STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have a military perspective next on developments in Iraq. Last night, a U.S. drone struck outside Baghdad's international airport and killed General Qassem Soleimani. He is Iranian, the leader of an elite force that Iran uses for operations outside its borders, including in Iraq, and the U.S. was blaming Iran for escalating violence in Iraq. Jack Keane is retired four-star Army general and former vice chief of staff of the Army. General Keane, welcome back to the program.
JACK KEANE: Always delighted to be here, Steve.
INSKEEP: Let's start with what the administration is saying about this attack. They are describing it, I think the right word would be a preemptive strike. Secretary of State Pompeo has been on TV saying there was an imminent threat. I just got off the phone with a senior administration official who was describing the intelligence as solid, although we don't have any details, we must stress - we have no details. Is it clear to you the U.S. has a right of a preemptive strike of this kind?
KEANE: Yes, it is clear to me that they do. I think as the facts will unfold in the next few days, we do know that Soleimani flew in from Syria during the night to meet with Muhandis, who was his deputy, an Iraqi who runs his operation inside of Iraq. And that's what the meeting took place at the airport. Likely, they were dealing with their plans and the next step against the Americans inside of Iraq. I suspect that is the intelligence our folks have.
I don't know the details of something like that to be sure, but I think we'll see it, and I would characterize it the way Secretary Pompeo is, because I think it's accurate - a preemptory defensive measure to disrupt an eminent attack against Americans. That is within the authority of the United States to do so, and anyone who'd suggest that that's outside of authority because it's an act of war isn't dealing with the facts on the ground.
INSKEEP: OK. So that first question, assuming the intelligence is correct - and again, we're not in a position to check that - then the U.S. would have the right of that preemptive strike, as you see it. Then the next question is whether it was strategically wise, because this is being seen as a tremendous escalation in the exchange of violent incidents between the United States and Iran.
KEANE: Well, let's think about that for a second. The United States has tried to put economic and diplomatic pressure on the Iranians to curb their malign behavior in the region, dominating Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and encroaching on the security of Israel - this is what they've been up to. And they shot down a U.S. drone - no U.S. response to that. They disrupted oil tankers in the region - no U.S. response. They struck one of the largest oil fields in the world, which is our ally's oilfield - no U.S. response to that or allied response to that.
I think the United States has shown extraordinary restraint in not responding to Iran's aggression, and the red line the president gave them right from the outset is, if you kill an American, then you're going to get a strong response. And they kept doing that. They fired rockets where Americans were on Iraqi bases 11 times in the last two months, to include the last time where they killed, unfortunately, a contractor and wounded four American servicemen. And that's when the president drew the line and said, I'm going to react. I think we have shown extraordinary restraint, based on Iran's escalation.
INSKEEP: So you see this as perhaps a necessary step, as Iran has gone for more and more violent incidents, to respond to them and contain to them. But, of course, you don't want to only be responding to the other side. You want to be strategically moving in some direction. Does this response fit in with any wider strategy that seems to be moving in a direction the U.S. wants?
KEANE: I don't think we would have taken the action unless we had the intelligence that another attack was coming. And I do think you have to look at Iran strategically. You can't look at them through the prism of al-Qaeda or through the prism of ISIS 'cause this is a nation-state that has significant resources, despite the economic pressure we're putting on them.
KEANE: And they have huge global networks. They have a presence in Europe, they have a presence in Latin and South America as well. And they can react not just against the United States in Iraq or in our bases in the region, but they can act globally against U.S. interests and those of our allies.
So the United States intelligence service, the United States Department of Defense, the State Department is very much aware of all of this as they look at the escalation ladder when they're contemplating what action to take. But I do believe it was an appropriate action, based on the likely intelligence we believe they had. It will have strategic implications, to be sure, but Iran does not want a war with the United States. It doesn't mean that this could not happen, but they don't want one because it ends their (unintelligible) authoritarian regime that the mullahs have had for 40 years.
INSKEEP: Yeah, they wouldn't likely survive a full-scale war is what you're saying, and so the U.S. calculates it can strike out. Let me ask about two congressional responses to this and see if you see any merit in either of them. Lindsey Graham, ally of the president, tweeted to the Iranian government, "if you want more, you will get more." I guess you might put it in somewhat more diplomatic terms, but is that in fact an appropriate stance for the United States?
KEANE: I don't think the United States is going to take any action whatsoever unless U.S. forces are at risk. That has been the pattern we have seen now for the last year and a half because the United States has held back from taking action unless U.S. forces or U.S. troops are being threatened. So I don't think we'll see anything like that unless Iran takes action against us. And I believe we have to be careful about the escalation ladder and what that means and never lose sight of the strategic implications of what we're doing.
INSKEEP: I guess the reassuring part is it sounds like each side calculates the other side doesn't really want a war. But let's talk about that escalation ladder and the strategic value of what's being done. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut was on the program and said the administration is all tactics, no strategy. Is there any merit to that criticism?
KEANE: Well, I don't think so. I mean, I think the administration has changed fundamentally the strategy of the United States from appeasing the Iranians, which I believe is what the Obama administration did, to try to bring Iran into the community of responsible nations, and that blew up in the United States' face when the Iranians motivated the Russians to get involved in the war in Syria, when they upped their own forces in Syria close to 80,000, when they started the Civil War with the Houthis in Yemen and undermining Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
They didn't move towards a responsible nation. They continued their malign activity, and the $130 billion they got as a result of the nuclear deal was the fuel to be able to resource those activities...
INSKEEP: Iran - Iran did...
KEANE: ...So this administration came in and said, in concert with our allies, we're going to stop appeasing the Iranians. We're going to be - we're going to confront them to try to stop this malign behavior. So yeah...
INSKEEP: And we'll stop there. General Keane, thanks so much. And it is true that the United States returned Iranian assets as part of the nuclear deal. Retired four-star General Jack Keane, now at the Institute for the Study of War. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.