Thomas L. Friedman: Trump’s code of dishonor

(Evan Vucci | AP) President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and others look on.

Iran’s Qassem Soleimani was an engine of mayhem in the Middle East. His business model was to go to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq and recruit Arab Shiites to kill Arab Sunnis (and Americans and Israelis) and to create pro-Iranian statelets inside Iran’s Arab neighbors to weaken them from the inside. I followed this man closely. No one should mourn his passing.

So why do I still question the wisdom of his assassination? Because it was done without a clear strategic or moral framework. And the biggest lesson I learned from covering the U.S. interventions in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan is: When administrations are not constantly forced to answer hard questions from the outside about what they’re thinking strategically and morally — when questioners are dismissed as unpatriotic — the administrations’ inside thinking gets sloppy, their intelligence gets manipulated and trouble follows.

Never assume that people who are in charge know what they are doing just because they are in charge.

What is President Donald Trump’s strategic framework? One day, without any consultation with allies or our commanders, he ordered U.S. troops out of Syria, where they were serving as a critical block on Iran’s ability to build a land bridge to Lebanon and were a key source of intelligence. In the process, he abandoned our most important allies in fighting ISIS: the Syrian Kurds, who were also creating an island of decency in their region, where islands of decency are the most we can hope for.

And then, a few weeks later, Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani, an action that required him to shift more troops into the region and tell Iraqis that we’re not leaving their territory, even though their Parliament voted to evict us. It also prompted Iran to restart its nuclear weapons program, which could well necessitate U.S. military action.

But it also may have set in motion forces of popular discontent in Iran that will further delegitimize the regime — a good thing. So what’s our priority: take advantage of Iran’s weakened regime to secure a better nuclear deal or urge its people to topple it? And how will we react if the regime mows down Iranians we’ve encouraged to rise? Not clear at all.

But Trump also has no moral framework. He ordered the killing of Soleimani — a depraved Iranian warrior — just a few weeks after he gave a moral pass to a depraved U.S. warrior.

How so? Guess who the Trumps had over to Mar-a-Lago during the Christmas holidays — and who they didn’t invite? They welcomed Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher and his wife. During the summer, Gallagher was tried in a military court on war crimes. A member of his platoon told investigators, “You could tell he was perfectly OK with killing anybody that was moving.”

That assessment was published by The Times a few days after the Trumps warmly received the Gallaghers. It was part of a trove of leaked combat video, text messages and confidential interviews with members of SEAL Team 7 that revealed in chilling detail why Gallagher, their platoon commander, had been on trial for his actions in Iraq.

Here is how The Times described some of Gallagher’s military exploits in 2017: His unit had captured and wounded a young ISIS fighter — “a scraggly teenager in a tank top with limbs so thin that his watch slid easily off his wrist.” They sedated him and performed an emergency procedure to help him breathe.

“Then, without warning, according to colleagues, Chief Gallagher pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck.” Gallagher “later posed for a photograph holding the dead captive up by the hair” and shared the deer-kill photo with others.

Gallagher was eventually turned in for this and other incidents by his fellow SEALs. He was charged with 10 offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Weeks after Gallagher stabbed the ISIS captive, according to an Associated Press report in June from his trial, two SEALs testified that he “gunned down a young girl and an old man in Iraq in 2017 from his sniper’s perch, though neither witnessed him pulling the trigger. The SEALs said shots came from the tower where Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was posted and they watched through their scopes as the civilians fell to the ground.”

“Dalton Tolbert,” AP continued, “said he and another sniper were in a neighboring tower in Mosul, on June 18, 2017, and had fired warning shots to scatter civilians by the Tigris River because the Islamic State was operating in the area. An old man in a white tunic began running and then Tolbert heard a third shot come from the neighboring tower where Gallagher was positioned and saw the man fall. Over the radio, he heard Gallagher say: ‘You guys missed him, but I got him.’”

The article also reported: “Another witness, Joshua Vriens, said on another day that he saw Gallagher shoot at a group of adolescent girls in floral hijabs, hitting one in the stomach and sending two scattering. Vriens said he watched through his scope as a fourth girl dragged the wounded girl over a berm and under a bridge to escape.”

Gallagher’s defense got him acquitted because no witness reported seeing him actually pull the trigger in those incidents and because, as The Times reported, a medic testified that he watched Gallagher stab the prisoner in the neck, “but that the stab wound did not appear to be life-threatening” and that afterward the medic pressed his thumb over the captive’s breathing tube until he died.

Furious Navy prosecutors said the medic never suggested in six interviews that he had suffocated the captive. “They said he changed his story after receiving the grant of immunity,” The Times wrote.

The Navy still demoted Gallagher for posing with the dead captive. That was until some Gallagher pals and Fox News got Trump to reverse the punishment, restore his rank — and block the Navy from upholding its moral code by stripping Gallagher of his Trident pin, signifying his membership in the elite SEALs.

For Trump, the idea that in war or diplomacy there would be an ethical code that we’d impose on ourselves is an utterly alien concept. Trump has never lived by any code in any context — not in real estate and not as president.

Codes are for suckers and sissies in Trump’s view. He thinks that what makes American soldiers great is that they’re killers. And his view is let killers be killers. And anyway, for Trump, if an Iraqi girl wearing a hijab got shot by accident, who cares, they’re all scum anyway.

As Andrew Sullivan put it in an essay on this subject in New York magazine last week: “A president who believes a war criminal is among the finest fighters the U.S. has and suggests he will pardon him after his trial is, quite simply, unique in the history of the U.S.”

But Gallagher’s SEAL teammates, by calling him out, said that what makes our military unique and respected is that we operate by a code and that code operates even in the most heated of firefights. That code is our moral framework under pressure, and by holding each other to it we keep our unit and our country strong.

That’s why they blew the whistle. But Trump hates whistleblowers who take seriously their oath to defend the Constitution. That’s why the same president who invited the cowardly Gallagher and his wife to Mar-a-Lago — not the heroic SEALs who had the courage and integrity to step forward to defend their code, our code — was the same president who used the cowardly Rudy Giuliani to secretly push out the high-integrity U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who had the courage to defend our code in diplomacy and try to prevent the spread of corruption in Kyiv.

Why does it all matter, you ask? Ask the family of the next American soldier captured by terrorists after his captors declare, “We’re going to do to your soldier just what Trump excused Gallagher for doing to one of ours.”

Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.