General Jack Keane, Rtd. General, former Vice Chief of Staff of the US Army addressing the panel on “Policy review on Iran” in Paris on June 30, 2017, moderated by Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield, distinguished fellow and Chairman Emeritus at the Stimson Center, former Assistant Secretary of State for Military Affairs.
General Keane’s remarks follow:
I chair the Institute for the Study of War, it’s a think tank in Washington D.C., and we pay very close attention every single day to what is happening where conflict is in the Middle East and also to what Russia is doing. To talk about Iran, I think for me I’m a national security strategist, that’s what I do, so I look at things in the context of the contours of change that have taken place in the world. And there’s a number of them out there. Just to mention a couple we start with the Middle East.
We know that the Middle East is a fractured region. It has a number of failed states now, five. It’s the breeding ground for radical Islam. ISIS, the fastest growing terrorist organization in the history of mankind. Grew from several hundred fighters in 2012, by 2014, thirty thousand. Most of those were foreign fighters, they were not Iraqis which gave birth to the initial group. They spread to 30 countries. We’re tracking every single year terrorist deaths and the terrorist death count is now close to 30,000 on an annual basis. That’s five times greater than what it was ten years ago.
In the Middle East also, Iran is seeking to dominate the region, as we all know, impose their will and influence on Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. At the same time they’re supporting insurgencies in just about every Sunni Arab state that is in the region. And the backdrop for what is happening in the Middle East is another contour of change that’s taken place in the world. And while we began what’s called the post-Cold War period in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, lasted for about 25 years. In those 25 years we saw the United States as a primacy country, because the world’s only superpower. We had significant economic and military superiority during that period. And despite the rise of terrorism, despite humanitarian crisis, and Milosevic fighting four wars and losing all four of them in Europe, there was really no major threat to the international liberated order as we know it in the world. Today that has fundamentally changed. Russia and China are making assaults on the liberated international order as we know it. We are back in the world of great power competition. And you can only understand what is happening in Iran and the Middle East, you have to understand that struggle because it is going to be a larger struggle and it is going to impact the world as it has in the past. So the post-Cold War period that began in 1991 is over. That’s the reality of it. During this period of time American and European political will and moral courage and exercising leadership was significantly eroded, which gave encouragement for the rise of Russia and China to begin to impose their will at least internationally and eventually globally. Russia is attempting to become the most influential country in the Middle East, a status that the United States exclusively held. That’s from outside the region. China wants to dominate Asia and the Pacific and it has reversed the regional order to its favor. Not only that, they’re seeking to be on a par with the United States in terms of global domination and eventually they believe they will be the preeminent country in the world as they combine their very robust economy, eventually number one economy, with their preeminent development of military power. History lesson that they have learned from who? United States.
So those are the contours of change and things that are happening to us that impact how we think about Iran. The United States, which I can talk to a little bit more clarity about, I’ll leave the European situation to Europeans, but the United States has gone through an identity crisis in the last number of years. Identity crisis over are we an exceptional country or not? We had guilt feelings about past policy failures disproportionately to what we normally have. Countries make mistakes just like Europeans do. You usually learn from them and move on. But we had trouble with that. So much so that those feelings about America and people began to have some doubts about it ushered in a political outsider who is espousing national populism, and the only one truly doing it in the campaign among republicans and certainly a Democrat, advocating a major change. And as a result of that the main components of that campaign was to make America great again, as you well know, and America first. That resonated with an American population to a degree that we have a new president who is a complete outsider with no internal political experience or foreign policy experience, which is not unusual for American presidents. Most of them come to that office without much foreign policy experience.
Let me just say a couple things about this administration as I was offered to being a part of it and for personal reasons I could not, so I’ve had discussions with this president, one lengthy and one not so lengthy, and then a number of discussions with his national security team. Let me just say this about him, in discussing national security and foreign policy he recognizes that this is an area where he doesn’t know much about. So he is a very good listener, has excellent questions about it and has a thirst to learn and grow in an area where he has no knowledge. Certainly his strength as an American leader is one is in leadership and two is dealing with the economy and what needs to be done there. But secondly, and I think it says something about him is that he selected a very strong national security team around him. Many of us who have been observing this for years apolitically, and I’m speaking apolitically here—I provided advice to Clinton for ten years as a national security advisor, although I totally disagree with her politics. That can be attributed. And I provided advice to four or five Republican candidates who were running in this last time on national security, so I try to be apolitical when I make these comments. But this national security team is it’s excellent. They have experience, they have knowledge, and they have some confidence about themselves and doing it. So give them some credit for that. There is no national security or foreign policy strategy from this administration yet. I don’t think there’s a Trump doctrine. And they are developing national security strategy, they’re writing it as I speak. But what has happened in the first five or six months of the administration, I told this to the president, I said listen, no matter what domestic agenda you have that’s going to be sidelined to a certain degree because the world comes to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Its problems come to your doorstep. And it happened to every single president from World War II on to the present. And it takes you off some of your agenda. And that began almost immediately. So here, I think what has evolved, if you watch the policy and you watch the actions that are taking place, this is my personal view of what is happening, is that President Trump is returning American leadership to the world stage as a global leader seeking stability, security and prosperity. It is a traditional and historical role that every single president we have had since World War II advocated, whether they be Democratic or Republican, except for one. And that happened to be our last president. The second thing that is happening, he has sent his government officials, and he’s done it himself, to reassure our allies that the United States is going to exercise a leadership role. We will partner with you and if we’re in an alliance with you will stand by that alliance and if we’re not in an alliance with you can count on us as a strategic partner. In other words, in American words, we’ve got your back. He sent Mattis to the Far East on the third day that Mattis was in office, to reassure South Korea and Japanese that we are going to change the policy dealing with North Korea. We will reject the policy of strategic patience of the previous administration and we are willing to confront the North Koreans and we are willing to put pressure on the Chinese. He sent his emissaries, Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and the Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly, to Europe to do much the same thing. Tillerson and Mattis have been here on multiple occasions now with the same issue. We’re in NATO, we’re not leaving NATO, we want you to pay your fair share, we’ve got your back, we understand Russia is confronting us in this region here and we are going to deal with it despite all the political hype in the United States about Russia and the administration, all the rest of this. Judge them by what they are doing and what they are saying and what actions they are doing. And then finally, he chooses—much to my surprise—he chooses the Middle East as his first place to visit. It is an historic visit. In a room larger than this he had 55 leaders in that room. And he made a couple of significant points to them. He said, number one, we’re going to stand together against the threats in this region. The number one strategic threat in the region is Iran who is imposing their will on this region, and we will stand together and we will stand against that threat. We will counter that threat. Now that is a reversal 100% of a policy of accommodation and appeasement of Iran by his predecessor. That’s a total rejection of that policy.
Second thing he said, the second threat here is radical Islam, he used Islamic extremism as the word, you know what I’m talking about here regardless of what words we’re using. And he said we need to do a number of things here. One, you need to drive it out of your mosque, drive it out of your education centers, drive it out of places where they gather. That’s number one. Number two, you need to stop having your citizens finance these radical Islamists. You know that is going on. Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, ISIS. People in the Middle East financing that. And we know what countries these people come from. And number three, and I was surprised and elated that he said this, he says, listen, at the end of the day this is a religious and political ideology that’s being fought inside the religion of Islam. He said we in the United States cannot undermine that ideology. Only you can do that. Only you can offer an alternative to these young people who are attracted to this radicalization because they want to live a life of purpose and meaning. You have to do that. But we will stand behind you. And when force is necessary to be used and we will help you with that if you need that kind of help. I think that kind of encouragement from the president made a historic statement about his commitment to the Middle East in terms of stability and security.
And then as a case comes to Iran, within 30 days in office the Iranians fire a ballistic missile. Trump doesn’t say, well, you shouldn’t have done that and let’s have our foreign secretaries get together. He began to confront them immediately and sanctions them and calls them out not just for the ballistic missile testing, which is in violation of UN resolutions, he calls them out for the thing that has troubled us the most since 1980 and that is their regional strategic objectives to dominate and control the entire region. And he says those ambitions we are going to confront you. And that is something the previous administration was never willing to do. They put on the table initially that issue of strategic domination using proxies and fighters to control the region. Iranians say we won’t come to the table if that’s on—we’re only going to talk about nuclear weapons. And of course our guys said, okay, and went to the table without it. That is the central issue. All right? So here’s what I—this is what I know. What I don’t know is I don’t know where the administration is on the nuclear deal. There’s been pressure on them certainly during the campaign to walk away from it. But I do know this, they recognize, because we’ve had discussions that they’re in a deal with others and you can’t just act unilaterally. You’re in there with other countries. You can act unilaterally, but what do you actually accomplish by acting unilaterally other than you feel good about it? You want to impose some behavior change. So they recognize that. They have another option that they could still bring it to the Senate and try to get the treaty ratified. The Senate as it’s composed right now would reject it. So that’s another option. So I don’t think they have determined what they’re going to do about the nuclear deal other than let it continue, hold Iran’s feet to the fire. I do know as a strategy they wanted to deter Iran and they want to confront them and they want to change their behavior, similar to what they intend to do with Russia and with North Korea and China. And all of those require intensive, integrated, comprehensive strategies to do that. But what I don’t know is what we’ve discussed here already, is if they would make a strategic move to undermine the regime to the point that it would be overthrown. I don’t know if that is a strategy or not. And they’re five months, six months in to an administration. So they’re formulating strategies dealing with all of these complicated issues that I tried to give you the context of which we’re trying to deal with Iran, and I’ll just end on that. Thank you.