Let’s start by dispensing with the patently obvious.
Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian major general and Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani was driven by a number of factors, but none of them involved prudent forethought and counsel with foreign policy advisors, Middle East experts, and military officers.
We can debate the merits and demerits of such a radically destabilizing move all day. (Spoiler alert: the demerits have the upper hand.) But what we can’t do is pretend that the decision was made in any kind of rational, well-considered way that bespeaks a thoughtful commander-in-chief with an awareness of the implications—or even any curiosity about them—or acting with the best interests of the United States at heart.
It was more like the act of a severely maladjusted seventh grader who got first into his parents’ liquor cabinet, and then their gun rack.
Unquestionably Suleimani was a bad hombre, as the saying goes, with buckets of American blood on his hands from the Iraq war. Good riddance to him. But the wisdom of taking him out right now is highly debatable. It was an order that reportedly shocked even Trump’s top military advisors, who by some accounts only mentioned the possibility as a hypothetical, never thinking he’d go for it. (Have them met him?) Michelle Goldberg writes in the New York Times:
According to Peter Bergen’s book Trump and His Generals, James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense, instructed his subordinates not to provide the president with options for a military showdown with Iran. But with Mattis gone, military officials, The Times reported, presented Trump with the possibility of killing Suleimani as the “most extreme” option on a menu of choices, and were “flabbergasted” when he picked it.
So much for Trump as Sun Tzu.
Here in the reality-based world, there can be no plausibly denying that Trump’s chief motivations were as follows, in no particular order:
1) A wag-the-dog attempt to defend against impeachment, which—Mitch McConnell’s machinations notwithstanding—is closing on Trump like a vise.
Ironically, Donald remains likely to escape conviction, which is a howling travesty of justice and indictment of the illness of our political system. But instead of celebrating his continuing lifelong streak of insanely undeserved good luck, just the idea of impeachment is clearly driving the already batty Mr. Trump even battier, resulting in all kinds of erratic and self-destructive behavior, from record-breaking tweetstorms to ordering assassinations that might destabilize the entire global order.
Of course, distracting us from impeachment is merely a sub-task of Trump’s broader effort to get re-elected, which not coincidentally also motivated his unconstitutional skullduggery in Ukraine, which is why he is being impeached in the first place. So in one sense we can look at Suleimani’s killing as little more than an aspect of his re-election campaign, like kissing babies or offering coal subsidies.
2) His instinctive belligerence and knee-jerk tendency to opt for the most extreme, hamhanded, and clumsily faux macho option in any given scenario, regardless of whether he is being impeached or not.
3) Related to #2 above, wanton indulgence of Trump’s massive ego—perhaps the defining principle of his entire presidency.
The Washington Post reports:
Trump was also motivated to act by what he felt was negative coverage after his 2019 decision to call off the airstrike after Iran downed the US surveillance drone, officials said. Trump was also frustrated that the details of his internal deliberations had leaked out and felt he looked weak, the officials said.
This is how we make decisions now.
Needless to say, a huge part of this megalomaniacal insecurity is Trump’s raging, unquenchable jealousy toward Barack Obama, manifested in a desire to undo all of his predecessor’s accomplishments, from the ACA to the JCPOA, and to impulsively take any action that Obama—often wisely—declined to, especially when it comes to the use of force.
Earlier I compared Trump to a twelve-year-old. But this is the mentality of a toddler. And one who never gets hugged.
This dynamic began early in Donald’s presidency when he authorized a risky covert operation in Yemen after some gung ho Pentagon advisors informed him that “Obama wouldn’t do it,” a mission that subsequently went awry and wound up killing a Navy SEAL and several children.
Surely there are other equally petty and appalling reasons Trump decided to launch the strike on on Suleimani, but I suspect they fall roughly under these three headings.
In short, the claim that the strike was twelve dimensional chess, or bold leadership, or anything but classic Trumpian impulsivity and egotism, is hogwash. So please don’t pester me with the fairy tale that Donald Trump is some military genius.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE CREDIBILITY GAP
The odious Mike Pompeo claimed with a straight face that the White House ordered the strike to preempt an “imminent attack” on US lives. But this is Lucy-holding-the-football territory, recalling previous lies that led us into other disastrous foreign wars, from the sinking of the Maine to the Gulf of Tonkin to Iraq’s mythical WMD.
Numerous experts have attested that Suleimani was always in the process of planning such attacks, giving the lie to the notion that there was some urgency to killing him now when we could have done so at numerous points in the past. (Like Obama, George W. Bush also declined to pull the trigger on Suleimani, despite being given the chance—also like Obama, on the wise counsel of his foreign policy advisors.) And we know that Pompeo and his lieutenants had actually been lobbying Trump to order this killing for months, not because of any new emergency.
Conveniently, the alleged evidence of this “imminent attack” was initially classified. When the administration finally got around to briefing Congress—four days after the strike—the response was less than effusive. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah—I say again, a Republican senator—called it “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate,” as well as “insulting” and “demeaning.” (In response, Trump’s pet water carrier Lindsey Graham wasted no time violating Reagan’s 11th Commandment and attacking his fellow Republican for “empowering” Tehran. )
Writing in the Atlantic, George Packer neatly dismantled Pompeo’s specious claim, as well as the administration’s flimsy argument for killing Suleimani on broader strategic grounds:
Suleimani was a supremely powerful leader of a state apparatus, with his own cult of personality, but he was not a terror kingpin. His death doesn’t decapitate anything. He had the blood of tens of thousands of people—overwhelmingly fellow Muslims—on his hands, but he was only the agent of a government policy that preceded him and will continue without him. His deeds are beside the point; so is the display of American resolve. The only reason to kill Suleimani is to enter a new war that the United States can win.
What would that war look like? How will Iran fight it? How will the U.S. respond? What credible allies will we have, after Trump’s trashing of the nuclear deal thoroughly alienated Europe? Who will believe any intelligence about Iran’s actions and intentions from an administration that can’t function without telling lies? How will American officials deliberate when Trump has gotten rid of his experts and turned his government into a tool of personal power? What is the point of having a Congress if it has no say about a new American war? What is our war aim, and how can it be aligned with Trump’s obvious desire to be rid of any entanglement in the region? What will happen if Jerusalem becomes a target and Israel enters the conflict? What will the American people accept by way of sacrifice, when nothing has prepared them for this?
There’s no sign that anyone in power, least of all the president, has even asked these questions, let alone knows how to answer them.
Thus we are brought to a moment of bittersweet irony.
Like many administrations before it, this White House is asking us to take its word when it comes to the most violent and consequential actions a government can undertake. But the Trump administration has less than zero credibility when it comes to saying, “Trust us, it was the right thing to do. We can’t tell you exactly why, but it was.” So in this moment when Trump really needs the faith and confidence of American people, there is some grim satisfaction in seeing his record of world-beating mendacity now come back to haunt him.
Bullshit excuses aside, no one can say with confidence what all the long term effects of this reckless action will be, but it is all but impossible that any good that comes out of it will outweigh the inevitable bad. That bad has already begun with the humiliating—and debilitating—expulsion of US forces from Iraq, and Iran’s full-bore resumption of its nuclear weapons program. Even if the crisis does not escalate into a full-scale shooting war (as was the initial and widespread fear, now marginally soothed by tentative signs of saber-holstering by both sides), going forward it promises to bring on a raft of unpredictable and potentially nightmarish problems. Chief among these are the further alienation of the US in the international community (yes, isolationists, that matters) and the attendant handicaps that alienation creates in the conduct of US foreign policy; a more dangerous operational climate for US military forces in the region and arguably worldwide; and of course, violent reprisals of one kind or another that might yet engulf us in a deeper military quagmire. Most grim of all now is the near-certainty that Iran will now get the Bomb within the next decade.
Gee, who’d have thought that giving this kind of power to a maliciously ignorant D-list game show host would have those kind of repercussions?
So while his slavish followers high five and fist bump over what a tough guy they believe he is, Trump has in reality dealt the US a grievous setback on the international stage, dramatically escalated the lethal risks to American life and limb, and risked dragging us into the exact kind of Middle Eastern quagmire he breathlessly campaigned against. He even managed to create a second shameful spectacle of US weakness in the space of four months as our troops are forced to scurry out of Iraq tails between legs, much as we did from Syria, where the laughing Russians cruised in and took over our bases without so much as firing a shot.
If that’s your definition of military success, Donald Trump is indeed a martial mastermind after all, bonespurs be damned.
So once again, as with all things Donald, we are confronted with the headshaking consequences of having a deranged man-baby as our fearless leader. As Mehdi Hasan wrote in the Intercept:
This is not a column, however, about the consequences of the US government assassinating the second-most powerful man in Iran….. Rather, this is a column that allows me to express my ongoing astonishment that Donald Trump is president of the United States; my ongoing bewilderment with a world in which an unhinged, know-nothing former reality TV star and property developer, with zero background in foreign affairs or national security, may have just kicked off World War III. (From his golf course, no less.)”
The point—and its direct origin in the existential threat to Trump’s presidency—was expressed even more pointedly in this anonymous meme that is caroming around the Interweb: “Right now there’s an impeached president authorizing international assassinations without Congressional approval while tweeting from a golf course.”
Indeed, every aspect of Trump’s behavior here is emblematic of his awfulness.
It should come as no shock that he didn’t inform the Democratic leadership of the Suleimani strike beforehand, though he did inform the Republican leadership, and of course Vladimir Putin (must keep the boss in the loop). And it goes without saying that this entire horrific crisis is merely an acceleration—albeit a wholly unnecessary one—of the trajectory Trump put us on with his foolhardy withdrawal from the JCPOA back in 2018, itself another example of his pathological obsession with Barack H. Obama. (See Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal in these pages, May 11, 2018.)
The timing of John Bolton’s cryptic announcement earlier this week that he is willing to testify in a Senate impeachment trial was also interesting. The presumption is that Bolton’s testimony would be hostile and disastrous for Trump. But perhaps John is prepared to perjure himself and defend Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine out of gratitude for his former boss finally starting his long-desired war with Tehran. It is tempting to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory here. Might Trump even have privately offered to start that war in exchange for Bolton’s cooperation? Does Brett Kavanaugh like beer? We can leave that one floating. In any case, I am confident that ever since the Suleimani strike John Bolton has been dealing with the kind of permanent erection that ED commercials warn you to see a physician about.
THE DOG WAGS BACK
Already the next phase in this piteous, bloodsoaked farce is unfolding. Trump threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites, which it seems almost petty to point out is a war crime when it is being proposed in the context of a far bigger and broader atrocity. Deep thinkers like Sean Hannity (“Dude, do you even lift?”) encouraged Trump go even further and begin a full-scale strategic bombing of Iran, which I guess looks good on paper, if you’re a fucking moron. Even Tucker Carlson saw the stupidity in that, which suggests that the cognitive dissonance of Trump’s America Firstism colliding with his inner bully’s natural propensity for bombing the shit out of people may be too much even for MAGA Nation.
But even if we avoid a wider war right now, major damage has already been done in terms of decreased US power in the Persian Gulf and the re-acceleration of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, per above. And if matters do take a dark turn at any point in the near future, Trump’s demonstrated willingness to do what is technically known in foreign policy circles as “crazy shit” does not bode well…..especially if he perceives that he obtains a domestic political benefit from such behavior that will help protect him from Nancy Pelosi pulling up in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue behind the wheel of an empty moving truck.
To leapfrog ahead to the darkest possible scenario, were the US and Iran to get into a series tit-for-tat airstrikes, it is not beyond imagination that Trump might even launch a nuclear strike on Tehran. After all, during the 2016 campaign he openly wondered why we have this massive nuclear arsenal if we never get to use it. As Business Insider reports:
“In any other circumstance, I would have argued that the norm against using nuclear weapons is so strong there’s no chance that a president would use a nuclear weapon,” (said) Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey who studies nuclear arms control. “At the end of the day, though, it’s just a norm. And this president delights in smashing norms.”
Given his innate tendency to always go for the stupidest response, and his juvenile desire to do “bold” things his predecessors would not do (with good reason), there is in fact every reason to suspect Trump would not hesitate to go there. If so, then we will see just how much moral courage the US military establishment has in standing up to him, like Seven Days in May in reverse.
Alarmism, you say? OK, sure. Because Donald Trump would never do something insanely aggressive just in a fit of pique.
Even short of nuclear war, Trump clearly intends to use conflict with Iran to distract from impeachment, thrill his fans, and try to lure wobbly center-right undecideds over to his team with the illusion of strength and patriotism. It’s a time-tested strategy, and one that he histrionically (but incorrectly) predicted Obama would use. In general, Trump’s past attacks on Obama are a master class in projection, providing a reliable roadmap for what he himself will do in any given scenario, as he cannot imagine a leader taking anything other than the most cynical and self-serving path.
Will it work? Here’s Aaron Blake, writing in the WaPo:
Pollsters and political analysts often talk about a “rally around the flag” effect that comes when the United States is attacked or launches new military campaigns. And there is something to that. But it’s often quite short-lived, and there’s little evidence it has actually helped any recent president win reelection.
In fact, Trump’s net gain is likely to be even less than previous wartime presidents, given his aforementioned credibility problem. In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait writes:
Americans historically support their presidents in foreign conflicts, both the wise ones and unwise ones alike, at least initially. Trump no doubt believes the halo effect will last at least through November—that he might undertake an action that would harm his reelection out of some larger sense of duty to the nation or the world is unfathomable. But presidents traditionally benefit from a presumption of competence, or at least moral legitimacy, from their opposition. Trump has forfeited his.
So the Extremely Stable Genius is not likely to get far with this strategy beyond the base that already adores him, and perhaps a few jingoists who have heretofore been fencesitters. Whether that is sufficient to make an electoral difference will be yet another test of the intelligence, gullibility, and moral courage of us as a nation. So far, apparently not even Trump himself is buying his own bullshit, as he was back to tweeting about the impeachment “witchhunt” even as Iranian missiles fell on US troops.
There is also the strong possibility that Trump’s Wag the Dog ploy may even backfire, so transparent are his domestic motives and so stark his record of transactional behavior, particularly if matters with Iran go south fast.
Moving beyond the details of this specific international incident and its impact on the ongoing domestic US political crisis, we must ask ourselves what Trump’s order to kill Qasem Suleimani says about the state of our democracy and how we conduct war in the 21st century.
On CNN, Pete Buttigieg— lest we forget, a former Navy intelligence officer and Afghanistan vet as well as a Rhodes Scholar—was asked by Jake Tapper if he thought the Suleimani strike qualified as an “assassination.” Wisely refusing to engage in gotcha semantics, Mayor Pete replied:
I am not interested in the terminology. I’m interested in the consequences and I’m interested in the process. Did the president have legal authority to do this? Why wasn’t Congress consulted? It seems like more people at Mar-a-Lago heard about this than people in the United States Congress who are a coequal branch of government with a responsibility to consult. Which of our allies were consulted? The real-world effects of this are going to go far beyond the things that we’re debating today and we need answers quickly.
Pretty good answer. Maybe that kid should run for president.
But let’s dig into the topic, because the exploration is instructive.
Whether carried out by a non-state actor or a sovereign government, assassination is a specific form of killing distinguished by the political nature of the act, its victim, and/or the intended reaction. As such, it is not usually classified as “murder” when carried out (or at least sanctioned) by a nation state, though it is usually is when carried out by an individual acting on their own initiative, even if all the other circumstances are identical. Judge for yourself the wisdom or hypocrisy of that, and the implications for chaos versus justice.
But the verbiage is fungible. An execution of a head of state—even by the mob—is usually not considered “assassination” per se, even when it triggers, or results from, a similar kind of regime change. (Sorry, Charles I and Louis XVI). By contrast, we routinely talk about the “assassination” of John Lennon, which is a measure of his stature as a cultural figure. But in truth, Mark David Chapman didn’t kill Lennon over his antiwar activism. In that sense, assassination is a bit like art or porn, in that it’s hard to define but easy to recognize when you see it: Caesar, Lincoln, Trotsky, the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Mountbatten, Bhutto, and so on. Maybe most terrifying of all is Franz Ferdinand, whom Steve Schmidt evoked this week.
As a political tool, assassination is a technique as old as geopolitics itself—if you want to kill a snake, cut off its head. Notwithstanding our pearl-clutching rhetoric when others employ it, the US has certainly not shied away from killing foreign leaders in the past, not only despots but popular elected democratic figures as well, as evidenced by the corpses of Patrice Lumumba and Salvador Allende, and sometimes even our own surrogates, like Ngô Đình Diệm.
Usually the questions swirling about assassination as tool of state power involve the ethics of taking out a civilian representative of a foreign power, even for convincing reasons that advance national objectives. But that is not the question here. Suleimani was a major general in the Iranian army and a uniformed combatant commander. Therefore the issue is not his legitimacy as a target but whether we were plausibly in a true state of war with Iran where we are actively shooting at the bad guys, or if this was an aggressive provocation that risked ratcheting a low intensity conflict into that more dangerous realm without good reason.
Yet even that is a tricky question.
Since 1945 the demise of formal declarations of war has badly blurred the line between peace and war, which is already pretty blurry if one subscribes to Clausewitz’s definition of warfare as the extension of politics by other means, which I do. In the wake of Vietnam, the 1973 War Powers Act was meant to curb an American president’s ability to deploy US forces into harm’s way for an extended period without Congressional approval. But Mohammad Atta and friends definitively rang down the curtain on that era. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress three days after 9/11 amounted to a blank check for the president to order military action as he or she sees fit, without appreciable oversight, and with no expiration date. In the almost two decades since then, the American people have come to accept those parameters without much pushback, but with dire consequences.
Fighting a “terrorist” enemy in a kind of shadow war that lacks the usual metrics for determining not only victory but even concrete benchmarks of success, we as a nation have grown accustomed to a permanent state of war. Some would say that is precisely the Orwellian state of affairs that, in their Adam Curtis-style symbiosis, both the powers-that-be and their terrorist foes would like.
In such a world, the term “assassination” has become almost useless, since it is pejorative by nature, and since 1976, technically illegal as a tool of US policy under Executive Order 11905, not that it has mattered. (Hence the euphemism “targeted killing.”) If we set aside semantics—and also morality, as it is so malleable—the real question, to which Mayor Pete alludes, is whether a specific military action makes sense strategically and pragmatically. In the case of targeting a specific foreign individual, whether a member of an opposition government or a non-state actor, there can be good utilitarian arguments, even in “peacetime.” But in the case of Suleimani, there is reason to fear exactly the opposite.
Infamously, language itself can be weaponized to create the illusion or legitimacy. Last April, the Trump administration made the eyebrow-raising decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, joining only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in formally applying that term. We don’t have to get into a philosophical debate about the definition of terrorism to understand that labeling a uniformed element of a foreign army “terrorists” is problematic for about a dozen different reasons. If the IRGC is a terrorist organization from our point of view, so is the US Air Force from theirs.
Pragmatism aside, the fact that few Americans object to Suleimani’s killing on moral grounds, and only a few on legal grounds, is itself if a measure of how comfortable we as a people have become with the murky waters of endless war. When utilitarianism is the only guide, it is quite easy for that kind of self-styled flinty-eyed fortitude to slip into the indiscriminate application of force—a policy of murder first and rationalization later—with “pragmatism” as an all too convenient cover. A credible justification for a surgical strike on a center of gravity, whether the assassination of an individual, an airstrike on a terrorist camp, or the bombing of a nuclear reactor, can readily be twisted into something more venal (or be a mere veneer in the first place). Many an act of international aggression has been cloaked in the righteous rhetoric of “self-defense.” Few but the Quakers would argue that the world would not have been well-served and spared terrible horrors if a certain failed painter had met with a suspicious traffic accident in 1935. But it is disturbing how easily that same logic can be turned to Vladimir Putin serving up a cup of poison tea over, say, irritation at the mouthiness of a former KGB man turned defector to the West. The slope is as slippery as they come, circling us back to why assassination is reflexively proscribed the first place.
WAR WITHOUT END AMEN
But Trump is plainly not about to be dissuaded from using force however he fucking feels like it, neither by precedent, nor protocol, nor actual law, and certainly not by semantics. He clearly conceives of his commander-in-chief role much like his role in domestic affairs: absolute, not subject to questioning by mere mortals, and definitely unfettered by the Constitution or the requirement to consult with—much less obtain permission—from Congress.
The unitary executive approach to waging war suits Trump terrifyingly well: we could hardly have drawn up a more perfectly awful POTUS to inherit the expanded warmaking powers of the post-9/11 era.
Numerous sages predicted this state of affairs. Drone strikes, clandestine special operations missions, and targeted killings were among the distinguishing aspects of the so-called “Global War on Terror” that began under Bush 43, much of it hidden from public view and carried out with little to no oversight from Capitol Hill. As those shadowy operations grew under his Democratic successor, many on the center-left were comfortable giving Obama such expansive powers, trusting that he would use them judiciously and wisely. But many on the far left were not so sanguine, making them strange bedfellows with Obama-haters on the right, who were fine with the aggressive exercise of US military might, but just didn’t like a black guy in charge. Now, as the Cassandras foretold, those right-wingers have been delighted to take the vast presidential latitude established in the years 2001-2016 and hand it over to the host of “Celebrity Apprentice.”
The result, to return to Hasan’s formulation, is that we now have a criminally unqualified, proudly ignorant cretin and serial grifter with the near-absolute power of life and death, and the authority to order the killing of any single individual he deems a threat, at the mere press of a remote control button, from oceans away, or even the obliteration of the entire planet.
This is the world in which we now live, one of endless war, where victory is not only impossible but undesirable, and where a mad king can run amok, and we the people just nod and go about our day. It will remain so until the American public decides that we have had enough, or until the integrity and decency of the United States has been so thoroughly debased that it no longer matters.
Illustration by the Norwegian cartoonist Bloom