SecDef contradicts Trump on targeting Iranian cultural sites: We’ll follow the laws of armed conflict


An especially weird reminder that the president should be taken seriously, not literally, and usually not all that seriously. Even according to his own advisors.

How did we end up in a situation where the U.S. secretary of defense is being asked if he’d commit war crimes? The problem started Saturday on Twitter, as most American political problems tend to do these days:

Mike Pompeo was asked about that last tweet during his TV interviews on Sunday morning. Are you really going to target Iranian cultural sites like Persepolis? No, no, no, Pompeo insisted. Trump didn’t really mean he’d bomb cultural sites. A few hours later, the president clarified that of course he meant every word: “They’re allowed to kill our people, they’re allowed to torture and maim our people, they’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people – and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

Now here’s Esper having to clarify that, no, really, despite what Trump might want, we won’t target Iranian cultural sites.

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It’s a “seriously, not literally” moment in that I don’t think he really cares about hitting Iranian ruins and monuments, certainly not enough to insist upon it once Pompeo and Esper make a fuss and his lawyers start giving him the usual “no, we can’t do that sir, it’s illegal” talk. It’s not the cultural sites per se that he’s interested in, it’s wanting to communicate to Iran that he’s willing to hit them so hard if they retaliate for Soleimani’s killing that he’ll cross red lines to do it. It’s a scare tactic. Partially.

But Trump has also always instinctively believed that problems, particularly in matters of war, could be solved much more easily with a little more “toughness,” a little more intimidation, a little more cruelty if necessary. This goes all the way back to the campaign trail, when he said that he’d target the families of terrorists. He supported waterboarding at the time too, although James Mattis appeared to have talked him out of trying to bring that back. (That’s another “seriously, not literally” moment, as I’m unaware of any meaningful attempt by Trump to reinstate that policy as president.) Two months ago he sprung a soldier from Leavenworth who’d been convicted of second-degree murder for ordering his troops to shoot at unarmed men riding on a motorcycle in Afghanistan. The idea that we need to be much, much harsher with people who cause problems for us shows up in other contexts too.

Privately, the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh. After publicly suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later in a meeting, aides recalled, he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down. That’s not allowed either, they told him.

He makes no secret of admiring displays of ruthlessness by foreign regimes either. Tiananmen Square was “vicious” and “horrible,” he said in an interview in the early 1990s, but it restored order. “That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak,” he added. The most revealing thing I’ve ever heard him say about getting tough with the enemy, though, was when he talked about waterboarding terrorists as a candidate in 2015 and started riffing on whether it actually works to produce reliable intelligence or not. Hey, he concluded — even if it doesn’t work, they deserved it anyway. That’s the Trumpist worldview in a nutshell. Your enemies in any given situation are heinous people who can only be deterred by behaving as badly as they do, but even if they end up not being deterred, it’s worth being harsh with them anyway because it feels good to give them what they deserve. It’s feelgood ruthlessness with deterrence as the fig leaf.

Same with targeting Iran’s cultural sites. Maybe the threat will deter them and maybe it won’t, but given all the misery that regime has visited upon the world, wouldn’t it feel good to lay waste to some Persian ruin and watch Iranians weep over the loss of their cultural treasure? There’s no logical strategic reason to do something like, as with targeting a munitions factory. It’s simply a way to convey to the population that you hold them and their culture in contempt and would be content with seeing all traces of them wiped away. (It’s no coincidence that the Taliban favors this tactic.) It would naturally wound the average Iranian’s pride and galvanize them to fight on, which is especially stupid in this case given that U.S. officials (including Trump) usually take care to distinguish their respect for the Iranian people from their disgust at the governing regime. “Nothing rallies people like the deliberate destruction of beloved cultural sites. Whether ISIS’s destruction of religious monuments or the burning of the Leuven Library in WWI, history shows targeting locations giving civilization meaning is not only immoral but self-defeating,” said a senior U.S. official to CNN, criticizing Trump’s proposal, and he’s right. It would be self-sabotaging, prolonging a war and ensuring bitter feelings afterward that would make rapprochement with Iran harder. And it would task the U.S. military, a force that prides itself on behaving honorably and lawfully, with gratuitous cruelty.

But it would feel good, so of course Trump likes the idea.

Here’s Pete Hegseth, a key influence on Trump in pardoning accused war criminals, insisting that he doesn’t care about bombing Iranian cultural sites because they’d happily do the same to American cultural sites. That’s true, a barbarian like Soleimani would. Whether most Iranians would is a separate question, especially after months of mass protests against the regime last year. Hitler would have gassed every last Jew but you won’t find many Jews eager to gas every last German in response. You can be better than your enemy and still win.

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