November 14, 2016
This is Part 1 of a two-part interview.

As the next president of the United States, Donald Trump should reassure both Arab Gulf partners and Israel of a US commitment to address the threat posed by Iran, said retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, a former director of the CIA who serves on the Atlantic Council’s board of directors.

“There is going to have to be work [done] together as there is a determination of what should be announced with respect to Iran,” Petraeus said in an interview. “How should we, together with our Gulf state and Israeli partners and allies, come to grips with the malign Iranian activity in the region? What should be done to counter that?”

Petraeus said Trump and Congress could formulate a “statement of national policy that Iran will never be allowed to enrich uranium to weapons grade.”

“Ostensibly, since Iran has said that they do not want or seek nuclear weapons, that shouldn’t be a big deal,” he said, “but then also make sure that we maintain the capability, should the need arise, to do what is necessary from a military perspective with the forces allocated to US Central Command.”

Petraeus is a former commander of US Central Command.

Iran and the P5+1 countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany—last year struck a deal that limits Iran’s enrichment program for fifteen years. Restrictions on research and development will be eased in about ten years. However, some restrictions will remain in place for up to twenty-five years.


In January, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran was in compliance with the terms of the deal.

The deal created some unease in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal a “historic mistake.” Arab Gulf states, on the other hand, eventually came around in support of the agreement after intense lobbying by the Obama administration.

While Iran is abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal, it continues to pose a challenge through its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as a spotty human rights record, evidenced when an Iranian court on October 18 sentenced two Iranian-Americans—Baquer Namazi and his son Siamak—to ten years in prison for “cooperating with Iran’s enemies.”

On the campaign trail, Trump—a Republican and New York billionaire who was elected president on November 8—called the nuclear deal a disaster and said his number one priority as president would be to renegotiate its terms.

That may be easier said than done as the other signatories to the deal have shown no intention of backing away from it. In fact, European Union foreign ministers on November 14 reiterated their support for the full implementation of the deal.

Besides his opposition to the Iran deal, Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the “worst trade deal ever.” NAFTA lowers trade restrictions between the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

“The president-elect is going to have to chart and then follow as president a narrow path that restores the credibility of American leadership with friends and foes alike, which will require decisiveness and resolve, but also, paradoxically, caution and restraint,” said Petraeus. 

Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: What would you tell President-elect Trump his top priorities should be as he enters office?

Petraeus: What I’d seek to do is highlight the need to pursue initiatives to rebuild the political center, both for domestic and international policies. He comes in as a political outsider. The Republican Party will control both houses in Congress and the White House. There is a really unique opportunity, I think, for him to forge new coalitions between Congress and the White House so that you can enable…deal making—he is famous as a dealmaker. Well, let’s see some deals done on Capitol Hill where partisanship and gridlock have been the key features rather than willingness of individuals to compromise and to give a little to get a lot for our country. That’s what the emphasis should be in very broad terms, and then applying that obviously in a number of specific cases with respect to domestic and international policies.

Q: On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly said that he wants to rebuild the military. Which are the areas of the military that require attention?

Petraeus: I’d start by actually working with Congress and trying to end the threat of sequestration for the Department of Defense budget, and arguably for the other departments that are also important for our security at home and abroad. So it would be for the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and others.

The single biggest challenge that faces our military is the prospect that midway through a year, once again because of a failure to achieve budget caps, that there would be tens of billions of dollars’ worth of cuts taken within specific areas. That would be priority number one.

Priority number two is just pass the darn budget. Get a defense budget so that the military services and the Pentagon overall can actually plan and use the resources in a methodical and thoughtful manner.

Beyond that would be to take on the issue of the excess basing and infrastructure that we have. We have been unable to close bases for understandable political reasons. Now with a new figure in the political spectrum let’s see if again there could be some new deals—some inclusive deals—in which each side is cajoled into giving a little so that the country can gain a lot. That, arguably, is what it really means to put America first.

As you get into the specifics… there should indeed be some tens of billions of additional dollars for each year, holding the army at the size that it is now or even making it a bit larger, getting some additional ships into the inventory, and a variety of other changes.

There is not, in my view, a readiness crisis overall; there are certainly pockets of readiness challenges. Marine Corps aviation is one. As always, let’s start with the big picture and start by eliminating that really senseless threat of sequestration, and then, by giving the services and the department a budget early on so that they are not operating endlessly under continuing resolutions.

Q: On the campaign trail, Trump has talked about taking a tougher stance on Islamic terrorism and banning Muslims from entering the United States. What should he do to strike a balance between fighting terrorism and strengthening partnerships with US allies in the Muslim world, our Gulf partners in particular?

Petraeus: There is going to have to be a reassurance of our Gulf state partners and also of our ally in that region—Israel. There is going to have to be work [done] together as there is a determination of what should be announced with respect to Iran. How should we, together with our Gulf state and Israeli partners and allies, come to grips with the malign Iranian activity in the region? What should be done to counter that? This might be a moment where again the president and the Congress could get together and announce, for example, a statement of national policy that Iran will never be allowed to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Ostensibly, since Iran has said that they do not want or seek nuclear weapons that shouldn’t be a big deal, but then also make sure that we maintain the capability should the need arise to do what is necessary from a military perspective with the forces allocated to US Central Command, which, of course, I was privileged to command between the commands in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q: Trump has said he wants to bring back waterboarding. Has waterboarding been useful in disrupting terrorist plots?

Petraeus: I have publicly taken a stand against enhanced interrogation techniques and contributed to the development of the Army Field Manual, which is called the Human Intelligence Collector Operations manual, which was developed the same year as the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which subsequently was given the power of law first for the Department of Defense and then for the overall US government through actions by Senator [John] McCain and [Dianne] Feinstein and others. Senator McCain, needless to say, has some moral authority on this particular issue given his own experiences in the Hanoi Hilton for so many years after being shot down as a Navy pilot.

My view is that—with great respect to others—no one was responsible overall for more detainees in Iraq or Afghanistan than the individual who commanded the surges in both of those countries. My experience is that if you want information from a detainee and if it’s not a ticking time bomb scenario then that’s an entirely different case. But if this is a case of a detainee with you for a while the best way to get information is by very good interrogators that know the language, the dialect, the organizational structure, and can establish rapport with the detainee. As they say, become the detainee’s best friend.

Enhanced interrogation techniques will elicit information from a detainee, but my view is that the track record of that information is checkered and that while you will get information, it may or may not have the kind of validity and veracity that you are looking for. And there is a price to pay for the use of these enhanced interrogation techniques. Situations like Abu Ghraib and others, these are non-biodegradable. These are images and issues that will haunt us and for which we have paid a very heavy price.

That’s the reasoning behind my own personal view on this and I’m sure that others who are in government, in uniform, in the intelligence community who have experience with this over the last fifteen years in particular will probably echo those particular thoughts.

Q: Trump’s election is, in part, the result of a backlash against globalization. President-elect Trump himself has talked about wanting to renegotiate NAFTA. What are your thoughts on Trump’s positions on trade and what pitfalls should he avoid as he is now in a position to implement those policies?

Petraeus: There is a very legitimate argument about ensuring that there is a level playing field for all of those who are engaged in international trade. The president-elect, as a candidate, identified situations in which that was not the case. Indeed, we have taken to the various international bodies cases against certain countries that have engaged in dumping or what have you. So I think that there is something there that is certainly worth pursuing.

We shouldn’t be afraid of international trade. We are leading the world in the manufacturing revolution, the life sciences revolution, the IT revolution, and the energy revolution. We should have the confidence to compete if that level playing field can be achieved.

That is a very worthy goal. The key, however, is to seek that and to take actions to facilitate that without ending up in a trade war, which is damaging for any side that gets engaged in it. That will be the trick.

The whole reason to rebuild the [political] center is to pursue rational, pragmatic, thoughtful policies. We have seen, as an example, the dangers and the costs that stem both from the overextension of American power and from the reluctance to engage in problems that actually demand US leadership. The consequence of either of those extremes is the same: upheaval, disorder, emboldened adversaries, and a diminished America.

The president-elect is going to have to chart and then follow as president a narrow path that restores the credibility of American leadership with friends and foes alike, which will require decisiveness and resolve, but also, paradoxically, caution and restraint. 

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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