“We took a bad guy off the battlefield. We made the right decision.” That is the sophomoric justification that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provided for President Donald Trump’s risky gambit of killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force.
If we have learned anything from the past 17 years, it is that killing a bad guy doesn’t necessarily make the situation any better. Saddam Hussein was as bad as a guy can get, but his ouster and execution only unleashed chaos. That’s why I regret my support for the Iraq War; Pompeo clearly does not. He and Trump (who supported the Iraq invasion before he opposed it) seem to have learned nothing from that fiasco. They are sucking the United States into another Middle East conflict with a surfeit of arrogance and a deficit of strategy.
It’s still possible that Soleimani’s demise in a U.S. drone strike will deter Iran from greater villainy, but so far, the fallout has been entirely negative. Iraqis and Iranians who just a few weeks ago were protesting the Iranian regime are now protesting the United States. The Iraqi parliament just voted to expel U.S. troops. So much for Pompeo’s vapid boast that Iraqis were “dancing in the street” because Soleimani is “no more.”
The Iraqi vote is nonbinding, but it makes it more likely that Soleimani might achieve in death what he could not achieve in life — a pullout of U.S. forces that would leave Iraq entirely at Iran’s mercy. Also since the strike, U.S. forces in Iraq have suspended their operations against the Islamic State to brace for Iranian retaliation. There is no point in deploying troops if their only mission is to protect themselves.
Trump seems determined to unify the whole region against the United States, because he just threatened to attack Iranian cultural sites and to blackmail Iraq into paying for a U.S. air base built after an invasion that Iraqis did not ask for. After Trump’s first ultimatum against cultural sites, Pompeo disingenuously denied that Trump had threatened to violate international law. Trump then made clear he meant it, telling reporters: “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
Actually, it does work that way, because Iran is a rogue regime and the United States is a rule-of-law country. Or at least we were. It’s laughable to hear Pompeo say that “We have developed a strategy to attempt to convince the Iranian regime to behave like a normal nation.” Normal nations don’t threaten to blackmail other countries or destroy their cultural sites.
This whole crisis started in 2018 when Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal despite Iran’s compliance. One of his chief complaints was that the agreement’s expiration date was too short. Thanks to Trump’s rash act, the sunset period has gone from 15 years to zero: On Sunday, Iran announced that it would no longer comply with any of the limits in the agreement.
All of these consequences, which have occurred even before Iranian military retaliation, were entirely predictable. It is for such reasons that previous administrations refused to kill Soleimani. Did Trump realize what would happen? Did he hear from opponents of the decision and carefully weigh all of the ramifications? The questions are rhetorical; we all know the disturbing answers.
Naysayers such as former defense secretary Jim Mattis are long gone from Trump’s inner circle; if Mattis were still around, he probably would have blocked the strike on Soleimani. So Trump made what is perhaps the most important life-or-death decision of his presidency with his usual flippancy, in between golfing and campaign bull sessions. Normal people devote greater care and attention to buying a sofa, as David Brooks suggested in 2016, than Trump does to acts of war.
Pompeo, who is a primary advocate for a get-tough-on Iran strategy, then claimed that Trump had to act to stop an “imminent attack.” But the administration refuses to provide any public evidence, and members of Congress and Defense Department officials who have seen the intelligence are skeptical. Indeed, it’s hard to see how killing Soleimani would stop an attack that was already in motion. It is impossible to take on faith anything we are told by the most dishonest administration in U.S. history, and Pompeo’s smugness and truculence do not help its cause.
The administration has made no real effort to convince either domestic or international critics of the rightness of its cause. Trump didn’t bother to notify congressional leaders before acting, and now he pretends that he’s keeping Congress informed by tweeting blood-curdling threats. Trump continues to sabotage any attempts to gain bipartisan support by conflating his political opponents with the United States’ enemies, while Pompeo continues to wrongly blame the Obama administration for a crisis of Trump’s own making.
“Jesus, do we have to explain why we do these things?” an imperious State Department official demanded during an administration press briefing. Yes, you do, and you’re doing a terrible job so far.