Pentagon contradicts Trump on targeting Iranian cultural sites

It appears no government agency has been more willing to publicly contradict Trump than the Department of Defense.
Iranians take to the street to protest the 2009 election results.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians take to the street to protest the 2009 election results. Tehran, Iran. June 15, 2009.Ben Curtis / AP
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By Steve Benen

On Saturday, Donald Trump declared via Twitter that he'd identified a series of Iranian targets, which the president said he's prepared to attack if Iran retaliates for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Some of the targets, the Republican added, are "important to ... Iranian culture."

Perhaps aware that targeting cultural sites is a war crime, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on Sunday morning, "The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target." Later in the day, however, Trump said the opposite, telling reporters he's prepared to go after Iranian cultural sites.

Of course, such an offensive would require the participation of the U.S. military, and as the New York Times reported, the Pentagon apparently has no use for the president's misguided intentions.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sought to douse an international outcry on Monday by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Trump's threat to destroy some of the country's treasured icons.

Mr. Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Mr. Trump's threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting American military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.

Asked if the president was correct about possible targeting of cultural sites, Esper told reporters, "We will follow the laws of armed conflict." Pressed to clarify whether that was a "no," given that targeting cultural sites is a war crime, the president's Defense secretary added, "That's the laws of armed conflict."

In other words, the Pentagon has no intention of implementing Trump's plan. The president's tweets may make him feel better -- Trump is fond of pointless chest-thumping exercises -- but there's no reason anyone should perceive his rhetoric as an accurate reflection of what may happen in reality.

It matters that Trump seems to like war crimes, but it also matters that he'll struggle to actually commit war crimes.

Stepping back, though, one of the notable things about yesterday was the Pentagon's willingness to publicly contradict the president. It wasn't the first time.

Indeed, it was just a couple of months ago when Trump boasted that the United States has "taken" Syrian oil, and he intends to partner with the private sector to extract even more. Soon after, the Pentagon's top spokesperson insisted that the United States would absolutely not be taking any Syrian oil.

A few months earlier, the president tried to defend his ban on allowing transgender Americans to serve in the military, arguing that in the military, servicemembers are "not allowed to take any drugs," which in his mind, necessarily means there could be no transgender troops.

This was wrong for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that Trump was misstating DOD policy on medications. A Pentagon spokesperson explained, "The Military Health System covers all approved medically necessary treatments and prescription medications. If a service member has a hormone deficiency for any reason (such as hypogonadism, hypothyroidism, menopause, etc.), he or she would be prescribed hormones."

Has any government agency been more willing to publicly contradict Trump than the Department of Defense?

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