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U.S. Iran Tensions May Be Coming To A Head; Is The White House Prepared?


Brett McGurk served as the Trump administration's envoy to the international coalition fighting ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He quit that job late last year to protest the president's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Mr. McGurk has also served in the Obama and Bush administrations. Now in the midst of impeachment proceedings says he has reason to worry about the Trump administration's preparedness to meet any potential sudden crisis in Iran or other pressure points.

BRETT MCGURK: The assumption underlying the Iran policy is that by putting maximum pressure on Iran, that that will ultimately bring Iran back to the negotiating table so we can get a new and improved nuclear deal. The counterassumption was that, actually, that approach might lead to even worse and more provocative behavior. And in my recent travels to the Middle East region, I heard this from a number of folks - that there's a real lack of confidence that President Trump has a coherent approach and would be able to respond in a calculated way to any further provocations.

SIMON: Why the lack of confidence? I mean, I'm just going to quote Heritage Foundation's James Carafano. He told Politico he finds U.S. position in the Middle East better than it was three years ago.

MCGURK: Well, I think that, you know, the policy is to change Iran's behavior for the better. And if anything, across the board, you see it getting worse. A state-on-state attack against Saudi Arabia - that's almost unprecedented. There was no response from the United States. Attacks against shipping in the Gulf. And because you don't have a real coherent decision-making or policymaking process in Washington, what winds up happening is that friction points arise, and the president is then surprised.

So for example, when Iran shot down an American drone, President Trump, according to his own words, was within 10 minutes of a massive - fairly significant, in his own words - strike against Iran. That's because the president is not directly engaged in these policies as they work through the system, and so he then tends to have to react to the crisis points. And the risks of a crisis both in the Middle East and in Asia over the next six months, I think, are increasing.

SIMON: But what about the argument the president and some of his supporters often make that, actually, he has been addressing a variety of foreign situations with his own distinct personal touch? He's met with the head of North Korea. He has a better relationship, he believes, with President Putin than the previous administration.

MCGURK: So I think the - you look at what's the objective? The objective in North Korea is to restrain and ultimately denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. That's the objective. What's happened in that policy is that North Korea has significantly increased its nuclear activities since those talks have been going on. So I think the objective is not being met.

Look; if you back up here, any national security process, it's not just the president. You have to have diplomats who are empowered to speak for the government, empowered to speak for the president. And right now, you just don't have that from day to day. So that's how you tend to get these wild swings and lurches.

You know, Harry Truman said that what he learned about the presidency is it's like riding a tiger. You either keep riding or you're swallowed. And I think the metaphorical tiger here is Trump himself, and the national security team - our diplomats, our senior advisers - are basically worrying what he's going to do from one day to the next.

SIMON: Mr. McGurk, do you believe impeachment plays a role in diverting the president's attention, the attention of the foreign policy - of responsible foreign policy officers?

MCGURK: I don't particularly subscribe to that. I think what impeachment has shown is this - the inability for diplomats to speak in a reliable and authoritative way as the representatives of the United States of America. So that just kind of weakens the currency of the United States around the world. It makes it far more difficult for us to manage problems before they become crises. And I think that's how we could find ourselves in a unanticipated crisis.

SIMON: Brett McGurk now teaches at Stanford with a focus on presidential decision-making and is also a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

MCGURK: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.