It seems so long ago, and it was, but some of us remember the arguments. We went over and removed Saddam Hussein. But there were no weapons of mass destruction. And things quickly fell apart. We installed a Shiite strongman who marginalized and humiliated every Sunni in Iraq, just as Saddam Hussein had marginalized and humiliated every Shiite in sight for decades. The Sunnis were in trouble in Iraq this time, not the Shiites, and result was a sectarian civil war – with a new group popping up, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The local Sunnis had organized.
Our famous “surge” was supposed to end that sectarian civil war – we bribed the Sunni militias at the time to fight the new al-Qaeda in Iraq, their Sunni brothers, and told them that any new Shiite leader would promise to be nice to Sunnis, because we’d tell him to. But that wasn’t going to happen. Iraq would never be a whole nation of equals – there was too much bad blood. And then Al-Qaeda in Iraq turned into ISIS, so, some argued, the whole thing has been a bad idea. There were no weapons of mass destruction, there never had been, so we had made a mess of things there, a mess that would only get worse – and it certainly did. And it’s still a mess. And we did this for no good reason.
But the main problem was no one at the time seemed to have considered the consequences of overthrowing a sitting government with no plan for what to do next. Dick Cheney’s plan was to install his University of Chicago friend, Ahmed Chalabi, as head of the new Iraqi government over there and then come on home – but Chalabi has been convicted for bank fraud in Petra – in absentia – and no one in Iraq knew him – except for those few who did know him, and hated him. So that wasn’t much of plan.
And then there was the counterargument. Saddam Hussein was, or had been, a very bad man. Did you want to see him remain in power? Everyone knew he had to go. Maybe there had been no weapons of mass destruction, and yes, it seems that he had nothing to do with 9/11 at all, and maybe we stirred up a hornets’ nest never realizing how bad things might go, because we never planned for anything but quick total success in a war that would be over by Christmas and pay for itself ten times over (with Iraqi oil) – but Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. He had to go. Sure, George Bush (or Dick Cheney) made a total mess of things, but you can NOT say they were wrong to do this. If you say that, you’re saying you wish Saddam Hussein was back in power. You’re saying that Saddam Hussein is (was) a good man. You’re saying that you’re a big fan of Saddam Hussein – always have been and always will be. George Bush did screw up the Middle East forever, for reasons that fall apart rather quickly – but Saddam Hussein had been a very bad man. So why are you defending him? Why are you defending a murderous dictator? What the hell is wrong with you? That was the counterargument.
And then that was over. Republicans decided they didn’t want to talk about George Bush any longer, or ever again, and he stepped away from public life. And the argument ended. Now their man was John McCain. He never mentioned Bush. He never mentioned Saddam Hussein. His plan for Iraq was to get the Shiites and Sunnis together in a room and tell them to “knock it off” and his plan for Iran was to bomb that place back to the Stone Age before they could build any nukes. It was all quite simple, really. And he lost.
But their original argument has been potent. You say there were no weapons of mass destruction? You say we didn’t plan for or even understand the consequence of overthrowing a sitting government by getting rid of just one key bad guy? So why are you defending him? Why are you defending a murderous dictator? What the hell is wrong with you? What? You think it was wrong to take out Qassem Soleimani?
The name has changed. The argument is back. Republicans say he was a very bad man. He had to go. Democrats are saying he was a very bad man. Have you people thought through the consequences of taking him out?
That was the issue after the deed was done:
The United States and Iran exchanged escalating military threats on Friday as President Trump warned that he was “prepared to take whatever action is necessary” if Iran threatened Americans and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to exact vengeance for the killing on Mr. Trump’s order of Iran’s most valued general.
Although the president insisted that he took the action to avoid a war with Iran, the continuing threats further rattled foreign capitals, global markets and Capitol Hill, where Democrats demanded more information about the strike and Mr. Trump’s grounds for taking such a provocative move without consulting Congress.
Democrats also pressed questions about the attack’s timing and whether it was meant to deflect attention from the president’s expected impeachment trial this month in the Senate. They said he risked suspicion that he was taking action overseas to distract from his political troubles at home, as in the political movie “Wag the Dog.”
That was an odd movie:
The President is caught making advances on an underage girl inside the Oval Office, less than two weeks before the election. Conrad Brean, a top spin doctor, is brought in by presidential aide Winifred Ames to take the public’s attention away from the scandal. He decides to construct a fictional war in Albania, hoping the media will concentrate on this instead. Brean contacts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss to create the war, complete with a theme song and fake film footage of a photogenic orphan. The hoax is initially successful, with the President quickly gaining ground in the polls appearing afterwards…
And so on and so forth, but this is real life:
Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters in a hastily arranged appearance at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, asserted that Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who directed Iranian paramilitary forces throughout the Middle East, “was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Mr. Trump’s remarks, as did Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser. But General Milley, Mr. Pompeo, Mr. O’Brien and other senior administration officials did not describe any threats that were different from what American officials say General Suleimani had been orchestrating for years.
Democrats questioned the lack of specifics about any new threat that would justify Mr. Trump’s order to kill General Suleimani, which both Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush had rejected as too risky.
“What always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Suleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?” Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan and a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official, said in a statement. “The two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means.”
In fact, bad things can happen, so they did happen:
Iraq’s Parliament is set to meet on Saturday and could consider a measure to expel all United States forces from the country for the first time since 2003.
At Fort Bragg, N.C., some 3,500 members of the 82nd Airborne, ordered to the Middle East this week, prepared to deploy to Kuwait.
On Wall Street, the stock market fell as oil prices jumped after the news of the general’s death: The price of Brent oil, the international benchmark, surged in the early hours of Hong Kong trading to nearly $70 a barrel – an increase of $3.
And there was this:
Mr. Pompeo dismissed concerns raised by American allies, who expressed fear of a wider war in the Middle East. A French minister suggested that “we are waking up in a more dangerous world” after the strike.
“Yeah, well, the French are just wrong about that,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The world is a much safer place today. And I can assure you Americans in the region are much safer today after the demise of Qassim Suleimani.”
And then his own state department issued a directive that all American citizens leave Iraq right now because the place was now so dangerous – which he never explained – and there was this:
A top Chinese Communist Party official, Yang Jiechi, told Mr. Pompeo in a telephone call that China, Iran’s most powerful partner, was “highly concerned” about the situation in the Middle East and that “differences should be resolved through dialogue,” Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry official, tweeted.
Presidents Emmanuel Macron of France and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia spoke by telephone and agreed to try to “prevent a new and dangerous escalation of tensions,” according to a summary issued by Mr. Macron’s office.
And meanwhile, in Baghdad:
The decision to hit General Suleimani complicates relations with Iraq’s government, which has tried to balance itself between the United States and Iran.
A senior Iraqi official said Friday that there was a good chance the Iraqi Parliament would vote to force American troops to leave the country. Top Iraqi leaders earlier had wanted to accommodate the troop presence because of the persistent threat from the Islamic State and other regional security matters.
They want out of this mess, but it’s too late for that:
Mr. Trump said that the killing early Friday of General Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was long overdue, though he insisted he did not want a larger fight with Iran.
“We took action last night to stop a war,” the president said. “We did not take action to start a war.”
But moments later, he warned Iran that the American military had “already fully identified” potential targets for further attacks “if Americans anywhere are threatened.”
By early evening, as he came under growing criticism for what his critics called a reckless national security gamble, Mr. Trump said he wanted to contain the conflict.
“We do not seek war, we do not seek nation-building, we do not seek regime change,” Mr. Trump told a gathering of his evangelical supporters in Miami, seeming to draw a contrast with the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq.
There are those who don’t believe that:
Hours earlier, Ayatollah Khamenei had warned Mr. Trump that there would be consequences for General Suleimani’s death, who died after an American MQ-9 Reaper drone fired missiles at his convoy as it was leaving Baghdad International Airport.
“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a statement, “but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”
And there’s this:
Dalia Dassa Kaye, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation, a research organization, said the killing of General Suleimani was a “major escalation beyond proxy conflict to a direct conflict with Iran that is likely to be viewed in existential terms on Iran’s side,” especially in the wider context of Mr. Trump’s continuing sanctions campaign to isolate Iran.
She added that likely costs included a rupture with the Iraqi government, which would weaken the fight against the Islamic State; a further alienation of American allies who have been seeking de-escalation this year between Western nations and Iran; and growing challenges to containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Just because the U.S. can take punitive actions doesn’t mean it should,” she said.
But the nation will continue to argue about that as it always has, and David Sanger adds this to that argument:
President Trump’s decision to strike and kill the second most powerful official in Iran turns a slow-simmering conflict with Tehran into a boiling one, and is the riskiest move made by the United States in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The calculus was straightforward: Washington had to re-establish deterrence, and show the Iranian leadership that missiles fired at ships in the Persian Gulf and at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, along with attacks inside Iraq that cost the life of an American contractor, would not go without a response.
But while senior American officials have no doubt the Iranians will respond, they do not know how quickly, or how furiously.
But the deed is done:
For a president who repeated his determination to withdraw from the caldron of the Middle East, the strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who for two decades has led Iran’s most fearsome and ruthless military unit, the Quds Force, means there will be no escape from the region for the rest of his presidency, whether that is one year or five. Mr. Trump has committed the United States to a conflict whose dimensions are unknowable, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeks vengeance.
“This is a massive walk up the escalation ladder,” wrote Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute. “With Suleimani dead, war is coming – that seems certain, the only questions are where, in what form and when?”
And that’s where this gets a bit tricky:
The Iranians’ advantage is all in asymmetric conflict.
Their history suggests they will not take on the United States frontally. Iranians are the masters of striking soft targets, starting in Iraq, but hardly limited to that country. In the past few years, they have honed an ability to cause low-level chaos, and left no doubt that they want to be able to reach the United States.
For now, they cannot – at least in traditional ways.
But they have tried terrorism, including an abortive effort nine years ago to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington, and late Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security was sending out reminders of Iran’s past and current efforts to attack the United States in cyberspace. Until now, that has been limited to breaches on American banks and scrutiny of dams and other critical infrastructure, but they so far have not shown they have the abilities of the Russians or the Chinese.
Their first escalation may well be in Iraq, where they back pro-Iranian militias. But even there, they are an unwelcome force. It was only a few weeks ago when people took to the streets in Iraq to protest Iranian, not American, interference in their politics. Still, there are soft targets throughout the region, as the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities showed.
No one knows what to expect, but that’s not all that’s going on here:
The nuclear future is more complex.
Mr. Trump walked away from the 2015 nuclear agreement more than a year ago, over the objections of many of his own aides and almost all American allies. At first, the Iranians reacted coolly, and stayed within the limits of the accord. That ended last year, as tensions escalated.
Before the strike, they were expected to announce, in the next week, their next nuclear move – and it seemed likely to be a move closer to enrichment of bomb-grade uranium. That seems far more likely now, and poses the possibility of the next escalation, if it prompts American or Israeli military or cyber-action against Iran’s known nuclear facilities.
Once it buries General Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – which oversaw the secret projects to build nuclear weapons two decades ago – may well determine that it is time to surge ahead. There is little question the United States is far less likely to challenge a country with an existing nuclear arsenal. The Iranians, like the North Koreans and the Pakistanis, could well take General Suleimani’s death as a warning about what happens to countries with no nuclear options.
Now add this:
Even those critical of the president’s nuclear move said they understood why the Iranian general was such a target.
“These guys are the personification of evil,” David H. Petraeus, the retired general who was an architect of the surge in Iraq, said in an interview Thursday night. “We calculated they were responsible for at least 600 deaths” of American soldiers.
But Mr. Petraeus offered a caution.
“There will be an escalation,” he said. “I assume they have to do something. And the only question is, over time, have we created more deterrence than if we had not acted.”
Who knows? But Fred Kaplan knows this:
The United States is now at war with Iran.
This is the inescapable result of President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, arguably the most powerful military leader in the Middle East, and the most important person in Iran, except for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
You don’t deliberately kill someone like Soleimani unless you’re at war with his country, and even then, you want to think long and hard before you do, given the near-certainty of blowback.
That means simply doing your homework:
To convey a sense of Suleimani’s significance, it would be as if, during the Iraq war, the ayatollah had ordered the assassination of Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Jim Mattis, the head of Special Operations Command, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Suleimani’s responsibilities corresponded with all four of these roles. Even then, the analogy falls short because, among Shi’ite Muslims across the region, Soleimani also exuded the charisma of a religious icon, a holy warrior.
For the past 20 years, he had been the architect of Iran’s expansionist foreign policy, running subversive operations and controlling Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, he shared intelligence about al-Qaida and the Taliban with U.S. officials, until President George W. Bush declared Iran to be part of the “axis of evil.” In the fight against ISIS, his militias were crucial in forcing the group’s fighters out of Iraq. But he was also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq insurgency. On Thursday night, the Pentagon justified its action by claiming that he was about to launch an offensive against American embassies and armed forces throughout the region.
Even if that is true, killing him doesn’t make much strategic sense.
And that leads Kapan to wonder why this is so:
It is hard to discern how Trump, who ordered the assassination personally, thinks this will play out. On New Year’s Eve, he told reporters that he wanted peace with Iran. Just two days later, did he think that killing Iran’s top military commander was somehow not an act of war? If he grasped that it was, did he – does he – believe that the blow would bring the regime to its knees or rouse the Iranian people to mount a revolution?
Many Iranians, especially in the cities, despise the mullahs in charge of their government, as shown by the massive protests that have swept the country in recent months, but they despise foreign intruders even more. The ghost of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister who was overthrown in a joint American-British coup in 1953, still haunts the Iranian landscape, animating every crisis since.
So, someone didn’t do their homework, not that it matters:
Did Trump have an endgame in mind when he ordered the attack, or was his action, like so many of his words and actions, simply impulsive? Did any of his advisers warn him of the legal implications and the potential political, military, and economic consequences? We now know that Congress wasn’t notified, much less consulted. Did the National Security Council even meet to weigh the pros and cons or to discuss alternative responses? Give Trump’s track record on deliberations, it’s unlikely.
In any case, whether Trump means to provoke a war or wants to pursue a diplomatic course at some point, there is no one around him very capable of doing either. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has no credibility with Iran, having openly advocated a regime-change policy. Secretary of Defense Mike Esper, a former aerospace lobbyist, has no background in this sort of thing. The policy bureaus in the Pentagon and State Department are desperately short of specialists in the region, most of them having either resigned or been fired. Trump may think this doesn’t matter, having said on many occasions that he knows more about making deals than any general or diplomat – which might be the most worrisome aspect of this crisis.
But in the end it comes down to this:
No one can confidently predict what might happen next. But those who don’t grasp the essence of what happened Thursday night – that Donald Trump declared war on Iran – are kidding themselves.
But that’s okay. We’re Americans. That’s what we do.