The trio of generals who have so far joined Donald Trump’s national security team—Mike Flynn as national security adviser, James Mattis as secretary of defense, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security—along with Representative Mike Pompeo as director of the CIA, have unnerved official Washington and leaders around the world. From North Korea to the South China Sea, from the Mexican border to Syria, they’re a cohort likely both to facilitate and to encourage Trump’s instinct for confrontation and bellicosity, and their out-of-the-mainstream approach, even extremism, in military and intelligence affairs is unprecedented in recent US history.
And it’s likely that the first target of Trump’s generals and the CIA will be Iran. “Ingredients are falling, tragically, into place for a possible war with Iran,” wrote Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst who retired in 2005 as chief of the National Intelligence Council’s Near East section, in The National Interest.
Just as the administration of George W. Bush came into office fixated on Iraq—which was the subject of the very first meeting of W.’s National Security Council on January 21, 2001—the Trump administration is likely to direct its fire against Iran. At the very least, its animosity toward Iran could lead to an escalating military confrontation and an aggressive push for regime change, while at worst it could trigger a shooting war between the two countries that could dwarf the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in both scope and intensity.
Earlier this year Flynn wrote a book-length blueprint for war with Iran, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, co-authored by über-hawk Michael Ledeen. Mattis, who’s nursed a decades-long animus against Iran and who was fired by President Obama as leader of the US Central Command for urging the deployment of a third aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf as part of a military buildup against Iran, has repeatedly declared that the three greatest threats to the United States are “Iran, Iran, and Iran.” And Kelly, who will help oversee the US-Mexican border, took an alarmist view about Iran’s alleged meddling in Central and South America when he led the US Southern Command.
All three, at one time or another, have sought to portray both Iran and political Islam as existential threats to the United States on par with the twentieth-century struggles against Nazism and Communism. “I don’t know why they hate us, and I frankly don’t care, but they do hate us and are driven irrationally to our destruction,” said Kelly. And Flynn has described Islam as a “failed civilization,” suggesting a mindset akin to the long-discredited thesis promoted by Samuel Huntington in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), will have Trump’s ear constantly and will sit in on virtually every White House meeting on defense and foreign affairs. He is by far the most extreme of Trump’s first round of appointments. He was even described by colleagues at the DIA as a “Captain Queeg–like character.”