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.
"The claim that the strike was twelve dimensional chess, or bold leadership, or anything but classic Trumpian impulsivity and egotism, is hogwash."
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, 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?)
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. Of course, distracting us from impeachment is merely a sub-task of his 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 Trump’s 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) 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.
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 Gentleman, 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. 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.
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 hour 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.
Ginning up an international crisis to deflect domestic troubles is a time-tested presidential strategy, of course, and one that private citizen Trump repeatedly—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.)
But the Extremely Stable Genius’s net gain is likely to be even less than previous wartime presidents, given his aforementioned credibility problem. 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. Regardless, we can count on more of Trump’s demonstrated willingness to do what is technically known in foreign policy circles as “crazy shit,” especially if he perceives that he obtains a domestic political benefit that will help protect him from Nancy Pelosi pulling up in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue behind the wheel of an empty moving truck.
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 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. Going forward it promises to bring on a raft of unpredictable and potentially nightmarish problems, including the further alienation of the US in the international community; 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.
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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?
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.
Not a horrible 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 a political tool, it 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.
"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."
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. 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 in the first place.
War Without End—Amen
Trump 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 him 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.
"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."
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 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.