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U.S. Doesn't Want To Go To War With Iran, Retired Admiral McRaven Says


How can the United States manage its confrontation with Iran? The answer to that life-or-death question may depend in part on something that sounds dull, the process by which President Trump's administration makes decisions. Retired Navy Admiral William McRaven has experience with that process. He served in the White House after 9/11. He later commanded forces that killed Osama bin Laden. We spoke with Admiral McRaven yesterday as Iran said it would go out of compliance with part of a nuclear deal and the U.S. ordered 1,000 extra troops to the region. It matters now how the president is brought options and information.

WILLIAM MCRAVEN: The process is important because the process brings in people, like great foreign service officers, great intelligence officers, great law enforcement officers, that build the options for the president to make the right decision. If you don't have a process and you just leave it up to the president or the national security adviser, you're probably not going to always get the best outcome.

INSKEEP: And the president is not a process guy. I think even his fans would admit that.

MCRAVEN: And the president is not a process guy. So again, this presents problems in how you're going to solve wickedly difficult national security issues.

INSKEEP: McRaven has been critical of the president, but what if he was still part of the process? This veteran says he would warn against miscalculations by saying the United States has endured violent times in the Persian Gulf region in the past. In the 1980s, the U.S. confronted Iran's navy and even shot down an Iranian airliner by mistake. The U.S. also moved to protect oil tankers from Iran. But the two sides avoided a full-blown war.

MCRAVEN: The first thing I would show the president is that we have been dealing with Iran for decades. Many, many decades. And the tanker wars of the '80s are things that we could go back to the president, say, Mr. President, here's the history of our dealings with Iran. The president doesn't want to go to war in Iran. There is no doubt about it. He does not want to go to war in Iran. The Iranians certainly don't want to go to war with us. That would not end well with them.

So a lot of this is, you know, on the margins, a little bit of cold-warm war actions that allow the Iranians to kind of stand up to us in a little bit of a surreptitious way. We know how to deal with that. What we don't want to do is overreact to that. Obviously, we're hoping that nobody gets killed, that - I mean, the last thing you want is loss of life. But there are a lot of opportunities, military options, diplomatic options, economic options that would and should be laid on the table for the president to give him some flexibility on how he wants to deal with Iran.

INSKEEP: Would your bottom line be that full-on invasion of Iran would just be impractical?

MCRAVEN: Absolutely. Everything about it is two, three, four times more challenging than anything we did in Iraq. That would be a horrible idea, and I have no doubt that that is not, not being contemplated by anybody in the military.

INSKEEP: This must be a difficult situation to be in in the United States military. You know that you're very powerful. You know that you could destroy a lot of Iranians if you were so ordered. But instead, you stand there in harm's way.

MCRAVEN: Yeah. It is always difficult. But I will tell you, having - I've sailed through the Straits of Hormuz a number of times. I've spent time out with a fleet commander. The Navy - which of course, is where we're seeing most this action, is in the Persian Gulf - the Navy knows how to deal with these situations. They know that the Iranians will come with fast-attack boats every once in a while and kind of challenge the destroyers, the cruisers, the aircraft carriers. They know where the missile engagement zones are in Iran. They'll be keeping an eye on them. Again, the Iranians and the Americans have done this before. We in the military know how to moderate our response to provide a proportional response, and we'd be prepared to do that.


INSKEEP: Retired Admiral William McRaven. That's part of an interview about his new memoir, which we will hear in the coming days. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.