- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2020

Ordering the Jan. 3 drone attack that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and put the Middle East on the brink of a shooting war “was an easy decision for me to make,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Thursday.

Speaking at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Mr. Esper said Soleimani was both Iran’s most effective battlefield commander and a U.S. designated terrorist leader, and that President Trump was fully justified in issuing the order.

“He had the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands,” Mr. Esper said. “He was actively planning his next attack.”

Gen. Soleimani, widely considered the second most powerful man in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was killed Jan. 3 by a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport that also killed Iraqi Shiite militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The administration has been under fire for what critics say have been shifting explanations for why and when the Soleimani mission was ordered, and whether Mr. Esper and the Pentagon brass expected Mr. Trump to pick the most provocative response to a previous attack on U.S. positions in Iraq blamed on Iranian-allied Iraqi Shiite militia groups. The attack has sparked a fierce debate in Baghdad over the future of U.S. and allied forces inside the country,

“Taking him off the field — a battlefield leader off the battlefield — was a good response to Iranian bad behavior,” Mr. Esper said Thursday.

Less than a week after Gen. Soleimani’s death, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Jan. 8 fired a barrage of missiles toward bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were housed. No one was killed but more than 60 U.S. service personnel have subsequently been treated for traumatic brain injuries, officials said.

About 5,200 U.S. personnel are now based in Iraq.

Mr. Esper’s remarks Thursday focused heavily on money, with the Trump administration next week expected to roll out its $740 billion budget request for the coming fiscal year, a budget which includes a 3% pay raise for military personnel. Pentagon officials say they need annual increases of 3% to 5% annually after inflation to meet readiness and equipment needs.

Mr. Esper has been preaching the gospel of frugal defense spending since 2017, when he was appointed as secretary of the Army. Gone are the days when President Reagan opened up the tap for the Pentagon, he said.

“We have what we have. We have to get our minds fixed on that,” he said.

Mr. Esper acknowledged there had to be tradeoffs, within government and beyond.

“We have to brace ourselves that, at best, defense spending will be level,” he said. “That means we’re going to have to make tough choices. I’m prepared to make them.”

Mr. Esper is asking Congress to help him kill off aging or outdated programs within the Defense Department and pass the savings toward forward-looking, next generation systems like missile defense, artificial intelligence and hypersonic research.

“We should be able to defend our great country with the amount of money that we’re given,” he said.

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