Thousand of Iranians Mourn General Qassim Soleimani on January 6th. (Majid Asgaripour via Wikimedia Commons)
Thanks to last Friday’s drone-strike assassination of Iranian Major General Qassim Soleimani, we ring in a new decade amidst millions’ calls for “Death to America” and memes about WWIII and the selective service populating our instagram feeds
These concerns are only jokes and quite overblown . . . I hope.
Before I lambast another Trump administration foreign policy maneuver (I know right, what a surprise- it almost feels like low hanging fruit at this point), it’s worth mentioning that, in moral terms, eliminating Soleimani was justifiable. By any account, he was responsible for the deaths of thousands: Americans, Israelis, Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East, and his own Iranian civilians.
Friday’s strike at the Baghdad international airport came just days after violent protest and vandalism of the US embassy miles away, and the death of an American citizen in a rocket attack. Militia backed by Soleimani’s Quds Force claimed responsibility for both. Though the rationale and strategy behind his assassination were suspect at best, it’s difficult and probably naive to, short of abject pacifism, morally harangue the strike as some have done over social media. Plus, though its constitutional and international legality are certainly up for debate, Democratic house leadership – like Pelosi and Schumer – who denounce the attack on both accounts didn’t seem to bat an eye as Obama’s administration frequently used similar tactics without congressional approval in combating terror.
That does not change the fact that this was a terribly inadvisable foreign policy blunder.
If the Trump administration’s goal was to somehow intimidate or frustrate Iran into deescalation amid a week of small-scale, tit-for-tat salvos in Iraq, it backfired spectacularly. For one, eliminating its leader does not at all cripple the Iranian military. Though certainly not ideal, Iran has already appointed a successor, and its military operations have not missed a beat. This week, Iran announced it would stop abiding by any limits on uranium enrichment as dictated by the Iran Nuclear deal, clearing a path for potential nuclear weapons development. And though no personnel were harmed, Iranian missiles struck two American bases in Iraq.
Symbolic, maybe, but not strategic.
Rather than topple the metaphorical beehive (which, for the record, would have been a horrible idea in its own right) Trump ordered, naturally, the next best thing: whack said hive really hard with a really tiny stick.
This strategy of submission via intimidation wouldn’t work hardly anywhere, but especially not in a nation already hypersensitive and hostile to perceived American incursion and imperialism. Over a million Iranians took to the streets chanting “death to America” as they trailed Soleimani’s coffin. Reportedly, even moderates and reformists demonstrated en masse against the strike. Many disapprove of president Hassan Rouhani, Ayatollah Khamenei, and their government, but they despise American violation of their sovereignty and national pride far more.
In short, Soleimani’s death has united and provoked all of Iran-even those inclined toward reform and peaceable relations with the West – in vilification of America.
The backlash, however, is not confined to Iran. On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament–rightfully viewing an unannounced and unapproved airstrike in their airspace as a violation of national sovereignty–voted to remove US and NATO forces from the country. Both in combating terror, especially in the ongoing fight against ISIS, and, ironically, in countering Iranian military presence against potential confrontation, the US has lost a massive tactical asset in its alliance with and the use of Iraqi territory.
In fact, all American allies (or at least nations rival to Iran) in the Middle East are alarmed by Soleimani’s killing and the impending chaos. Saudi Arabia and Yemen have been markedly silent in response; the former even sent an envoy to Iran seeking preemptive peace terms. Even Israel, a strident US supporter under Netanyahu, issued an uncharacteristically measured response, fearing fierce retaliation from Iran. Many of our global allies in the EU and NATO–vital if any stand against Iran is to be successful–did the same.
Judging by Trump’s twitter, his administration views this tension as of no consequence. In light of a $2 billion defense package (Don’t get me started on where we could spend that money instead.), it sees utter victory as inevitable should violent, large-scale confrontation or protracted detente arise.
This is grossly overconfident. For one, allies are generally helpful in winning wars. Yet many would-be partners of days gone by are either too imperiled by Iranian arms close-to-home or too disillusioned and alienated since 2016 to be relied on in such situations. Though Iran most certainly would not be, regional nations like Syria and Jordan and global powers like Russia and China would potentially have much to gain. And at stake, we might very well be on our own should meme forebodings come to pass.
So why would Washington risk so much in such an ill-advised move? On one hand, it’s possible that Trump and his team simply didn’t think this through, opting for a brazen, headline grabbing strike in keeping with his overall prerogative. This seems even more plausible given that sober, qualified, level-headed foreign policy officials don’t last very long in the current White House.
On the other hand, it’s possible (and probably more likely) Trump knew all too well what he was doing. From China to North Korea to even our international allies, Trump’s foreign policy seems to expect and embrace escalation and conflict. It’s as if he and his team believe things must get worse,becoming more unfriendly, unstable, and unhinged before they get better. Time and again, he’s proven more than willing to use American might and leverage to do it. This jingoistic, nationalist approach may have worked on occasion in times past, but it’s also what literally helped spark devastating multinational proxy and world wars.
In an age where geopolitics is far more dangerous and complicated, this game-plan is a losing one: a solitary bull with delusions of grandeur in a large and dangerous China shop.
Again, Qassim Soleimani got what was coming to him. But contrary to rhetoric supporting his elimination, the world is not a safer place for it. Not by a long shot. And as young people who will someday inherit that same world, this should be alarming to us all.