I’ll be completely honest—I have no idea how this is going to play out. And by “this,” I mean the assassination by drone strike of Iranian leader Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. As I wrote Tuesday, the situation in Iraq is wildly complicated right now, but the truth appears to be that there are militias in Iraq that are officially incorporated into the Iraqi armed forces, and have been critical in combating ISIS in the region, but who are essentially controlled by Iran. And those Irani-controlled militias are attacking U.S. targets in Iraq, and were being coordinated by Suleimani, the head of the Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most prominent military leader in Iran, and the man the Times called, “the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past two decades.”
Trump tweeted out an American flag as his big-swinging-dick move when it went down, and then had this to say:
As for mainstream media reaction, there was a good bit of Brian Williams-esque “guided by the beauty of our weapons” BS, mixed with some low-level grade school machismo:
And a dash of manufactured consent:
The White House line was that Suleimani was an “imminent threat” to more American lives, and Trump's action saved those lives:
Which, of course, is probably true. As to the question of whether a president like Obama or a theoretical Hillary Clinton would have done this, I think the answer is probably no. It's not that Obama didn't love drone strikes, and it's not that Clinton wasn't a war hawk (she's a big part of the Libya disaster, and I think we'd be at war in Syria right now if she had won office), but that Trump is particularly vulnerable to the concept of a big flashy move, and more prone to give into the military instinct for action without considering the consequences. That's clearly what happened here—he saw Americans being killed in rocket attacks, and no matter what other intelligence he considered, the decision at heart came down to the idea that when someone shoves you, you shove them back. Which a lot of people are going to love, and which could get us into some serious trouble.
Among Democrats, the typical reaction was to acknowledge that Suleimani was “bad,” but to worry about war, as we saw with Elizabeth Warren:
Bernie Sanders was one of the few who didn't echo the administration's talking point first:
Trump has long been flirting with war in Iran, and for a long time it looked like the maniac John Bolton was going to drag him into one, especially after two tankers were hit in the Gulf of Oman in June. He’s the one who got out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018, and the fall-out from that made war look inevitable at one point this summer. That original withdrawal led inexorably to economic sanctions, the threat (and reality) of more troops sent to the area, and increasingly violent rhetoric from Iran. It also led to the proxy war in Iraq, which was one of the Iranian choices after being backed into an economic and diplomatic corner. Here’s what I wrote in the summer:
Subsequent actions, from the sanctions to the bellicose rhetoric to the imminent troop deployment, back this up. In the face of this aggression, Iran was left with two choices: Tuck its tail between its legs, in which case there was every evidence that the U.S. would continue to pursue regime change, or fight back with increasing hostility, which plays into Trump’s hands and leads down the path of war. It’s a bullying form of diplomacy from the White House, with only one possible outcome, and while nobody in their right minds would try to frame Iran as the “good guy” in any geopolitical situation, it’s clear that if war comes, there will be only one party to blame.
Luckily for all of us, Bolton lost influence and was eventually fired in September, which was one of the few positive things Trump has ever done. But it didn’t stop the momentum to war, and now the situation looks worse than ever. Trump simply can’t resist being led down the path of conflict, one step at a time, in a geopolitical kind of mission creep that has only one destination.
Of course, there may be a few other explanations. Trump may see war as a good distraction for impeachment, or a good way to gain popular support ahead of an election. He may be marching in lockstep to the desires of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, though, the primary motivation seems to be his eagerness to bully Iran in a way that no president has managed before, just as he attempted in North Korea. The difference is, there’s actual ideology in Iran that goes beyond the naked self-interested of a ruling dynasty, and the Ayatollah won’t operate with only his own survival in mind.
The question that remains is, how will Iran respond? The initial rhetoric is aggressive:
His death is a considerable blow to Tehran, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for retaliation on Friday and for three days of national mourning.
“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands,” the supreme leader said in a statement.
Trump’s actions since leaving the Nuclear Deal have given Iran two choices: Bow to American pressure and look weak while Trump keeps the economic squeeze on, or fight back. They’ve chosen to fight back in “small” ways thus far, including the militia attacks, but current American foreign policy won’t allow for proxy wars—it continues to force Iran into the really big choice of total capitulation or total war. Based on decades of hatred between the two countries, and the prospect of losing all influence in the region, it seems absurd to think that Iran won’t continue to escalate. It could lead to enormous consequences for them, including the toppling of the Ayatollah, but Trump has cut off most other paths except total submission, and submission does not seem to be in the game plan. In other words, smart money says “prepare for war.”