“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” So said the stable genius who occupies the White House. His Secretary of State similarly claimed that Americans are safer now, even as his department warned that Americans should leave Iraq immediately because of heightened tensions. According to Pompeo, the assassination of the second most powerful man in the Iranian state was actually a de-escalation of America’s conflict with Iran.
It’s doubtful that even this clueless duo could believe such nonsense. This is a deliberate act of escalation, one which will elicit predictable retaliation by Iran, to which the US will be obliged to respond, etc. etc. Reportedly, Trump’s own military advisers, presenting him with an array of options for action, included among them the assassination only in the expectation that Trump would reject it.
So, why did Trump choose the most dangerous option? The ostensible justification is that Suleiman was planning imminent acts of violence directed against Americans and that he had to be stopped. There is good reason to be skeptical of this claim: the administration has yet to share the intelligence on which it is allegedly based, and seasoned Middle Eastern observers have seen no evidence of extraordinary activity lately by Iran’s proxies. But even if it’s true, there were more measured steps to be taken than an action that risks a massive destabilization of Iraq and the greater Middle East. Anyway, if Suleiman’s planned sinister acts were indeed imminent, i.e., ready to go, it seems unlikely that his elimination would have prevented his successor, already in place, from following through. There are lots of other reasons for doubting the wisdom of this act—you can check out, for example, this and this.
The simplest explanation for Trump’s decision is that he is obsessed with appearing strong. After all, among the many insults he hurls at his political adversaries, surely one of the most common is “Weak!” And, it surely can’t be lost on Trump that this particular show of strength will help to distract from his impeachment troubles. Even better: if he can rally Americans around the flag for a continuing spiral of violence with Iran, that could well be helpful to him in November. Long ago I noted the tension between Trump’s isolationist aspirations, reflecting an apparently genuine desire to avoid “endless wars,” and his instinctive bellicosity. Evidently, the instinctive bellicosity has triumphed, spurred by political expediency.
This impending new cycle of violence should lead us to reconsider the fundamental question: should the US be so involved in the Middle East, given that its involvement exposes it to multiple perils? The most common answer is that this is a very volatile and dangerous region. Because its oil is important to the world, it needs the continuing stabilizing overlordship of the world’s only superpower. There are a lot of bad actors there, and us good guys need to keep them in check. I don’t buy it.
Here is my brief review of US involvement in the Middle East since the 1979 Iranian revolution. In the 1980s we served as a helpful accessory to Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against our common enemy, Iran. (A different way of putting it is that we used Saddam as our proxy.) About a million people died in that conflict. In the 1990s we imposed draconian sanctions on Iraq in attempting to oust our erstwhile pal Saddam. The Iraqi death toll, mostly among the very old and very young, eventually exceeded half a million. (I suppose this doesn’t qualify as terrorism because the deaths, mostly due to disease and malnutrition, were gradual.) The following decade we invaded Iraq, starting a war that caused additional hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of people displaced. It also exacerbated sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East and gave birth to ISIS. Early in the past decade the US joined in an intervention in Libya that morphed into a regime change operation, resulting in anarchy in Libya that reverberated through much of North Africa. And of course throughout this period the US has effectively underwritten Israeli expansionism, inflaming a sense of grievance through much of the Muslim world that has continually generated fodder for terrorist recruitment. In short, as an agent of death, destruction and disorder, Suleiman’s Iran has been a bit player compared to the United States of America.
I admit that the foregoing review is selective, but pardon me for sneering at anyone who claims that we are good guys doing good works in the Middle East. We really need to consider whether we should be there at all. I would hope that the Democratic candidates for POTUS won’t shrink from asking that question, but I’m not too optimistic.