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Team of Rookies

The Iran clash finds a president who has never dealt with a national security crisis before, surrounded by officials who also have little crisis experience.
January 8, 2020
Team of Rookies
The seal of the White House Situation Room. (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty)

Last night, Iran retaliated against the killing of its general by firing ballistic missiles against U.S. bases in Iraq, plunging the Trump administration into its first serious national security crisis. Just about every president faces such crises, sometimes early in their terms, sometimes (like the present case) late in their terms. What is extremely unusual—and extremely worrisome—is that, for most of the Trump administration’s senior officials, this is the first national security crisis of their careers.

President Trump didn’t hire the “A Team,” or even the “B Team,” of experienced Republican former national security officials. He skipped past them because most of them had, during the 2016 campaign, signed public letters and statements denouncing him. So the Trump administration began with the C Team. And as time passed and the members of the C Team resigned or were fired, the administration moved on to D and E.

So we have an administration whose top national security officials lack experience in national security crises:

  • The president himself had never held a government position before coming into office.
  • The vice president is a former governor and congressman. He was on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, although never as the committee chairman or ranking member. Membership on that committee does little to prepare you for sitting in the Situation Room as a crisis unfolds.
  • Robert O’Brien, John Bolton’s replacement as national security advisor, held only low-level positions in the Bush administration, positions that did not directly deal with any issues involving larger strategic outlooks.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a former Army Captain, an operational level rank, and three-term congressman. Again, no prior Sit Room experience.
  • Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s highest-ranking position before the Trump administration was as a deputy assistant secretary of defense—that’s a position below the secretary, the deputy secretary, the undersecretary, the deputy undersecretary, and the assistant secretary.
  • Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy has the most crisis-management experience among the Trump officials, since he was a close aide to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates during the Iraq surge. He is also a former Army Ranger and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
  • Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett is a former non-Foreign Service Officer ambassador. By way of disclaimer, I’ll note that I know her personally, and I think the world of her and her family. But she has no experience in national security crisis management.
  • There is no secretary of the Navy since the last one was fired.
  • The new deputy secretary of state, who just came on the job three weeks ago, does have relevant experience: He was a top National Security Council staffer during the George W. Bush administration. The deputy secretary of defense, though, is a former CFO of the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Brian Hook, the special representative for Iran at the State Department, is a well-reputed and capable man, but he has no background about anything related to Iran.

It’s not the most confidence-inspiring roster in the midst of a developing crisis!

Meanwhile, two of the most serious students of Iranian history and politics on the conservative side, Michael Rubin and Ray Takeyh, remain on the Trump administration’s enemies list for having criticized Trump in 2016.

It is not uncommon for presidents and some of their senior staff to have little crisis management experience. Hillary Clinton, for instance, was a junior senator when she was nominated to be the secretary of state. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had never held any jobs that dealt with national security.

What is unprecedented, at least in postwar history, is to have a senior staff almost entirely made up of individuals with no national security crisis management experience.

The Obama administration retained Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as a holdover from the Bush administration; his résumé before becoming secretary was second to none. Obama’s last secretary of defense was Ash Carter, who had witnessed international crises in the Clinton and Obama administrations as deputy secretary, undersecretary, and assistant secretary of defense. Obama’s national security advisors included a former Marine commandant, a former assistant secretary of state during the Yugoslav wars from the Clinton administration, and another former assistant secretary of state, Susan Rice, who had attended National Security Council meetings during Obama’s first term as ambassador to the United Nations and was an assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the first Congo war in the 1990s.

George W. Bush came into office as a former governor. But his vice president, Dick Cheney, had been secretary of defense during the Persian Gulf War. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had been the point person for the Soviet Union at the National Security Council and in charge of handling the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most important world event since Hitler invaded Poland. Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, was a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Donald Rumsfeld was the oldest person to serve as secretary of defense, but he once had been the youngest person in that job, back during the Ford administration. When the members of this initial Bush team left, their replacements were other established figures who had gotten further experience during the earlier years of the administration.

President Bill Clinton’s secretaries of state were Warren Christopher, who had been Jimmy Carter’s deputy secretary of state, and Madeleine Albright, who was experienced and well-respected. Clinton’s secretaries of defense were Les Aspin, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; William J. Perry, a former undersecretary of defense who had served in Carter and Reagan administrations; and William Cohen, who sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee for 18 years and was the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee.

George H.W. Bush came into office as perhaps the most experienced president in history when it came to national security. He was a former vice president, CIA director, envoy to China, ambassador to the United Nations, and congressman (not to mention naval aviator). His first secretary of state, James Baker, had served as White House chief of staff and secretary of the treasury in the Reagan administration. Bush’s secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, was the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee in the House, and before that had been a top West Wing staffer during the Ford years. Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, was a retired three-star general who was receiving the same job he had once held, and who also used to be Henry Kissinger’s deputy.

While Reagan himself came into office with no Sit Room experience, he had the aforementioned George H.W. Bush as his vice president. His secretaries of state were Al Haig, a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Henry Kissinger’s deputy at the National Security Council, and White House chief of staff; and George Shultz, who was receiving a cabinet-level position for the fourth time, an all-time record. Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, had management experience inside the government at a variety of posts, including cabinet secretary, during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

All the individuals mentioned above were known by the national security community before they took office. Nearly all of them had been vigorously involved in the debates surrounding national security, for years or even decades. They had earned some degree of trust. Their words and actions carried weight.

That is not the case today. Most of Trump’s senior advisers have not been in their jobs for even one full year; only Pompeo, Pence, and Hook have survived for longer than one year. And until January 2017, or even later, nobody had heard of Trump’s senior advisers, except for Pence, who was known as a state governor and former congressman. Mike Pompeo had been a backbencher in the House. Esper was in the military industry. It seems that nobody still knows O’Brien’s full résumé. And the president himself was a reality-TV character.

Experience is not everything, but it is very important. Knowledge and good instincts can get you only so far. National security crises also demand strategic insight, levelheadedness, and an ability to make prudential decisions about when to act quickly and when to hold back. These are skills acquired with experience.

Experience is no guarantee of wisdom, of course. Many of the experienced leaders listed above held wrong views. Many of them made mistakes during crises. Some of them had little crisis-management experience. But when crises hit, they were sitting in a room with colleagues who did have that kind of experience.

Not so for their successors in the Trump administration. There is a striking lack of experience among the senior leadership. We can only hope that, as the Iran crisis unfolds, they can rise to the occasion.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.