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Former Bush Pentagon official on Iran, Shanahan and ‘terrible’ vetting process

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are inflamed, with the U.S. sending more troops to the Mideast amid what it calls provocation by Iran. Now, a new disruption: Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan is stepping down amid reports of domestic violence in his past. Former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, for another view, we turn to Dov Zakheim. He was the Pentagon comptroller, the Department of Defense's chief financial officer, under President George W. Bush. He is currently a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Dov Zakheim:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's start by talking about Iran.

    You just heard Senator Tim Kaine say he thinks the president's advisers have buffaloed him into getting into a position where we may be at war with Iran. What do you believe should be done by the U.S.?

  • Dov Zakheim:

    Well, he's not going to be buffaloed. This president doesn't get buffaloed.

    He's running for office right now. He likes to check off all the promises he made last time around. He promised no war. He will do whatever he can to avoid it. He's sending troops. But I think what he could do more is probably try to bully the allies into not trying to evade the sanctions.

    There are a bunch of countries that we're friendly with that are selling oil to Iran. Try to avoid that, squeeze the Iranians more. But I don't think he wants to go to war.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think it was right to send the 1,000 or more additional troops?

  • Dov Zakheim:

    Well, you know, what's 1,000 troops?

    Frankly, if we start anything with the Iranians, they're not going to retaliate directly. They never do. They blew up the Marine barracks in 1983. That was Hezbollah at their behest. That's how they operate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, I want to turn you — so much to ask you, Dov Zakheim, but on Patrick Shanahan.

  • Dov Zakheim:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We saw him withdraw his nomination today. He did have extensive experience in the last few years in the Pentagon.

    How was he seen there? And now that this information has come out about his past, does that change what you believe would have been his qualifications?

  • Dov Zakheim:

    Well, he had some other issues.

    For a start, he wasn't terribly popular. He wasn't seen as a particularly decisive person. He wasn't seen as somebody who was ready to fight back with the White House.

    I worked for a guy named Don Rumsfeld, and he fought whenever he felt he needed to fight. That wasn't the perception of Pat Shanahan. In addition, there were some other issues. There was this incident where the Department of Defense, the Navy seemed to hear somebody from somewhere in the White House to cover up the John McCain, the warship, because the president was going to be in Japan.

    That caused a stir. There was a stir over Boeing and the fact that it was a Boeing official. There was a lot going on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That you're saying were problematic with his nomination, which the president was going to go forward with, until…

  • Dov Zakheim:

    Well, but, you know, for a start, he would — it would have been a very, very rough confirmation, number one.

    And, number two, again, does the president really want that sort of thing to happen when he's just launched his campaign?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just very quickly, to button that part of this up, do you think the White House vetting process is sufficient? Is it what it should be?

  • Dov Zakheim:

    It's terrible.

    And not only is it terrible, but they don't realize that all this stuff comes out because the Senate staff also does their work. And they talk to the FBI. And they will keep digging and digging until they find something. And it's not just the majority staff. It's the minority staff, so that the Democrats could have found this out and made a fuss about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we heard our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins, say that members of the Senate have known about some of these incidents for some time.

    Let's talk just very quickly, though, finally, about Army Secretary Mark Esper. The president has now nominated him. How do you view his qualifications, and how does he compare to Shanahan?

  • Dov Zakheim:

    Well, Mark, in a way is the anti-Shanahan. He's very, very popular. He served. He's an Army officer. He gets along brilliantly with General Milley, the chief of staff, who is going to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, popular on the Hill, and just very well-liked, seems to be capable.

    And I know him personally, and I think very highly of him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so likely to get through the confirmation process?

  • Dov Zakheim:

    If the president nominates him. Big if, you just heard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dov Zakheim, thank you for joining us.

  • Dov Zakheim:

    Thank you for having me.

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