- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper stepped out of the wings and took center stage in the raging Washington debate over the wisdom of President Trump’s airstrike targeting a top Iranian general, defending the decision forcefully in the press and in a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon and insisting Iran was “days away” from an attack of its own.

Mr. Esper has briefed reporters at the Pentagon twice this week. On Monday, he and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suddenly appeared in one of the press rooms where he made a statement and answered questions from a crush of reporters, in part to clear up what the Pentagon said was a mistakenly sent letter discussing a possible withdrawal from Iraq. Late Tuesday, alone this time, Mr. Esper held a more formal press conference inside the Pentagon briefing room.

It was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, not the recently confirmed Mr. Esper, who made the Sunday morning talk show circuit to defend Mr. Trump’s decision and discuss the confrontation with Tehran.

A White House official told Politico there was a reason why Secretary Mike Pompeo was the face of the topic on Sunday

“The administration chose to put Secretary Pompeo, the chief diplomat, out to de-escalate tensions and make room for negotiations,” Politico said. “Secretary Esper has worked diligently to keep [the Defense Department] out of politics.”

But Mr. Esper in recent days has been edging into the spotlight as a chief administration spokesman for operations in Iran and Iraq. Minutes before briefing reporters on Tuesday, he appeared for a live one-on-one interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN.

“We are not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one,” he told CNN.

He told reporters that an attack from Iran or its proxy forces was “days away” when U.S. officials pulled the trigger on a drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the nation’s most powerful military. Administration officials have not made public the intelligence that led military officials to make the decision to kill the Iranian general, but said the senior leaders in Congress were being given briefings on the U.S. case.

“We will not tolerate attacks against America’s people and interests. We will exercise our right to self-defense should that become necessary once again,” Mr. Esper said. Soleimani “had the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on his hands.”

He told reporters the Trump administration doesn’t want a war but that it would be up to Iran to determine what the future will be.

“We are seeking a diplomatic solution,” Mr. Esper said. “Come to the table with the goal of preventing further bloodshed.”

But with tensions continuing to ratchet up, Mr. Esper said he has spoken with senior commanders about repositioning any forces in the region to better ensure the safety of American personnel.

“They have the resources they need to protect their people and prepare for any contingencies,” Mr. Esper said. “We will respond appropriately to whatever they do.”

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