With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

VIPS to Trump: Intel on Iran Could be CATASTROPHIC.

William Polk to VIPS: Revamp your appeal.

Dear Friends,

As you know I am not a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).  I was never in the intelligence business.  So perhaps you will regard my comments on your memorandum (attached) to the President as impertinent.  But I hope you will not think them uncalled for.  Your memorandum deals with issues that are highly dangerous and are apt to affect us all.  I want what you want and only am concerned that your case, which is also my case, is made in the most effective possible way.  So here are my comments:

1)      I found your memo more addressed to a general public than to Mr. Trump.  If that was your intent, fine.  If you wanted to reach and hopefully to enlighten him, I thought it faulty.

2)      Let me explain:  from having written innumerable notes to the president in years  past, I think that to succeed you must begin by identifying what will appeal to him rather than anger him.  That is, what will motivate him to do what you want him to do.  I don’t think your memorandum does this.

3)      You are right to emphasize your credentials:  he must be convinced that you know what you are talking about.  As a group, you have served every president as trusted advisers and in return for sound advice, honesty and loyalty have received every award. In total your group  has served at the highest levels of government a total of xxx  years.  Enough said.  If one belabors this in detail, is (in my experience) almost certain to lose the  audience.  

4)      And, using an “I told you/them/your fellow partisans so” argument or statement is apt to be self-defeating or in that terrible but useful neologism “counter-productive.”  It runs the danger of identifying yourselves not as independent experts but as his enemies.

5)      Telling him what he already knows and daily tweets does not advance your cause:  of course “Iran [is] Now in Gunsight.”  He put it there.  And, “As drums beat again for a military attack,” he is doing or at least approving the beating of the drums.

6)      That "Iran’s current support for international terrorism is far short of what it was decades ago…” is not apt to make him change course.  It might encourage him to hit harder because the Iranians could be thought to be growing weaker.

7)      That some people in the CIA told him one thing and you are now telling him another is apt to make him sure of only one person, himself.  I saw Kennedy have this reaction.  At best, he will put you on a par with those he has shown he does not trust.

8)      If your message is complex, he will not get it.  So you must hone your message to what really counts.  In a memorandum, that is rarely more than one thing.   For me, it is to avoid military action.  That is, to avoid another Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya/Somalia. 

9)      To the degree you can, you should find what can be said to compliment him.  My experience was mainly with JFK and LBJ.  Your memorandum (if read at all) would turn them off.  So, what can you honestly compliment him for?   In my view, it is very simple:  while everyone around him was moving (and pushing) toward war, he did something reckless but brave,  not well planned but stunning, with no chance of accomplishing what he said was his objective but which may have been supremely important in the one thing that really counting, at least pausing in the march toward a devastating war.  I think, without violating the principles you and i share, you could have said something like this: 

“Mr. President:  many people have criticized you for your opening to Presidents Kim and Putin.  We do not agree with them.  It is always worthwhile to listen to other people.  Doing so you may have saved us from a terrible war.  Offering to meet with President Rouhani is a bold, praiseworthy and intelligent move.  For America to slide or for you to be pushed into an unending war could bankrupt our economy, kill tens of thousands of young Americans and undercut our position in the world.  So,what you did  was a brave and good act for which you deserve praise.  It is also a foundation on which you can build.  We believe it will rightly draw praise from the whole world.”   

That is, emphasize the positive.  Do not surrender on points with which you do not agree (obviously, there are many) but keep your eye on the ball.  You will not change him or perhaps even get his attention if you scatter your shots. 

10)   What I advise you to consider as you go forward is to rigorously judge every word by whether or not it contributes to the accomplishment of your (and my) most important objective.  For me, at least, that is, first, to prevent war and, following up,  to move toward peace.  Just to “score points”  against him in public may be satisfying, but it leads  nowhere we want to go.

Trita Parsi, who rightly may be considered "Mr. Iran-America" sent me and many others a negative view of Trump’s “offer” to meet Rouhani.  He rightly pointed out that the offer to Rouhani (like the openings to Kim and Putin) had no substance, may not have been sincere, flew in the face of all he has been saying and was not the position of his (presumed) advisers.  Here was my reply:     

I have a different view:  the overwhelming danger is war.  There are, as you know, probably better than I, that a lot of people are pushing for it.  The military-industrial-congressional complex is full of them: the military get promotions and medals, the industries make money and congressmen can both beat the patriotic drum in their home districts and pocket “contributions.”  

War would virtually destroy Iran as it destroyed Iraq and has “homogenized” Afghanistan; it would also nearly destroy America — i predict it could last (in guerrilla engagements) a generation and cost, perhaps, four and five times as much as Afghanistan and Iraq, or about $20-25 trillion.  What it would do to the American “mindset” would be far worse than the money.

Of course, Mr. Trump is not going to reach any understanding with Rouhani as he did not reach any deal with Kim or Putin.  There was and is no way this is likely to happen.  That notion was not thinking but day dreaming. 

But, just easing our foot off the gasoline pedal is worth nearly everything.  If he has personal ambitions (a Nobel peace prize?), great!  Much more deserved than some in the past.  And, more important, it would be a small price to pay to slow down the rush to war. 

Would China be next?  Probably.  And that too would be wonderful.

These are not  solutions, but in my experience in strategic planning, time is or can be a great asset.  Then, as tempers cool, it might even be possible to think.   That won’t happen automatically, but if we — you, your group, I and a few other people — keep hammering away with alternative ideas, we might prevail. If we do not prevail, at least the madmen also might not.

Of course, all the domestic issues remain and are shameful and dangerous.  Those are the ones, in my opinion, on which those of us who care should concentrate.     I don’t expect much there, but without a modicum of peace abroad, we will make no dent in the armor of Mr. Trump’s supporters.

In my youth, I was told that it was easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar.  As a historian, I nearly always go back to folk wisdom.  As a policy planner, I always do.

In conclusion, we must read Mr. Trump.  He makes this fairly easy.  But we must not get hung up on the side show; however, we must evaluate its role with him.  He wants applause. That is not unusual among politicians.   Since we cannot get rid of him for another two or, as I believe, six years, we should seek to use his desires to our best ability to accomplish the essential goals.  And, in my judgment, the first of these is to avoid war.  That is so horrible a prospect that we cannot allow personal repugnance or distaste for him personally to shape our actions; we must shape them to accomplish our goals.

Very sincerely yours,