Oversimplification is sometimes useful. Donald Trump’s base loves defiance and doesn’t see defiance as counterproductive at all. Sure, their guy makes stuff up, and he’s offended all our allies – no one trusts the United States now that it’s America First in all things – but that’s fine. The whole world has been laughing at us, even our allies. Everyone is screwing us over – everyone! Everyone is out to get us!
Well, it’s time to humiliate them. When someone hits you, hit them back ten times harder. That’s in Trump’s books. That’s what he keeps saying. That will make America great again. America won’t just win. America will humiliate all others. Who the hell cares what they think? Our response now, to even the slightest slight, will be proudly wildly disproportionate. And people will love that, people who vote. America will no longer offer understanding. America delivers punishment. We bring on the pain.
Will that work in international relations? Who knows? But at least all other nations will now respect us, or really fear us, or even better, just shut up. We deliver massive pain. They’ll try to avoid that. They won’t be a bother.
So, once again, we brought on the pain:
President Trump ordered the killing of the powerful commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, in a drone strike on the Baghdad International Airport early Friday, American officials said.
General Suleimani’s death was confirmed by official Iranian media.
“General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “General Suleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the statement added. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
So, we assassinated a foreign leader, or at least a folk hero in the Shiite world, with a drone strike in a third-party country without that country’s approval or even knowledge. Like the Russians, we can assassinate anyone we like anywhere we’d like. But of course he was a bad guy:
The strikes followed a warning on Thursday afternoon from Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who said the United States military would pre-emptively strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there were signs the paramilitary groups were planning more attacks against American bases and personnel in the region.
“If we get word of attacks, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” Mr. Esper said. “The game has changed.”
This is the Bush Doctrine updated a bit, but not that much. If we sense that some people might do something bad in the future, we will kill those people. They haven’t done anything, yet, but they might. They’re gone. And no place is safe. Putin poisons his enemies in Sussex or Cornwall. We have drones. And we certainly don’t care what the local government thinks:
The American drone strike hit two cars carrying Mr. Suleimani and several officials with Iranian-backed militias as they were leaving the airport. American officials said that multiple missiles hit the convoy in a strike carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command.
The strike killed five people, including the pro-Iranian chief of an umbrella group for Iraqi militias, Iraqi television reported and militia officials confirmed. The militia chief, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, was a strongly pro-Iranian figure.
The public relations chief for the umbrella group, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, Mohammed Ridha Jabri, was killed as well.
It had to be done:
The strikes come days after American forces bombed three outposts of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported militia in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack last week near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
The United States said that Kataib Hezbollah fired 31 rockets into a base in Kirkuk Province, last week, killing an American contractor and wounding several American and Iraqi servicemen.
The Americans responded by bombing three sites of the Khataib Hezbollah militia near Qaim in western Iraq and two sites in Syria. Khataib Hezbollah denied involvement in the attack in Kirkuk.
Pro-Iranian militia members then marched on the American Embassy on Tuesday, effectively imprisoning its diplomats inside for more than 24 hours while thousands of militia members thronged outside. They burned the embassy’s reception area, planted militia flags on its roof and scrawled graffiti on its walls.
No injuries or deaths were reported, and the militia members did not enter the embassy building.
They withdrew late Wednesday afternoon…
Caught in the middle is the Iraqi government, which is too weak to establish any military authority over some of the more established Iranian-supported Shiite militias.
We wrote off the Iraqi government. Iraq is our country, not theirs. But there’s Wendy Sherman, a professor and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, who was Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2011 to 2015 and led our negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. And now she says this:
It is President Donald Trump’s failed policy toward Iran that has brought us to this combustible moment.
Iraq is a tough country under any circumstances, made more so after the 2003 U.S. invasion that upended the Middle East and cost so much in U.S. lives and treasure. But Iraq also created strange bedfellows. The U.S. troops worked alongside Iraqi and Iranian militia to destroy a common enemy, the Islamic State terrorism group. And even as Washington was confronting Iran over its nuclear program and malign behavior elsewhere, we maintained an uneasy coexistence in Iraq, where Tehran holds considerable sway.
That uneasy balance was destroyed when Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Like other critics of the agreement, Trump believed it should have resolved all of America’s issues with Iran. Trump believed we were giving Tehran benefits without a requisite return. He thought a “maximum pressure” campaign would ultimately bring Iran to its knees, or incite a popular uprising against its theocratic regime.
He thought wrong:
Like much of Trump’s national security and foreign policy, his Iran approach is tactical and not strategic. The results have been devastating to U.S. interests. Iran’s most extreme hard-liners, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds force, which never wanted the nuclear deal, have gained more power, arguing that the United States couldn’t be trusted to honor any agreement.
And now they’re sure of that:
Even some of the harshest critics of the Iran nuclear deal now understand that the perfect is, indeed, the enemy of the good; that in volatile international situations, solid, incremental progress trumps chaos. The Iran nuclear deal was meant to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such a capability would project even greater Iranian power in the Middle East and deter the ability of Washington and its allies to build a lasting peace in the region.
Ah, but that wasn’t enough, and instead we got this:
Three years into his presidency, Donald Trump owns the events and outcomes in Iraq and Iran, as he does in North Korea, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the Middle East, Russia, China and Hong Kong. Having diminished our State Department, intelligence agencies and military, the very institutions that could have helped him construct an effective national security and foreign policy he is now on his own.
And that’s dangerous. Andrew Exum was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy from 2015 to 2016 and he sees this:
Today the United States killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The United States is now in a hot war with Iran after having waged war via proxies for the past several decades.
This doesn’t mean war, it will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war.
I do not know of a single Iranian who was more indispensable to his government’s ambitions in the Middle East.
And he was a bad guy and more too:
Just as the United States often faces a shortage of human capital—not all general officers and diplomats are created equal, sadly, and we are not exactly blessed with a surplus of Arabic speakers in our government—Iran also doesn’t have a lot of talent to go around. One of the reasons I thought Iran erred so often in Yemen – giving strategic weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles to a bunch of undertrained Houthi yahoos, for example – was a lack of adult supervision.
Qassem Soleimani was the adult supervision. He was spread thin over the past decade, but he was nonetheless a serious if nefarious adversary of the United States and its partners in the region. And Iran and its partners will now feel his loss greatly.
And no one knows what will happen next:
I don’t think anyone can say for certain how Iran will respond – or how the United States and its partners are prepared – or not prepared – to weather that response.
Some do think about that, and some do not:
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.): “Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question. The question is this – as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.): “Qassem Soleimani masterminded Iran’s reign of terror for decades, including the deaths of hundreds of Americans. Tonight, he got what he richly deserved, and all those American soldiers who died by his hand also got what they deserved: justice.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.): “Trump Admin owes a full explanation of airstrike reports – all the facts – to Congress and the American people. The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades. My immediate concern is for our brave Americans serving in harm’s way.”
He may be right to worry, but Kevin Drum offers this:
As near as I can tell, President Trump is hell-bent on continuing to provoke Iran in hopes that eventually they’ll overreact and give him an excuse for all-out war. This is obvious enough that Iran is likely, at some point, to figure that there’s nothing they can do about it, so they might as well retaliate in a time and manner of their own choosing. I don’t know what that means, but I doubt that it will take the form of a bunch of random terrorist attacks around the world, as many people seem to be suggesting. If the Iranian leadership decides that war is inevitable, then it will engage in war: attacks on tankers in the Gulf; attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia; major escalations of hostilities in Iraq; and so forth.
Either way, I’ll make one prediction for sure: every time we kill someone like this, the replacement turns out to be even worse. We may consider Soleimani a state terrorist of the first order, but I’ll bet he seems like a cautious and prudent institutionalist compared to whoever takes over for him.
We can make this guy a hero yet, what with this:
Even the possibility that the U.S. had directly targeted Soleimani – especially on Iraqi soil – sent shockwaves around the globe, spiking oil prices and leading to instant assessments of the potential fallout. U.S. officials have long depicted Soleimani as a paramilitary and terrorist mastermind, deemed responsible for attacks on American troops in Iraq and against U.S. interests all over the world.
“It is hard to overstate the significance,” said retired Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the “surge” of American troops in Iraq in the violent years after the 2003 U.S. invasion. “But there will be responses in Iraq and likely Syria and the region.”
Some current and former U.S. officials, as well as veteran Iran observers, said the killing was an escalatory move far beyond what they had ever expected.
“There’s no chance in hell that Iran won’t respond,” said Afshon Ostovar, an expert on Soleimani and author of “Vanguard of the Imam” a book about Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
That’s the problem now, and Daniel Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution had this to say:
With Suleimani’s death there will be hell to pay – and because of Quds Force’s reach, Iran will have multiple theaters in which to attack the United States. Attacks on US forces and facilities in Iraq are particularly likely. Tehran has spent over 15 years building up extensive networks among militia groups and politicians in Iraq.
And add this:
Many Iraqi politicians, by necessity and in some cases by choice, have close ties to Iran, and pressure will grow to oust US forces from the country. If there is a back-and-forth between the United States and Iran, it is simply the case that Iran has more allies and more influence there, and many Iraqi leaders are likely to bow to Iranian pressure.
And add this:
US military forces in Afghanistan and Syria are also at risk, though both are already well defended due to threats from ISIS, the Taliban, and other dangerous groups. The IRGC and its proxies may also strike at official US embassies and other government-related targets. In 1983, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah blew up the US Embassy in Beirut as well as the Marine barracks there, killing 220 Marines, and dozens of other Americans. Civilians too may be in the crosshairs. Some of Iran’s proxies lack the skill to strike at well-defended official targets, so Tehran may also seek to send a broader message in order to intimidate the United States.
But on the other hand:
Although Iran is likely to strike back, the scale and scope of its response are hard to predict. Hardliners there will call for making the United States pay for Suleimani’s death. In addition, a conflict with the United States may prove a useful way for the regime to deflect attention from Iran’s declining economy and the massive protests that have rocked the country.
However, Iran has long recognized its military weakness compared to the United States, and its leaders know that it can only lose if there is an all-out confrontation. In the many years of US-Iran confrontations, Iran has provoked Washington with terrorist attacks and by supporting anti-US proxies but also tried to back down when things looked as if they might get out of control.
It is not clear, however, if the same script applies after the killing of a key figure like Suleimani.
Yeah, well, nothing is clear:
Deliberative thinking is not a strong suit of the Trump administration, and it is easy to focus on the immediate gratification that comes from killing an archenemy responsible for many American and allied deaths than thinking through the long-term implications of the strike.
What the United States most needs are allies. They are necessary to deter Iran, support further military operations against it if deterrence fails, help guard US facilities, and otherwise share the burden. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has spurned many traditional allies, thumbing its nose at NATO, Australia, and others.
In the Middle East, the administration refused to retaliate after Iran attacked a Saudi oil facility, a traditional red line, sending a message that the Kingdom was on its own for its security. It has also stood by as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE have worked at cross-purposes in countries like Syria and Libya, rather than trying to create a common position that would increase US influence and bargaining power in conflict with Iran. It is unclear if allies will now rally to Washington’s banner, and even if they do they may not be eager to stand by the United States.
President Trump himself has made no secret of his desire to end the US military presence in the Middle East. “We’re getting out. Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand. The job of our military is not to police the world,” he declared.
This will not end well at all:
The Suleimani killing and the targeting of pro-Iranian figures in Iraq is likely to be a pivotal moment for the United States in the region. How bloody the aftermath will be, and whether the United States can emerge stronger, will depend on whether the Trump administration can be steadfast, plan for the long term, and work closely with allies.
Trump’s Middle East policy so far, however, suggests the opposite is more likely. In the end, Suleimani’s death may prove a hollow and short-lived victory.
But of course this is about more than a few targeted American assassinations on foreign soil. Fred Kaplan says this:
President Donald Trump enters the new year – his year of reelection or rejection – with two of the world’s most perilous hot spots about to catch fire and with no strategy on how to douse the flames.
Iran and North Korea are once again inspiring banner headlines, and not in the ways that Trump had hoped for in 2019. He believed that “maximum pressure” would prod the mullahs of Tehran to come crawling back to the bargaining table – or, better still, to be ousted from power – and that his putative friendship with Kim Jong-un would unleash a new era of peace and disarmament in northeast Asia. But if anything, the opposite has occurred, either in spite or because of Trump’s actions.
So don’t forget North Korea:
North Korea poses Trump’s most intractable problem – and highlights his most mortifying folly. For a year and a half, ever since first meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump has been singing the praises of the world’s cruelest dictator, heralding him as a “great leader” and a “man of his word” and fully expecting him to “denuclearize” without so much as defining the term.
But Kim ushered in 2020 with a seven-hour stem-winder to fellow members of the ruling Workers’ Party, outlining a new course of “arduous and protracted struggle” with the West and announcing, most dramatically, an end to his self-imposed moratorium – in effect for the past two years – on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Trump has waved away North Korea’s recent tests of several short-range missiles, despite the fact that they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and unnerved our allies in South Korea and Japan. To Trump, as long as Kim held to his pledge not to test-fire long-range missiles (i.e., missiles that could hit the United States), all was well.
And that just became absurd:
So what happens now if Kim tests precisely such a missile and maybe resumes testing nuclear weapons too? Will Trump realize what everyone else has known for 18 months – that the man with whom he “fell in love” after Singapore has, all along, been taking him for a ride? He’s played to Trump’s ego, writing him “beautiful letters” while continuing to expand his nuclear arsenal and sow divisions between the United States and its allies in the region.
If Trump experiences this epiphany, how will he react to the betrayal and humiliation?
Kim probably thinks Trump won’t react at all: He hasn’t responded with much force to any other provocation in the world; moreover, Kim might think, Trump is unlikely to start a war in Asia amid his impeachment trial and election campaign.
Kim might be right, but wars have been sparked by less drastic miscalculations.
And then there’s the immediate problem:
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, thousands of Iranian-backed militiamen spent New Year’s Eve smashing into the U.S. Embassy while chanting “Death to America.” The demonstrators pulled back two days later, after the Iraqi government – which initially let them cross into the Green Zone surrounding the embassy – pressured the leaders of Kataib Hezbollah, the main militia. Trump, who responded to the incident by ordering 4,000 more U.S. troops into Iraq, took the end of the siege as a triumph – “the Anti-Benghazi,” as he proclaimed.
Trump seems to think that the end of the siege marked an eclipse of Iranian strength, tweeting, “To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!”
This is naïve. Iranian influence in Iraq’s politics is immovably strong; it has been since the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, and the incident that precipitated this week’s siege probably strengthened its hold.
And there’s that other matter:
Iran’s recent eruptions probably would have been avoided if Trump hadn’t withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, reimposed economic sanctions against Iran, and – to compound the aggravation – imposed further sanctions on any country that did business with Iran. The nuclear deal, signed in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama and the leaders of five other nations, required Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure – in exchange for which those nations would lift sanctions. International inspectors attested several times that Iran was obeying the terms of the deal, dismantling its nuclear program; as a result, the other nations started lifting sanctions – until Trump intervened, against the advice of all his top officials, mainly because he couldn’t bear to continue abiding by Obama’s signal diplomatic achievement.
That was a proudly and wildly disproportionate response to a rather narrow Obama achievement, and that backfired, but these things had to happen:
One problem is that no one in the Trump administration has any experience in negotiating with those countries. Another problem is that Trump doesn’t care. He has said several times that he knows more about making deals than any of his diplomats, and he might even believe it’s true. Many of our ablest career civilians, in the diplomatic corps and in the Pentagon, have been fired or have simply fled, and few with any talent have taken their place.
North Korea, Iran, and many other hot spots are hard problems for the most expert and dedicated public servants to solve. Without such public servants, they’re impossible.
But he did hit back ten times harder, so doesn’t Trump get points for that?
Nope, he just started a real war. And he’s proud of it. He doesn’t see wildly inappropriate defiance of everything and everyone as counterproductive at all. And here we go again.