'Trump And His Generals' Author: The President Is Now Surrounded By 'Yes Men'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Earlier in the Trump administration, there were three generals in key national security positions - Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense; John Kelly, who directed Homeland Security and then became White House chief of staff; and H.R. McMaster, who became national security adviser, replacing General Michael Flynn, who was forced out after lying about a phone call with the Russian ambassador. But eventually, Trump was at war with the generals he'd once embraced, and they left the administration.
How the generals tried to prevent Trump from acting impulsively, how their relationships with the president soured, why they left and how their absence has affected national security are subjects of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." My guest is the author, Peter Bergen. He's a national security analyst for CNN and vice president of the think tank New America, where he co-directs the Center for the Future of War.
Peter Bergen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the Washington Post report about the trove of documents it obtained that reveal a secret history of the war in Afghanistan. The Post article says this shows that U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence that the war had become unwinnable. First of all, what was your reaction to reading this secret history?
PETER BERGEN: Well, just general lack of surprise. I mean, I've been visiting Afghanistan for three decades, and so I have a sense of what it's been like. And what the Washington Post report doesn't mention is - you know, the fact is that half the population now can work, and half the population can now be educated. Under the Taliban, you know, the economy was destroyed. The - I traveled there while the Taliban were in power. Government ministries didn't have computers. There was no plan to govern the country. And lots - yes, lots of things haven't gone as well as they could have. But I think that what you have to also balance out is that Afghanistan is now a country with a democratically elected government and, you know, some kind of hope of a sustainable future, even though many things have gone wrong.
And I was just there last week, and it - the security situation now is certainly a lot worse than it was a decade ago. You have to drive around in an armored car if you're a Westerner. It's hard to sort of go out in the street. There used to be restaurants. There used to be places you could go and eat if you're, you know, in Kabul. And that's all gone.
GROSS: Well, you know, the Post opening paragraph says that these rosy pronouncements about the war in Afghanistan hide - hid the fact that the war was unwinnable. And then I guess one of the questions I have is, what is winnable?
BERGEN: Well, that is the question. I mean, I think we're using the wrong verb here. Winning the war in Afghanistan is not the right verb to use because what does that even mean? Managing the conflict so that it doesn't spill over into neighboring countries and eventually come up in - you know, when you have a terrorist attack in the West or, indeed, in the United States - that's really what we're doing.
And I think the president, to some degree, has conflated two different very different things. One is the idea of endless wars. Certainly, this has been a long war. But the other one is persistent presence. And in one of these very contentious meetings that happened at the White House about what to do in Afghanistan, General Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs - i.e., the most important military officer in the government - said, really, what we're doing in Afghanistan is buying a form of life insurance so that we're not attacked again from this country. If we pull out completely, you know, the place will revert into a deeper civil war. Into that will come al-Qaida and ISIS, which, after all, already have a presence there from which they can relaunch, you know, attacks on the West. And that was the argument that ultimately persuaded President Trump to commit to a longer term commitment in Afghanistan to send in a small surge of troops.
Now, President Trump himself has been consistently inconsistent about Afghanistan and many other national security issues. There's a kind of mordant joke that, you know, we've had 18 different wars in Afghanistan. Every year, you know, it's kind of a new strategy. There's new people there. There's a new ambassador. So it's not like we've had a consistent strategy in place. We've changed the strategy numerous times, which, I think, leads back to this Washington Post piece.
GROSS: One of the plans that was presented to the Trump administration was presented by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the private security company that became very controversial. Prince wanted to outsource Afghanistan to private contractors through his company that would be on long-term assignments overseen by America, and these would be retired special ops soldiers. How seriously was this plan taken?
BERGEN: Well, I think it was taken pretty seriously, at least at the White House. You know, Steve Bannon, who was then the chief strategist for the president, was a skeptic of the Afghan war, and he saw this plan as a way out of the war. He invited Erik Prince to come to the White House. Prince came. He spoke to Steve Bannon. He also spoke to H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser at the time. H.R. McMaster, who was a serving Army lieutenant general, basically said, you know, this plan makes no sense. And that was really the view of the Pentagon, which is, we're not going to have contractors running around Afghanistan, you know, killing people just - I mean, including - they wouldn't just be American contractors. They would be from other Western countries.
And, of course, the Afghan government didn't - wasn't enthused by this plan either. And how do you kind of - you know, with the military, you have a uniform code of military justice as a way of kind of dealing with war crimes and the like. With contractors, they're much - would be much harder to deal with. And they would have - the plan would have been to put them under the CIA and to make it a kind of covert operation. But the CIA also, it turned out, didn't really want to be part of this. You know, they've got enough problems already to, you know, suddenly be responsible for the Afghan war.
So the idea was taken seriously at the White House for a while, but then it kind of, you know, basically evaporated over time. And when it came down to it, you know, the president chose not for the CIA to run the war and not to withdraw but basically to surge in 4,000 new troops and also to make a long-term public commitment to Afghanistan, which, I think, was important messaging.
GROSS: What's the status of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban?
BERGEN: Well, that is a great question. I mean, right now, as you recall, September 7, President Trump tweeted, you know, we were going to meet at Camp David with the Taliban and the Afghan government. Basically, I've canceled this because there'd been an attack that killed an American soldier. So that - and then he said the negotiations were dead. Now, Zalmay Khalilzad, who's the main U.S. negotiator with the Taliban, arrived in Kabul last week, and basically, he's trying to resume these negotiations. But I'm really not holding my breath because the big problem that we had - the United States had was that these negotiations were not conducted with the Afghan government, which was one of the Taliban's sort of principal - they wanted to just deal with the United States.
But at the end of the day, the United States is not going to be in Afghanistan forever, and the Afghan government certainly will be. So at the end of the day, it has to be an agreement that works for the Afghan government as much as for the Taliban. And I think that maybe if there is a new iteration of this, hopefully it will be more of a tripartite discussion between United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN and author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." Why did you want to write a book about Trump and the generals he brought into his administration?
BERGEN: I thought, here is the first president in American history who never served in the military and never served in public office, so in our almost 250 years, he's a quite unusual president. And what will he make of this situation? And then he would - and then he recruited, I mean, some very interesting and impressive, I think, people - Jim Mattis as secretary of defense, a four-star Marine General; John Kelly, his Department of Homeland Security and then chief of staff, another four-star Marine General; H.R. McMaster, a Ph.D., a three-star serving Army general. You know, these are impressive men. And the question was, you know, why did they want to work for Trump? Was part of - was one question I had going in. And the answer to that I think, you know - in different ways, they felt that Obama hadn't really succeeded in the Middle East. You know, they were, I think, universally opposed to the precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 that kind of created a vacuum into which ISIS implanted itself. They weren't happy about the fact that on Afghanistan, Obama's surged troops in, but at the same time as announcing the surge, announced a withdrawal date on December 1, 2009, when he announced this new policy at West Point. They were not happy about the unenforced redline that Obama had in Syria when Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people.
And of course, from Trump's point of view, he needed people who understood how the levers of national security power actually work because the people around him, other than Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, who was the first national security adviser, other than Flynn, there was really nobody had ever had any kind of involvement in these wars, knew anything really about national security in any meaningful way. And so he needed to recruit these military officers who knew how to make the system work.
GROSS: Once these generals were in the administration and got to know Trump, it seemed that one of their goals was to prevent Trump from doing damage and from doing anything impulsive.
BERGEN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, was a source of a lot of frustration in the White House because he constantly slow-rolled, as they say, any kind of military options. I mean, Trump was often asking for military options on North Korea. One of the scenes in the book is Vice President Pence and the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, wanted to do a war game in Camp David in the fall of 2017 about presenting options to President Trump about what could be done there. And Jim Mattis just simply didn't send any war planners from the Pentagon to this exercise, so the exercise didn't happen. Without the war planners, you can't do this kind of thing.
Similarly, on Iran, you know, Trump would say, what are my military options? McMaster, the national security adviser, would ask, what are the military options, to the secretary of defense? And he just wouldn't do anything (laugher). So, you know, there was a real frustration in the White House.
But I think Mattis' view of the president was somewhat misplaced because if you actually look at what Trump - Trump has proven to be pretty reluctant to use military power, and he's much more like Obama than people usually kind of think is the case. Both Obama and Trump saw themselves as being elected to end America's endless wars. And Trump was very reluctant to send troops into Afghanistan, extra troops. He wanted to pull out of Syria as soon as ISIS was largely defeated. He almost had a military operation on Iran, which he called back. He's tried to be pretty careful with King Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, not to kind of amp things up that might end up in a war.
So I think Mattis' view of Trump as some sort of a impulsive guy - certainly he's impulsive; but the question is, would he be impulsive with the use of force? And I think so far - and we're three years into this now - Trump has proven to be somebody who isn't eager to send forces into harm's way and is - has been reluctant to use American military power, which I think is a good thing and makes him - this is actually where President Obama was. No more big conventional wars, use of special forces against terrorists, use of drones, use of cyberwarfare - that's what we're seeing in both the Obama administration and in the Trump administration.
GROSS: One difference, one of the many differences, is that Trump uses very bombastic, inflammatory language, for instance, with President Kim in North Korea. And then at the last minute, he pulled back from the brink and tried to become bros with his opponent. But, like, you never know what's going to happen. It's...
BERGEN: I think you've hit on the - another point which I try and make in the book, which is Trump is sort of consistently inconsistent. He talked about fire and fury with North Korea. Then the next thing you know, a year later, he's talking about his love for Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator. He - you know, with Iran, he had this maximum pressure campaign. Then he said, look - I'll meet with no preconditions. Then he had a military operation called off at the last minute. With Syria, he's, you know, pulled troops out. Then he said - then he's reversed himself. Then he re-reversed himself and said he'd pull the troops out again. And then, in fact, there's probably roughly the same number of troops now that there were when he first started talking about pulling these troops out.
So, you know, I think this is confusing both to our enemies and to our allies. And for diplomacy to work, you have to have a fairly consistent position. What might work in a Manhattan real estate deal, where you're posturing back and forth, I don't think works in a world where you have people with, you know, large armies. And, you know, the factors are so much more complicated.
But, you know, to his defense, Trump hasn't made any major unforced errors. And he didn't order an invasion of a Middle Eastern country under circumstances which turn out to be false, which is George W. Bush. I don't think he's had any major foreign policy triumphs. I think that he has - on China, I think he's kind of got to a good place on that. You can disagree with the tactics on the trade, but the point is that identifying China as a major strategic competitor, as Jim Mattis did in his defense strategy, as H.R. McMaster did in his national security strategy, that's a change because previously we thought that, you know, if China liberalizes and kind of becomes more capitalistic, somehow they'll change, when in fact, the - actually, the opposite has happened; they've actually become more repressive as they become more economically successful.
So I think when historians write the history of this, they'll say that Trump kind of got China mostly right. What they - I'm sure they'll also say where Trump failed totally was on climate change, which, after all, is a national security issue. The Pentagon has treated it as a national security issue for years in terms of where are the conflicts of the future, how will that change. You know, you can have a conflict in the Artic now in a way that you couldn't have had several - you know, even a decade ago in terms of the way that the Arctic is changing. So it's a mixed bag.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN and author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN and author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos."
Let's get back to North Korea. You tell a story in your book of a national security briefing that Trump had in the Oval Office in which he was shown highly classified images of North Korea's nuclear facilities and nuclear sites, and he was shown images of that region at night. Tell us that story.
BERGEN: So mid-April of 2017, the National Geospatial Agency, which is obscure but a very important agency in the U.S. government, did a presentation for Trump at - this is right in that kind of time period when there was a lot of bellicosity from Trump towards North Korea. They showed him the images of these, you know, facilities, highly classified. They also showed him a famous picture of North Korea at night, surrounded by China and South Korea. Now, this satellite image shows, you know, China is awash in pinpricks of light, and in South Korea, again, it's also pinpricks of like. And in North Korea, there's very little light except on Pyongyang, which is the North Korean capital. And it's a very graphic image that shows how the North Korean economy simply doesn't exist to a large degree.
And Trump started looking at the picture. At first, he was slightly confused by it, and he thought North Korea might be the ocean. Then he began to focus, and he said to the officials in the White House Oval Office, why is Seoul, the South Korean capital, so close to North Korea? Those people need to move. Because Trump had been told that millions of people could die in the event of a war between North Korea and South Korea because Seoul, the South Korean capital, is so close to North Korea, which has a large conventional force. And then again, he said - he explained that the South Koreans who live in Seoul, the capital, needed to move.
Now, that's 10 million people in the city of Seoul, 25 million people in the Seoul metropolitan area. And, of course, the people, the officials in the Oval Office didn't really know what to say. Is he seriously suggesting that a population the size of Sweden should move out of the capital? But I think, you know, this is Trump sort of being Trump. He says - he doesn't - it's not like - these things come into his head, and they clearly make no sense. I think the people in the Oval Office just listened to him and didn't say anything and then moved on to the next subject.
GROSS: So North Korea just announced that it had conducted a, quote, "very important" test at a missile engine site. And North Korea has given the U.S. the deadline of December 31 to ease sanctions on North Korea. What do you make of this missile engine test - if that's what it was, yeah?
BERGEN: Well, Kim - yeah. I mean, Kim Jong Un wants to do one thing, which is to get the sanctions off and grow his economy. And that's - you know, and the Trump-Kim Jong Un sort of bromance, you know, hasn't really produced anything for either side. The sanctions continue to be in place, and the North Koreans continue to test ballistic missiles - short-range ballistic missiles. They continue their nuclear weapons production. And so although the kind of mood music around this relationship has dramatically improved, nothing really substantive has happened.
And Trump is really back at the place where every American president for - going back decades is, which is the North Koreans continue with their program, the program gets better over time, the North Koreans say that they're going to give Trump some kind of Christmas gift - which is obviously either a big missile test or some kind of nuclear weapons test, as a way to kind of put pressure back on Trump to actually come to the table and do a deal. But right now - you know, they met in Hanoi. They met on the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. And really, substantively, nothing much has changed.
Part of it is because both sides have different views about what this word denuclearization means. For the United States, it means they get rid of their nuclear weapons; for the North Koreans, it means the United States withdraws from the South Korean Peninsula, takes nuclear weapons out of the region. And that's two very different meanings for the same word. So I - you know, I don't think much is going to really change, you know, in the time we have left in the Trump administration on this issue. Probably, Trump will get more sucked into impeachment, more sucked into trying to, you know, run for reelection. And it's pretty clear that both sides don't really agree on the basic facts of what each side is discussing.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Bergen, a CNN national security analyst and author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." After a break, we'll talk about how Trump's military advisers opposed the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Trump's antagonism toward NATO and how Trump has replaced his war cabinet with people Peter Bergen describes as yes men. I'm Terry GROSS, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Peter Bergen, author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." The focus is on three generals who were in Trump's Cabinet - Jim Mattis, secretary of defense; H.R. McMaster, national security adviser; and John Kelly, director of Homeland Security who became White House chief of staff. In spite of Trump's initial romance with the idea of having generals on his team, they were each forced out or resigned out of principle.
Peter Bergen is a national security analyst for CNN, co-director of the Center on the Future of War at the think tank New America and the author of five previous books on national security.
Let's talk about Iran. The generals and Rex Tillerson, when he was secretary of state, tried to stop Trump from scrapping the Iran nuclear deal. They failed.
GROSS: Why did they fail? Like, who - was it Trump himself who overruled them? Or was it Trump and Bannon?
BERGEN: I think it was Trump - you know, the day - I think it was May 18, 2018, that we - that the United States pulled out of the deal. That was a week after John Bolton, the major Iran hawk, had become national security adviser. But I think it'd been a long time coming. I mean, the most reliable guide to what Trump does is what he said during - on the campaign trail, and he said this was the worst deal in history.
Now, people like Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, felt that the Iran deal was worth preserving, maybe kind of getting a codicil to the deal where it's - Iran would have less latitude to test ballistic missiles and bringing the Europeans onboard to do that. And Jim Mattis, in particular, didn't want to pull out of the deal because the deal had also been done with the English, the French, the Germans and others. And you know, the - these were our allies, and our word meant something. And we couldn't just unilaterally pull out of this deal.
And you know, the reason that Trump, I think, pulled out - it was very frustrating for Trump because the Republican-controlled Congress, assuming that Hillary Clinton was going to be president, had passed a measure which is the White House had to constantly - every three months - recertify that Iran wasn't actually breaking the deal and enriching uranium to a - that might be weaponizable.
And so every three months, you know, the - Trump would have to sign off on this thing. And I think he was frustrated that he had to - kept certifying that they weren't enriching uranium in a way that was weaponizable. And I think eventually he just kind of - you know, he just didn't like having to kind of keep going with this deal that he constantly said was the worst deal in American history.
But the interesting thing, of course, was the inspectors in Vienna who were looking at the Iran nuclear program repeatedly certify that the Iran nuclear deal was working. So now we're in the situation where Iran is now modestly increasing its uranium enrichment. Tensions between the United States and Iran are higher. American sanctions are certainly taking their toll in Iran. We've had these very widespread protests in which thousands of people have been killed by the Iranian security forces. And we can only hope that, you know, there isn't some kind of renewed conflict as the tensions in the region grow.
GROSS: How close have we come to war with Iran? And I ask that in part because after Iranian forces shot down an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone, several days later, Trump tweeted that he had stopped a U.S. airstrike against Iran 10 minutes before it was supposed to launch and that he called it off because he thought it was an inappropriate response to an attack on an unmanned drone, whereas our attack risked killing about 150 people if it had proceeded. So like, 10 minutes - that's a really small window.
BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, 10 minutes might be, you know, kind of an exaggeration. But I mean, I talked to an American official for the book, and he said, you know, the planes were leaving. That's the title of the chapter in the book about this episode. So I mean, I - you know, it was a close-run thing. And of course, it would have been - a war with Iran is going to be a different matter than a war with Iraq. I mean, it's a much bigger country with a much larger army, with proxy forces across the Middle East and Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. So good that he did stop.
But I mean - you know, I think he's - in that sense, he's getting more comfortable in his judgments - in his military judgments. I think - who could do anything other than say that was a good thing? Because I don't think the United States or Iran or countries in the region want a major shooting war between the United States and Iran - it would be a pretty ugly thing.
GROSS: You write that General Mattis, when he was secretary of defense, tried to insulate the Pentagon from Trump's politics. How are the politics threatening to interfere in the Pentagon?
BERGEN: Well, I think Jim Mattis saw his role as kind of running interference with a president who is, after all, mercurial and, in many ways, inexperienced. And so he would - you know, General Mick Nicholson, who was running the Afghan war - four-star general, which, after all, was a very important national security matter for Trump, you know, never met with Trump. You know, contrast that with, say, George W. Bush, who was on weekly phone calls with General Petraeus when he was running the Iraq War.
So Mattis, I think, tried to insulate the Pentagon from dealing with the White House - basically excluded other generals from coming to these meetings. Even General Dunford, who's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs - i.e., the most important military officer in the military, the most senior - didn't go to the White House as much as he did under Obama.
So I think this all goes to Jim Mattis' view that Trump was an unguided missile, that he needed to defend the Pentagon from Trump and any kind of mercurial, impulsive decision that he might make and that he, as the secretary of defense, that was his role - somebody also with a lot of experience, having run Central Command, which is the command in Florida, which essentially runs all the wars in the greater Middle East. So he just - he kept the rest of the Pentagon at arm's length from the Trump White House.
GROSS: How close did Trump come to taking us out of NATO?
BERGEN: You know, I think that's a hard one to answer. I mean, certainly he's talked about it and threatened it. And he - there's a great scene in the book where Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, comes to Washington for the first time, and Trump has produced an invoice to her, which is what he - he basically - his view is, look; the Germans should be paying more into NATO. And so he came up with a $600 billion figure that Germany owed, you know, to NATO. Merkel's response was - this is not how the system works. I mean, it's not like Germany owed the United States money. There was just a collective agreement that everybody would pay up to 2% of their GDP on defense spending. But that is not, like - that money wasn't owed to anybody. It was just a collective agreement that by 2024, every NATO country would be spending 2% of its own GDP on its own defense. Trump was treating her like a landlord who - and she was, like, late on her rent and presented her this invoice, which she, of course, rejected because that's not how NATO actually works.
But for Trump, you know, NATO is not an alliance where thousands of NATO troops have died on our behalf in Afghanistan fighting against the Taliban and al-Qaida; NATO is instead somehow, you know, bilking us for money.
GROSS: If Generals Mattis, McMaster and Kelly provided restraints for some of Trump's impulses and held him back from impulsive moves against other countries, like Iran and North Korea, now that those generals are gone, who is - if anyone - providing those restraints?
BERGEN: I think that it's a very different cast of characters. I mean, Trump is now running his Cabinet like he ran his real estate company, which is it's a bunch of yes men supporting a one-man show. And you know, Mark Esper, the defense secretary, is a perfectly competent guy, but he's no Jim Mattis. Robert O'Brien, who's a lawyer with some government experience, is the national security adviser; he's certainly no H.R. McMaster. The head of the Department of Homeland Security is a very minor official, relatively speaking, compared to John Kelly, who ran Southern Command as a four-star Marine general. And the list goes on. I mean, CIA Director Gina Haspel is sort of a CIA lifer who's kind of keeping her head down. I don't think there's anybody who's sort of pushing back. Certainly, H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis and John Kelly all pushed back on matters of substance with Trump, which is one of the reasons they're gone.
Now the Trump - you know, President Trump has his prerogative to have the war Cabinet that he wants. But I think it's a different group of people. And John Kelly has publicly said that he talked to Trump and said, look - you don't need a yes man in the chief of staff job. If you get a yes man, you'll end up being impeached. Well, that is what is happening as we - as this program airs - right? - which is that he is being impeached. You know, could history have been different? I don't know. John Bolton, who was the national security adviser on July 25, when this call with Ukraine happened, advised against it. So there were certainly people in the Cabinet. John Bolton also now is gone as national security adviser. So I think there are less constraints. But at the end of the day, President Trump gets the advisers he wants. And if he chooses to have a war Cabinet that is basically, more or less, kind of just going to go along with what he wants. That's certainly his prerogative. Is it wise? - is another matter.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN and author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Bergen. He's the author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." He's also a national security analyst for CNN.
So a couple of things about Mike Pence that you mentioned in the book that I'm curious about - you write that the only foreign policy issue he cared about was the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and that he started one of the national security meetings by asking Dan Coats, who was then the director of national intelligence, to start the meeting with a prayer. So I'm wondering, first of all, with Dan Coats, was that atypical to start a national security meeting with a prayer?
BERGEN: No, the officials who were in this national security meeting in the Situation at the White House had never had the experience of starting a meeting with a prayer that was led by Dan Coats, then the director of national intelligence and a close colleague and friend of Vice President Pence - both from Indiana, both conservative Republicans. So this was something of a first for the officials in the Situation Room to start the meeting with a prayer.
Vice President Pence didn't really have an interest in national security issues except the issue of Christians being persecuted in the Middle East. He did intervene in a kind of meaningful way towards the end of the very contentious debates about what to do in Afghanistan. National security adviser H.R. McMaster asked Vice President Pence to chair a meeting so that the consensus might emerge about what to do. And so, to his credit, that's what he did. And a consensus did begin to emerge, which was that we would make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan - have a small surge of troops. But generally speaking, Pence has not been a big player in these National Security Council meetings.
GROSS: You've been writing about terrorism since before 9/11. You interviewed bin Laden before 9/11. What do you think is the state of ISIS now? The American military killed ISIS' leader, al-Baghdadi. But there's so many freelancers out there. And you know, there's the recent knife attack on the London Bridge that was attributed to somebody who identified with ISIS. As we record this, we don't yet know for sure what the status is of the member of the Saudi military who killed three Americans on the military base in Pensacola.
BERGEN: Well, killing ideas is harder than killing people. And you know, we - yes, President Trump authorized the operation in October that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. President Obama authorized the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, who was the author of the 9/11 attacks. So - but you know, the ideology hasn't gone away. I do think both President Obama and President Trump deserve credit for essentially expunging the ISIS geographical caliphate that was the size of Portugal with a population of a country like Bulgaria that existed in Syria and Iraq. That began under President Obama. President Trump kind of amped up the anti-ISIS campaign, and both deserve credit for getting rid of the geographical caliphate.
Yes, we're going to continue to see these one-off people who are inspired by ISIS ideology, but we're not seeing, like, the attack in Paris that killed 150 - 130 people in 2015 that was trained for in Syria by ISIS. You know, there's a very big difference between radicalizing in your bedroom and sort of trying to get an automatic weapon - a semi-automatic weapon in this country and going to Syria, getting training, meeting like-minded people, organizing a big attack.
So certainly, the ISIS capacity to do large-scale attacks has gone down dramatically. But, you know, the ideology is still out there, and people will continue to be radicalized by these ideas, whether it's ISIS or some other son of ISIS or grandson of ISIS or al-Qaida itself, because if you look at the Pensacola attack, it seems that the attacker was flirting with some al-Qaida-like ideas about the need to basically get rid of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which of - which has long been one of bin Laden's main kind of talking points.
GROSS: Has any of the information that emerged during the impeachment inquiry clarify for you any of the questions that you've raised in your book or - and vice versa? Have the things you've reported on in your book - do you think that they help clarify information that's emerged in the impeachment inquiry?
BERGEN: Well, I think on the impeachment inquiry, I mean, it - you know, here is a president who came into office who got his political start pushing a conspiracy theory - the conspiracy theory that President Obama not only was not an American, and therefore didn't deserve to be president, but was also secretly a Muslim. To me, it's interesting that his presidency is going to be derailed or is being derailed by another conspiracy theory that he subscribes to, which is that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 presidential election rather than Russia. And so, you know, this is a guy who, you know, engages in conspiracy-mongering, and sometimes, it's to his advantage, as it was when he basically painted President Obama as not a legitimate American president. And sometimes, it blows up in his face, and clearly, this has blown up in his face. And other presidents haven't engaged in this kind of conspiracy-mongering in the same way.
So in a sense, you know, there's kind of a full circle here where the presidency was partly created. He ran on - what brought him to political attention in the United States was his claim that President Obama wasn't really an American citizen. What may, you know, irretrievably damage his presidency is the claim that Ukraine, rather than Russia, intervened in the 2016 presidential election.
GROSS: The subtitle of your book is "The Cost Of Chaos." Why did you give it that subtitle?
BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, look. These guys all came in, and they were essential to the first year or...
GROSS: The generals.
BERGEN: ...A year - the generals - the first year or two of this administration. I think it's got more chaotic. If you look at - in 2017, you know, there was a process that H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, ran that produced some pretty good outcomes. The Trump administration responded to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian dictator Assad. The Trump administration came up with a reasonable policy on Afghanistan about giving it a long-term commitment. The Trump administration did a pretty good job of defeating ISIS in 2017.
But now in 2019, you look at the Israeli peace agreement that Jared Kushner has been running. That's been, basically, a total failure. You look at North Korea. North Korea continues to produce nuclear weapons, continues to test its ballistic missiles. You know, you look at Syria. Our policy has changed back and forth repeatedly on - because of Trump's sort of mercurial nature. And I think that there are fewer successes. Look at the negotiations with the Chinese. I mean, it's not really clear where that thing is, and uncertainty between the two largest economies in the world is not good for the economy. So I do believe that over time, what was a very competent war cabinet kind of was helpful to Trump, and as time has gone on, he's got rid of these - the most competent people you had in his circle who - people who were prepared to disagree with him. And he's largely surrounded by yes men, and that is probably not a good thing if you're running, you know, the world's largest economy and the world's largest military.
GROSS: Peter Bergen, thank you so much for talking with us.
BERGEN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst and author of the new book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." This is FRESH AIR.
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