In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Trump Administration and Iran

“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.

But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

– John Adams, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy (July 4, 1821)


For the Clinton administration, it was Slobodan Milosevic and the post-Cold War reordering of the world. For the Bush administration, it was Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. And for the Obama administration, it has been Daesh – the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Despite President Adams’ words, we do commonly go abroad to destroy monsters. What – or who – will be the monster for the incoming Trump administration?

For the moment, Daesh has been taking a beating at the hands of the Coalition and regional adversaries. With its main claim to fame being the territory it held now eroding under constant pressure, its days as a major threat to the Middle East are numbered. Its two largest population centers – Mosul and Raqqa – are under direct attack. Barring a major catastrophe, these cities will fall, their territory will be erased, and Daesh will resort to the familiar tactics of terror strikes to try to project power.

So what’s next?

The Department of Defense under Secretary Ash Carter has defined Russia as the most dangerous near-peer adversary to the United States, which – combined with its efforts to destabilize NATO and its aggression in Ukraine and Syria – makes it number one on the “uh oh” list. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, also views Russia as a dangerous entity. In its turn, Russia takes a dim view of U.S. activities and has placed the U.S. on its list of potential adversaries in its latest national security strategy.

However, that’s not how retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn – Trump’s pick to be his national security adviser – sees it. Flynn is an advocate for a better relationship with Moscow and has appeared several times on Kremlin-backed state television, Russia Today. Flynn sees the main enemy to the United States in worldwide Islamic terrorism – backed, as he sees it, by Iran. For Flynn, Iran would be that monster to destroy.

And if he needed an ally to convince the President-elect in his efforts, he may have one in Trump’s selection to head the Department of Defense: retired General James Mattis. A long time hardliner on U.S. relations with Iran, as recently as April Mattis called Iran, “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”


So does that mean that it’s time to dust off the invasion plans for Tehran? Not exactly. Flynn and Mattis both saw how difficult a task nation-toppling and re-building was in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Daesh, Syria, and Iraq are sure to keep the Department of Defense busy for at least the first year of the new administration.

After that?

It’s anyone’s guess.

Only, can we not call it “Operation Iranian Freedom?” We’ve already had an OIF, and if we’ve learned anything from that, its that acronyms are confusing. Actually, if that’s the only thing we’ve learned, we might be in trouble.


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