouldn’t it be counted, instead, maybe, as ‘fighting fire with fire’?   And shouldn’t we see any attack on Iran as the contribution of an ally?”

The Secretary of State was definitely not following the President’s lead.  “Mr. President, I’m not sure that the minimal value these pinpricks might have against Iran might have is greater than the threat to international security and sovereignty that terrorism poses.”

P 45 answered:  “Your points are well taken.”  The National Security Adviser, knowing the President so well, recognized the subtly ironic tone in the President’s voice.  “But one thing I’ve learned is that even mere ‘pinpricks’ can really start to hurt after a while.  So I think maybe it’s worth exploring what that group in Pakistan, the Army of Justice, is up to.  Maybe they have their good side!”

The Secretary of State was, sadly, still not on board: “Mr. President, I have to admit that I am not briefed on this group, but I would caution you about seeing terrorists as, in any way, allies…”

P 45 cut her off. “Madame Secretary, remember the Tom Hanks movie, Charlie Wilson’s War?    I’ll admit that I never read the book, but I loved the film.  If you recall, just about everything that Charlie Wilson did to fight the Soviets was done over the objections of the DC bureaucracy.   Wilson had to create his own operation—his own, if you will, ‘pinpricks.’  And it worked!”

The Director of National Intelligence, a natural conciliator, chose this moment to jump in and head off an argument between the President and the Secretary of State.  “Mr.  President, I think a lot of us need to get up to speed about the Army of Justice.   So we should have a Deputies Committee meeting first to see where we are with them.   But your point is well taken, sir: Any group that’s hurting the Iranians can’t be all bad!”

The President smiled at the averted confrontation, but he wasn’t completely willing to let the point drop: “Okay, you get a process going, and I will look forward to seeing some options as to our possible allies at the Army of Justice.   But let’s be clear on one thing: I don’t want us hiding behind lawyers on this one: If we think that pinpricks against Iran are a good tool for bringing them to heel, then we need more pinpricks.   Understood?’

The DNI smiled. “Yes, sir, understood!”

“Thank you, Mr. Director.  Now let’s go further.  I realize, of course, that some little band of killers operating out of Pakistan is not going to change the Iranian government’s hard line overnight.  Indeed, I think we have to recognize that Iran scored a major success when they took delivery of that Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system a short while ago.

P 45 paused and looked up and down the Sit Room table to make sure that everyone was fully paying attention.  “It’s going to take some real effort on our part, but I want us really to grapple with the challenge of getting ahead of the Russian system, so that if we, or the Israelis, ever decide that we have to go in to Iran to take out their nuclear facilities, we can be effective at relatively little cost.   And if that means we need to give out some big fat contract to some defense contractor to develop counter-measures, well, so be it.  When I said ‘relatively little cost’ a moment ago, I meant ‘relatively little cost’ in blood.    I worry a lot less about money, because it’s only money—not someone’s son or daughter.   So let’s spend what we have to figure out how to penetrate the Iranian defenses, if we must.”

The President paused again.  “And let’s be mindful of hacking, and cyber-terrorism, and all that.   I think leaks are bad enough; I certainly don’t want to think that the Iranians, or anyone else, might be listening in.    Once again, it might not be cheap, in dollar terms, to insulate ourselves against cyber-attacks, but we have to do it.  Okay?”

The President was gratified that he was getting no argument on this key point.

“Oh, and also, we’re going to get back to the idea of missile defense.  I know also that a couple of years ago, the Iranians successfully launched a space satellite, with who-knows-what military potential.   I want to make sure that we are ready for a space war with them, God forbid, as well as ready for the Chinese, Russians, etc.”

The President looked down at his notes again.  He had his list memorized, but he looked down, anyway, as he wanted to be absolutely sure he said what he wanted to say.

“Okay, great.  Now to Number Four on my list.   As I said, I’m afraid that this ‘Long War’ is going to be really long.  I don’t shrink from a necessary fight, no matter how arduous, and neither should America.  But once again, we need to be smart about how we proceed, and also realistic.     With all due respect to my predecessor”—P 45 allowed himself a slight smile as he said those words—“I think the idea that we are going to ‘end’ wars in the Middle East anytime soon is wrong and wrong-headed.   It seems to me that the struggle over the Middle East is the essence of what JFK called ‘a long twilight struggle.’”

The Secretary of Defense, always a natural suck-up, finally saw a chance to say something: “Yes, Mr. President I think you’re right.   It may be a long time before we can enjoy victory, and we will keep fighting.   As Clausewitz said, we need to have more willpower than the other guys.”

The President smiled.   “Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  But I think the point here is that might truly be in a forever war, or darn close.   It’s great to cite Clausewitz, but I’m afraid that the enemy, especially our enemy on the Muslim street, might have nearly unlimited reserves of fight left in him.   And how much?”  Then came the punchline: “Only Allah knows.”

The Secretary of Defense laughed the hardest.

The 45th President was thinking of, but did not cite, the 44th President’s many statements that the wars in the Middle East were “ending.”    P 45 was no fan of P 44, but he figured that there was no point now in piling on, or deepening, the enmity.  Yes, he had been plenty critical of Obama during the campaign, and he had no regrets, but now, he knew, things were different.   He was in the White House now, and the White House is a place for statesmanship, rising above petty personalities.

The President continued:  “One of the books on General Petraeus in Iraq got the point across about the murkiness of the situation; the title, as I recall, was a saying of Petraeus: “Tell me how this ends.”

P 45 had some momentum now: “I have great respect for Petraeus as a strategist.   In that question of his, I think he correctly identified the open-ended nature of these struggles in the Middle East.  I’m afraid that the assumption in our thinking over the past 70 years, since the end of World War Two, is that all of our enemies are like Hitler—that is, an enemy that must and can be destroyed.  And then, once we get rid of Hitler, the German people will behave.   And in World War Two, we were right: After 1945, when Hitler was dead, Germany did become well-behaved.  Well, unfortunately, we have learned since then that the Nazi analogy doesn’t always hold.   In Iraq in 2003, for example, we destroyed the Saddam Hussein regime, and things got worse, not better; in that nation—and in Afghanistan and Libya—winning the war against the mad dictator was just the beginning, not the end.     Indeed, the lesson of another Muslim country, Somalia, is that it’s possible for a place to become, and remain, a Dark Ages wasteland for decades.   And that could be what’s happening in Yemen and Libya, too.”

The President realized that this NSC meeting was running long, but he was in no mood to break it off.  Lunch could wait, and so could that photo-op with the RNC donors.

The President continued: “We’ve also learned, and this pains me greatly, that when we topple regimes in the Middle East, all sorts of innocent people get hurt.  I agree, for example, with Kirsten Powers of Fox News that my predecessor has been ‘largely silent’ on the persecution and slaughter of Christians in the Middle East.  And I regret that.”

P 45 had very strong feelings on the subject of Christian persecution; the issue of helping embattled Christians had become important during the just-ended presidential campaign.  And P 45 had a theory as to why Obama had been so quiet on the issue of Christian martyrdom, but he figured that there was no productive point in raising that theory now.

But the President did feel he could bring up an historical nugget that he had gathered on the campaign trail. “You know, last year, I was briefed by Vali Nasr, the Middle East expert, who has written in particular about the Shia Muslims.   He’s a Shiite himself.   He told me all about the Sykes-Picot Agreement; indeed, he reminded me that 2016 was the centennial of that agreement, which, as you all know, divided the Middle East between the British and the French, taking it away from the Ottoman Turks after World War One.  Vali’s point was that the issue of nationalism, defined as a defense of the 20th century borders created by Sykes-Picot—like, for example, in Iraq and Syria—is a fading force in the Middle East.  Instead, what gets ‘em going over there is religion.”

The DNI was intrigued. “Sir, do you mean like the feud between the Shiites and the Sunnis?”

The President smiled, glad to be engaging his NSC team on these important matters: “Yes, the Shia-Sunni split is one, but there are others.   As I mentioned, there’s the persecution of Christians, which which began, I guess, with the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in World War One—and yes, I will use that word, ‘genocide,’ sometime soon.

“But in addition, there are other struggles.  For example, there’s the struggle between the modernizers, as we see in Egypt, and the religious reactionaries, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  And of course, let’s not forget the Arab war against Israel and the Jews—that’s another would-be religiously based genocide.”

Another question from the DNI: “So you’re saying, sir, that we have to be careful about knocking over these ant-hills in the Middle East, because we might not be able to put the countries back together?”

“Exactly, Mr. Director.  It’s hard to get sentimental over, say, Kaddafi in Libya, but it’s also hard to say that things got better after he was killed.   Ask Ambassador Stevens.”

The DNI had another question: “So are you saying, sir, that Sykes-Picot is dead?”

The President answered: “I would say that it’s dying, but that it’s not necessarily in our interest to accelerate its final demise.  The Roman Empire, after all, was in a state of decay for centuries, and yet it still hung in there.  And so in our time, the Arabs will be fighting and refighting the borders of Sykes-Picot for a long time to come, and there’s not much that we can do about it.  Indeed, it’s not always a bad thing, from our point of view, when Arabs fight each other—no point in interposing US troops to try to stop them.  I have always thought, for example, that the Reagan administration policy of helping both sides in the Iran vs. Iraq war in the 80s was a pretty smart policy.   Not all that compassionate or humanitarian, to be sure, but nonetheless, probably the best possible outcome, given what the US had to work with.”

The Secretary of Defense, always eager to please, nearly shouted, “We’re with you chief!   If they want to fight it out, we should hold their coats—on both sides!”

The President smiled.   He recognized that his new Pentagon chief was kind of an eager-to-please brown-noser, but, P 45 told himself, there are worse things.

“There’s another lesson I picked up from Vali,” the President continued.   “And that is, if we really want to get to the headwaters of the insurgency, we have to look to religion, not geography.”

“What do you mean, sir?” That was the DNI.

“I mean, in the greater Middle East, there are two countries that were pretty much founded, recently, on the principle that they would be repositories of Muslim religious virtue.   And those two countries are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both led by Sunni propagandists.”

The President kept going: He had taught more than a few classes in his time, and this would be another one.  “Saudi Arabia emerged only in the 1930s, and the Saud family has based its legitimacy on the idea that it is upholding the Muslim shrines of Mecca and Medina.   And a decade later, Pakistan emerged in the wake of the British partition of India.  The country has no historic logic whatsoever; it exists only as a place to put the Muslims of India who did not want to be part of India.   And the very name, ‘Pakistan,’ is kind of a made-up construct: It means ‘Land of the Pure’ in the Urdu language.   That is, ‘Land of the Muslims’ in Muslim propaganda.   So in other words, in the DNA of both countries is religious zeal, or, if you prefer, religious zealotry.”

The DNI spoke up: “Mr. President, this is fascinating, but I’m not quite sure where you’re going here.”

“It means, Mr. Director, that as we think about trouble from the Sunnis in the Muslim world, we should probably be looking to either Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.   We can go back to Al Qaeda.  What was it?  It was a group started by Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi.  And who were the 9-11 hijackers?  They were mostly Saudis—and Sunnis.  And now let’s look at Afghanistan: Why has it been so hard for us to win there?   Because the Taliban could be resupplied from their fellow Sunnis in Pakistan.  Hell, Bin Laden, as we know, took refuge in Pakistan, which was only too happy to have him.”

The DNI was a bit lost, but he had enough confidence to admit that he needed some help: “And so, Mr. President, your point is?”

“My point is that as the US has found itself fighting in places other than Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—in places as divergent as Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Somalia—the chances are that the real problem can be traced back to the aforementioned KSA and Pakistan.   And so if we find ourselves embroiled in some little side-conflict somewhere, we should always be thinking to ourselves, Maybe the solution to this conflict won’t be found here in this side-show.  Maybe we need to trace the conflict back to the source.

From the blank expressions on the faces around the table, the President could see that he was saying something that they hadn’t thought of; it must not have been in their official briefing books this morning.  And that was a little discouraging, even if it did explain why the US had had so little success in the region in the previous two decades.   Oh well, he thought to himself, so be it.   He had been elected to bring new thinking to Washington, and that’s what he was doing.   He wasn’t done yet.

“Now, there’s a further point to bear in mind: the new role of Iran as, if you will, the Shia Vatican.  Iran is an ancient country, unlike Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but in the last four decades, it has sort of re-founded itself as the Shia equivalent of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.   That is, the ayatollahs are now kind of the ringleaders, and the paymasters, of international Shia-dom, from Lebanon to Yemen to Argentina to wherever.  And so once again, if we find ourselves fighting the Shiites somewhere, we should be asking ourselves: Does this really trace back to Tehran?

The DNI was impressed at the President’s acuity: “So in other words,” he suggested, “everywhere in the region, or around the world, wherever there’s an eruption of either the Sunni or the Shia, we should be looking to follow the trail of money and/or ideology, back to Riyadh, or Islamabad, or Tehran.”

“Exactly.  But of course, just because we suspect that the Saudis, or the Pakistanis, or the Iranians, were behind something, doesn’t mean that we can necessarily go after them.   But at least, let’s not suffer from the sort of misdirection that has brought us so much pain over the past 15 years.”

“Yes, I see,” the DNI said. “It’s a bit like Occam’s Razor—one could say, by extension, everything else being equal, look to one of those three countries.”

The President smiled.   He felt as though he was making progress.

“Yes,” P 45 continued, “I think seeing the reality of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran in their true light is valuable.  But that’s a tool for understanding, a tool for analysis.  Now let’s talk about tools, period.  Military tools.”

The Secretary of Defense hadn’t said anything flattering in a while, and so he thought he saw his chance.   “Yes, Mr. President!  Great point!  We should talk about the need to rebuild our defenses.”

The President smiled.   “Mr. Secretary, I appreciate your enthusiasm, and I am sure that the generals and admirals do, too, but I think we need to get a little bit granular here on exactly what we need to do.”

The Defense Secretary looked crestfallen.  “Wha- wha- what do you mean, sir?”

P 45 spoke further: “As I mentioned, one of the epic conflicts going on in the Middle East right now is between the modernizers and the reactionaries.  Perhaps the textbook example right now is what’s happening in Egypt, where our friend El-Sissi is taking on the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The President could see that there was some upset in the room.   “Madame Secretary, is there something you wish to say?”

The Secretary of State, visibly bothered, spoke hurriedly.  “Yes, Mr. President, there is.  The regime of President El-Sissi is a major human-rights violator.  That government has a terrible record.  The Department recognizes that Egypt is an ally, but nevertheless, we are working—”

P 45 cut her off.  “Madame Secretary, I think we need to see the forest, not the trees.  The point here is that the generals in charge of Egypt are our allies, and we need to help them.   It will not do to have Egypt, which is arguably the most influential Arab country, in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, as it was there for a year or two.  And so if we have to choose between the generals, on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other, to me it’s not much of a choice—I’m with the government.   And that’s where I want all of us to be.”

The Secretary of State was not in a mood to back down.  She looked right at her boss: “Mr. President, there are laws, on the books, about human rights violations to be reckoned with.  And there are important Members of Congress who care deeply about human rights violations.”

“You are absolutely right, Madame Secretary.   And we need a plan for addressing those concerns.”  The President paused.  “Madame Secretary, can I count on you to help me?”

The Secretary of State looked away.  Then she said, “Sir, I’ll have to talk to my people in the Human Rights Bureau and in Congressional Relations.”

Hearing this response from his subordinate, the President took her answer to be a No.  Next, he looked over at the National Security Adviser, who nodded in response—he would develop a plan at the NSC.   The trust and communication between the two men was good, and so the briefest eye contact was enough to assure the President that the adviser would put together an action plan for the bureaucracy and the Congress.

It was reassuring to the President that the National Security Adviser could tamp things down in Washington, but that didn’t resolve matters in the Middle East.  So P 45 had to continue to make his case: “As I said, President El-Sissi is a vital asset to the US.  He is doing, dare I say, the Lord’s work in suppressing Muslim radicalism.”

The Secretary of State looked at the President with barely disguised disgust, and yet everyone else was curious as to where the boss was headed.

“So I think—and we should probably turn this into an NSC Directive—that keeping El-Sissi healthy is a paramount US objective.  I remember what a dark day it was for America when Anwar Sadat, a great friend of the US and a great friend of Israel, was assassinated back in 1981.    And I would add, of course, that King Abdullah of Jordan is another great friend; I am sure that none of us can even count the number of assassination attempts that have been made on him, and on his late father, King Hussein, another great friend of the West.”  The President added,   “It was inspiring to see Abdullah take the lead in personally fighting ISIS a couple of years ago.”

The Secretary of State was dug in, and determined to dig in deeper.  “Mr. President,” she practically hissed, “Jordan is also a serious human rights violator.”

P 45 kept his poker face.  But it was becoming clear to him by now that this relationship was not going to work out; he was going to need a new Secretary of State sooner, rather than later.   But not today.

“Madame Secretary, you represent the views of the State Department very well.”  As the President spoke, he was looking at the National Security Adviser, who nodded back, thereby affirming that he understood that the National Security Council would have to back-channel US relations with both Egypt and Jordan.

Knowing that the the National Security Adviser would handle that matter, too, the President turned his attention back to his Secretary of Defense.   He wasn’t stubborn, like the Secretary of State, but he still needed some working on: “Now, if I may, I will say to my defense chief: What’s the Pentagon’s plan for keeping El-Sissi and Abdullah alive and well?  In particular, how are we going to make sure that no killer drone gets near our friends in Cairo and Amman?”

The DOD man was clearly worried that he was losing the thread of this conversation.  “Sir, I beg your pardon?”

P 45 replied, “Mr.  Secretary, I have great respect for the men and women of our armed forces.”  The Secretary of Defense smiled a tight smile.  The man was no genius of emotional intelligence, but even so, he could tell that the President was about to throw him some more curve balls.

The President continued: “Yes, I have only the highest respect for our servicemen and women.   However, I sometimes worry that the Department of Defense, as an institution, is a little slow to see around corners, in terms of the impact of new technology and the need for new solutions.”

“Sir,” the Defense Secretary started to protest, and then he hesitated and seemingly ran out of gas.

The President carried on further:  “As I have mentioned, I think we were late to the party on drones, and that cost us our chance, maybe, to kill Bin Laden back in 2001.   And while we have plenty of drones now, I am starting to think that everybody has plenty of drones, which can now fly onto the White House and the Capitol here in DC, and who knows where they can get to in Cairo and Amman.  So here’s the big question:  Can they be weaponized against us?  Instead of our using to blow up others, can others use them to blow up us?   Can they hit us from the air in the future, as the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor?    I don’t want to find out the hard way, either for ourselves, or for our allies.”

The Defense Secretary was starting to fidget.  For all his determination to please, he had been caught behind the eight ball on drones, and he hadn’t caught up yet.

“Mr. President, when you asked about drones earlier, I e-mailed back to the Pentagon, and a briefer on our new technological efforts, which are considerable, will be here shortly.”

P 45 smiled.  “Thank you, Mr. Secretary.”  The President continued: “But I think that the issue is larger than drones.  I suspect, as we sort though our needs, and our options, that we will see a lot of the same needs as confronted General Petraeus and others in Iraq a decade ago.”

“What needs are those, sir?”  That was the DNI, who didn’t have a bureaucratic “dog” in this particular fight.

“I think we will see,” P 45 answered, “that our Defense establishment is better suited to blowing things up than protecting things.  For decades, it seems, the idea has been force projection, as opposed to asset protection.   And I’m all in favor of force projection, but I think we need to appreciate the value of asset protection, that’s all.”

The President could see that he was getting a bit too far ahead of his followers.  “Let me, please, explain.  In Iraq, for example, Petraeus  & Company saw that in order to complete the mission, additional resources, from, say, Blackwater, were needed.  Desperately.   That is, we had assets of various kinds that needed protecting.  Not just American personnel, but also Iraqi allies—sheiks and the like.   And so Blackwater and other security contractors filled that vacuum and fulfilled that mission.   The uniformed services just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do that job. ”

P 45 paused again:  “And so now, all these years later, I have to ask: Is the Pentagon any better suited to asset protection than it was a decade ago?”

The Defense Secretary squirmed.

The President continued: “It seems to me that the near-permanent reality in the Middle East is that we have a lot of people we want to protect, even as Al Qaeda and now ISIS have gotten rather good at murdering people.  And so in the past, American policymakers have had to look beyond the Defense Department for help.”

The Defense Secretary squirmed some more.   Then the door to the Sit Room opened, and a relatively young brigadier general—-in his mid 40s, the President guessed—walked in and stood at attention.  He introduced himself: “Mr. President, I’m the officer in charge of the DOD’s long-range drone programs, and the SecDef asked me to get over here on the double to answer any questions you might have.  Sir!”

The President smiled.  “Thank you, General, for making your way over to join us, and thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your fast follow-up.”

The President motioned the general to take a seat.  “So tell us, General, what do you have going in the realm of new drone technology, both offensive and defensive?”

The answer: “Mr. President, on the offensive side, we have a lot.   We have, for example, a program called LOCUST, for Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology.   We think it will cut the cost, and increase the effectiveness, of our drone efforts.”

The President smiled.   “General, thank you.   I have heard of LOCUST, and I am sure that you are moving it along.”  Then P 45 paused.  “Now tell me, please: What do you have in the way of defensive drone technology?   And by ‘defensive,’ I don’t mean surveillance, I mean actual defense.”

The general blinked.   “Sir?  I am not sure I understand the question.”  To the President, it was clear that the general did understand the question, he just didn’t have an answer.

The President smiled yet again. “Please relax, General.  This is a fact-finding mission, not a court-martial.   I am just here to find out what our capabilities are, and where we need to go next.”

The General answered, “Mr. President, I have been associated with this program for more than a decade.    I’ve briefed previous presidents and many leaders of Congress.  But I will admit: None of them have ever asked me about the possible defensive uses of drones. I am not sure that we ever saw that as part of our mission.”

The President smiled still some more.   And then his smile went away.  The Secretary of Defense gulped in anticipation—something was coming.

P 45 spoke.   “Do you all remember the massacre at Garissa University in Nairobi, Kenya, back in April 2015?”  Everyone in the room nodded vaguely, if indecisively.  The President had more to say: “As you remember, in that incident, four members of the Al Shabab terrorist gang from Somalia made their way into neighboring Kenya, stormed the university there, and killed almost 150 people.  In fact, almost all of them were Christians, who were targeted for death precisely because of their faith.  The incident affected me deeply, as I am sure it did all of you.”

The President’s eyes got a little misty.  “In fact, it was then that I believe that God spoke to me, telling me that I had to run for president, win, and do something to prevent such attacks in the future.   And so that’s what I am doing now, in obedience to His wishes.”

The Secretary of Defense spoke: “Sir, perhaps you could tell us more about what you have in mind—and what’s in your heart.”

“Yes, Mr. Secretary, and General, and all of you—I will be happy to.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s clear that religion—including the murderous passions of some Muslim extremists—is trumping nationalism and national boundaries.   So bye, bye, Sykes-Picot and every other border left over from the 20th century.  That is, terrorists motivated by lethal zealotry don’t hesitate to come to Kenya, or France, or America, in order to kill, and kill, and kill.   So we need to be ready.   I mentioned Blackwater before—they were ready.   And now I want the Pentagon itself to be ready.”

The Secretary of Defense was silent, but the Secretary of State, once again, spoke up to challenge the President.  “Sir, perhaps you don’t recall, but there was a terrible incident in Baghdad in which some Blackwater agents shot and killed many people.  It caused a huge uproar, forcing Blackwater to change its name and leave the United States; ultimately, several of the Blackwater agents were convicted of murder and sentenced to long prison terms.”

The President responded: “Thank you, Madame Secretary, for that history.   Yes, I remember that incident.”  He paused to collect his thoughts before continuing.  “And what I remember is that the Obama Department of Justice, under Attorney General Eric Holder, was thrilled beyond belief at the thought of prosecuting Blackwater and, by implication, the Bush administration.”

The Secretary of State, obviously not minding the fact that she was shortening her tenure in office with her every word, answered: “Mr. President!  The Blackwater men were convicted of murder, or, at the very least, highly negligent homicide.  I don’t think it’s fruitful for you to defend them!”

P 45 answered, “In fact, Madame Secretary, I’ve been planning to pardon the four men who were convicted, whose names, by the way, are Heard, Liberty, Slatten, and Slough.   I need to have another conversation with the Acting Attorney General, and then I will get to it.”

The Secretary of State looked stricken. “Mr. President, I never…”  Then she caught herself.   “It’s your prerogative, of course, sir, but I think you’ll get a lot of pushback.”

The President responded evenly. “Yes, I suppose I will get some pushback, but I am satisfied that the situation was a tough one.  On that dark day in Baghdad, those Blackwater men did not set out to murder anyone.  Yes, they might have over-reacted, but they aren’t murderers.   And more to the point, for reasons that I have been getting to, I want to send a clear signal: We need to think more like Blackwater, and take risks on the defense, as well as on the offense.”

Then the President turned, once again, to his Secretary of Defense.  “And so now, Mr. Secretary, I’m sure you can see where I am coming from on this.” The Secretary looked back weakly, and the President continued: “Yes, I want the Pentagon to have more defensive, protective, capabilities, like Blackwater, or whatever it’s calling itself now.”

The Defense Secretary was not a strong man, and he didn’t look forward to this assignment, which would require strength inside the Pentagon. “Mr. President, all of us at DOD are team players, of course, and we’ll all do everything we can to implement your policies, but we have statutes, and the press, and Congress, to think about here.  If we start becoming like a private security service, well, sir, we’ll draw fire from a lot of places.”

The President regarded his defense chief coolly, thinking to himself, You weakling.  You’re all ready to come in ask for a bigger budget, but when it comes to actually thinking about the actual changes that might help advance US policy, you go running for the tall grass.   But the President thought better of saying anything like that.  Instead, he said, “Mr. Secretary, thanks for that feedback.  I realize that this is going to be a long process.    And so I am going to be relying on you to help me sell this to the Congress, and to the country.” Then P 45 decided that perhaps a little humor would help defuse the tension.  “But don’t worry: I don’t want to turn the Big Red One into the Big Bad Blackwater!”

The Defense Secretary realized that he was supposed to laugh, and so he did.  And so, in sympathy, did everyone else in the Sit Room.

P 45 continued: “Once again, I am not planning on urging this change on the Pentagon as a whim.   I think that the lesson of the last decade is that we need greater protective capacity, and we need it within the DOD structure.  As I’ve mentioned, I think we need it to help protect our key allies in the region, such as El-Sissi and Abdullah.   And I think we need it to protect vulnerable populations, such as the Christians.   But my sphere of concern is by no means limited to VIPS and my co-religionists.   As we have seen over the past few years in the Middle East, ISIS is quite eager to kill anyone who gets in their way.   So my ideas about a new doctrine of protection extend, potentially, to Muslims, too.”

The President paused, looked around the room—and read the mood.  “Now perhaps some of you are thinking, Gee, the President has just made an open-ended commitment to protect everyone at risk in the Middle East.   And my answer is, ‘No, I haven’t.’ So you can relax.  I recognize that we have limited capabilities in the region, and that a lot of those limits come from the unwillingness of the American people to sustain heavy casualties in the pursuit of our objectives.   I’m not here to put my hand into the proverbial deep fryer.”  P 45 could see that some of his teammates were unclenching a bit, which was good.   As always, it was his job to keep them relaxed, so that they would be more able to bend to his wishes.    “As I have been saying all morning, I want to see us putting our thinking caps on, and thinking about new technologies to go with our new strategies.”

The Defense Secretary was still struggling.   “Mr. President, perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about what you are thinking.”

P 45 smiled: “Yes, Mr. Secretary, I’d be glad to.  After all, if we’re all on the same page, as I am sure we are, then it’s just a question of filling in the details so that we can implement our plan.”

The President paused again, taking the measure of everyone in the room.   He was forming opinions as to the caliber of the people on his national security team, but he knew that for the most part, he was stuck with them.  So he had to bring them along, helping them to share in his vision, which, admittedly, was sometimes quirky.

“Did any of you ever see the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still?  I am talking about the 1951 version, starring the British actor Michael Rennie, not the disastrous recent remake starring Keanu Reeves.”

The team in the Sit room looked back blankly at the President as he spoke.

“Okay,” the President said, “now maybe I’m more of a movie fan than a lot of you, or maybe I just like movies that feature so prominently in the songs in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The President thought he had made a funny joke at the expense of his own misspent movie-watching youth, but he realized that his audience, here in the basement of the White House, didn’t necessarily share his reference points, or his sense of humor.  Oh well.   But he still had to finish his line of argument: “In the film Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien space ship with Michael Rennie comes here to earth and lands on the Mall in Washington and tells the world to stop the violence.  And the principle enforcer for the aliens is a robot called Gort—he’s 10 feet tall and scary, with a zap-laser ray, and so no earthling wants to mess with him.   They do what the robot wants.”

More blank looks.

The President plowed ahead: “Suffice it to say that Gort is scary—he intimidates us into behaving.”

The DNI, quicker than most, started to pick up on what the President was saying: “So, Mr. President, you’re saying that we need a scary machine, an enforcer robot?”

The President smiled.  He had barely known the DNI when he hired him, but he was liking him more and more.  The man was quick.

“Yes, Mr. Director.   The bad news is that ISIS is sort of bringing the Middle East down to the level of Mad Max, the old Mel Gibson movie, and that’s bad.  But in a way, it’s good news, because the characters of Mad Max were low-tech.  Driving around in jeeps, as they were in the film—and as they do now in the Middle East—they are rather vulnerable to anyone with a real high-tech military.”

The Secretary of Defense thought he saw a good chance to jump back into the conversation in an ingratiating way.  “Yes, sir!   If we can spot ISIS from the air, we can take them out from the air—with drones, as well as other kinds of air power.”

The President leaned back.  “Yes and no, Mr. Secretary.  Yes, they are vulnerable from the air, and that’s good.   But no, in the sense that we can’t be too promiscuous about firing drones at every cluster of bad guys that we see—for the simple reason that, at least as things stand now, we are likely to hit and kill some innocent people.”

The Defense Secretary’s face fell.   But P 45 couldn’t worry about that, he had a point to make:  “I think true superiority in the Middle East will mean more than just superiority—it will mean, too, precision targeting.   And when I say ‘precision,’ I really mean precision.  Remember a couple of years ago, that incident where we fired a drone at the bad guys in Pakistan and killed a couple of innocent hostages?   That is, we expected four bodies after the strike, and we found six—because there had been two hostages with the bad guys that we hadn’t known about.   At the time, some in Washington were even saying that we needed a “hostage czar.”  Well, that would have been a terrible idea, just another layer of bureaucracy.  Instead, the real need was, and is, for super-accurate targeting.   And by that I mean two kinds of accuracy.   First, ultra-maneuverable drones, that, as I mentioned, can be targeted to individuals.  You know, drones that fly up right at the target, do one last verification check, and then ka-pow!   And second, better data, indeed —we need to bring in the data-driven wisdom of those great cops, Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton, but applied, this time, to the Middle East.  That is, we need know each bad guy, down to the moment we have to pull the trigger and say ‘goodbye.’  I want it to be so that the likes of Jihad John, and all the other ISIS head-cutter-offers, don’t feel safe as they walk around.   We should have a program so that the US drones, or nano-drones, are able to interdict these awful ISIS propaganda videos.  Surely we’ve got the technological capability to stop ISIS killing from being filmed like that.”

Once again, the President was on a roll: “And who knows: If we start to thinking like this, maybe we’ll discover that the most effective weapon isn’t a flying drone, but something that can walk around, like Gort, the robot from Day the Earth Stood Still!”

The DNI got the point: “Yes!  Maybe this American-made Gort could stalk around the Middle East like Godzilla—that would scare the shit out of them!”

Yes, P 45 thought to himself, That would put the fear of God into them.  He was about to say that, but then he stopped: Best not to throw religion around more than he already had in this meeting.

“Yes, Mr. Director.  I think we need a plan for more finely granulated targeting, stipulating that sometimes, a drone strike—that is, a kinetic impact—might not be what we want at all.  Gort, like Godzilla, had a laser capacity, a death ray.  Maybe we need that for rescue situations, where we can’t just fire in a rocket.”

“Yes,” the DNI said, “I see.   We would need to be very precise.”

The President continued:  “And while such technology may have seemed far-fetched in 1951, when the movie came out, I don’t think it does now.”

The General, the one in charge of drone technology at the Pentagon, had been wanting to say something for a while, and he finally felt emboldened enough to speak up: “Yes, sir!   Sir, as the famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke liked to say, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The President liked the sound of that.  “Yes, General, exactly.   Thank you.  Now as we discuss Gort and Godzilla and the like, we’re not talking about taking on a high-tech peer, like China, or even Russia, or maybe even Iran.  We’re talking about low-tech foes such as ISIS, and whatever other gang of low-tech thugs we might have to confront in the future.”

P  45 continued: “During the campaign last year, ordinary citizens would come up to me and say that they would be happily willing to go to the Middle East to protect, in particular, the Christian populations.   I thought that that was really sweet, and I admired them and their Christian selflessness.   But, frankly, such folks are too precious to waste having them pull guard-duty in Iraq or Syria or Kenya or some place.  That’s when it hit me: We need a high-tech way to accomplish this mission, one that doesn’t put more Americans at risk.”

The President felt that he was getting through, but he had one last point to make: “And just as I have emphasized defensive uses for drones,  I would also like to emphasize humanitarian uses for this sort of technology.    For example, rescuing ships at sea in the Mediterranean.  We can’t let giant boatloads of African refugees make a landfall in, say, Italy, but we also can’t let the refugees drown, either.  So we need some sort of rescue technology—giant nets, or something—that doesn’t put Americans at undue risk, even as it gets the job done.” The President scanned the room.  “Now, can we put our thinking caps on and get that figured out?” He paused. “I think we can.”

Okay, so now to Number Five, putting the US on a path to true military superiority.   And I think that conversation needs to take place in the context of our discussion of China and Russia.  And that, of course, will be a long conversation.  So perhaps we should take a coffee and restroom break for 15 minutes.”

To be continued.