While you were enjoying the holidays with friends and family, you may have missed that the United States conducted a drone strike killing five people including Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. The strike took place at the Baghdad Airport as the general was reportedly on his way to a meeting with Iraqi officials. It was done without the knowledge of the Iraqis.
Killing General Soleimani, and the U.S. and world reaction in the aftermath, shows a real Policy-Strategy mismatch in the stated goals of the Trump Administration.
Mr. Donald J. Trump campaigned on a policy, and continues to reiterate it on the 2020 campaign trail, of pulling our troops out of the Middle East and to not pursue what he calls “endless wars.” His administration’s stated policy for the future is to focus on realigning our military forces and deployments to get away from the War on Terror and to instead focus on near competitors such as China and Russia. This action in Iraq furthers none of these goals.
Killing General Soleimani was in itself not a bad thing. On one important level, the world is much better off without him. He was, in the vernacular, a “bad guy.” No tears are shed in this space for his demise. The question is whether it was wise or not. The problem is that I suspect the Trump Administration had no long-term plan. No next steps. No branches and sequels that anticipated the understanding of, or planning for, probable Iranian retaliation. When taking such an action, proper planning requires thinking through the consequences and preparing for the inevitable reaction. I don’t see that that was done. An old military saying is that no plan survives contact with the enemy. They get a vote on what happens next. It is imperative that before taking such a drastic action that planners think through the probable consequences and prepare for them.
They should know that the Iranians will retaliate. Period. They must in order to keep their position as a power broker in the region. Most likely they will do so in an asymmetrical way. Cyber attacks. Terrorist attacks. Surrogates attacking US interests in third countries. Interfering with shipping in the Persian Gulf through rocket or mine attacks. Probably in a way that allows for plausible deniability that makes it more difficult for the U.S. to respond. The Iranians know that they cannot go toe to toe with the US military, but they also know that they can do a lot of damage — especially psychologically and economically. And Americans are likely to die.
There is a reason that over the last thirty years we attacked Iraq rather than Iran. Iran has always been a bad actor — by far much worse than Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Iran is the main source of terrorism in the Middle East and has been since their revolution in the late 1970’s as they try to export that revolution. Not unlike the Soviet Union in their heyday. We attacked Iraq twice because they were bad actors, but more importantly, it was doable. Iran is a completely different ball game. Despite stereotypes, Iran is a modern, technologically savvy nation with a large and capable military. Not in the US league, but good, and probably the best of those in the region.
When analyzing the attack, the evidence given by the Administration for carrying out the killing does not make sense. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argues that it was in response to intelligence that indicated an “imminent threat” to U.S. forces. This is important if one is considering the legal reasons for the killing. The President continually states that it is retribution for past actions by Iran, directed by General Soleimani. Not a legal reason for the undertaking under either U.S. or international law.
I don’t want to get hung up on the legality of the attack as in some ways, it is a distraction. It is important in another way if we want international support for our actions. The attack could be easily considered an assassination. Killing him was roughly equivalent to taking out our Director of the CIA or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. General Soleimani was an official of the sovereign nation of Iran. Additionally, the killing took place on the sovereign territory of Iraq, without their knowledge. In international law, and in practical support, this has consequences. It is definitely not the same as taking out Osama bin Laden or any other terrorist leader. He was an official with diplomatic standing in a sovereign government conducting official business in another sovereign nation. More importantly to the follow-on actions by Iran, the general was in all practicality the number two official in Iran and a national and regional hero.
Despite Mr. Trump’s pronouncements, we are considerably less safe in the Middle East now than before his death. Thousands of U.S. forces are being deployed to protect US bases, embassies, and civilians throughout the region. The forces already deployed to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria have ceased all operations against the terrorists in order to focus on self-protection, known in military parlance as force protection. NATO forces in the region stopped training Iraqi forces and have departed or hunkered down. The State Department warned all US citizens to depart Iraq. The Iraqi parliament voted to demand the departure of all US military personnel. The US military in Iraq informed their counterparts that they are “re-positioning troops” in Iraq In preparation for withdrawing all or part of the force.
Today, the Iranians officially declared they will no longer adhere to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which eliminated the near-term pursuit of their nuclear weapons program. Expect them to start building nuclear weapons.
The list goes on. We are definitely not safer. It doesn’t help when the world knows and documents that Trump has told over 15,000 lies since taking office. The support for this action from allies and friends is either non-existent or extremely muted. His reasons for attacking now lack credibility on the world stage. There have been imminent threats in that region for decades. It is a dangerous place. To date, the administration offers no evidence of any new or significant change to the situation.
Additionally, while General Soleimani was charismatic, there are other qualified generals to take his place. He personally did not carry out attacks. The troops and covert assets under Iranian control do. They still exist and are in place. Killing him will not tactically or operationally stop any attacks.
To me, concerns of an all out war are premature. But Trump’s decision was immature. It was a feel good, “aren’t I tough” move rather than a thought out strategic decision. Although I do not think that all out war is imminent, there is clearly a great opportunity for a miscalculation on each side which could lead to a larger conflict. There will be a series of tit-for-tat measures taken by both sides. If the military responses are not proportional and relevant, then the chance for escalation is high. Unfortunately, since Mr. Trump has tripled down on threats to purposefully and deliberately destroy Iranian cultural sites (a war crime under the Geneva Convention) the indications are not ones of restraint by the president. As Mr. Trump threatens to destroy 52 targets (one for each American hostage in 1979) the Iranians have indicated that they could hit 290 targets (one for each passenger and crew killed by the 1988 shootdown of an Iranian civilian Airbus by the USS Vincennes).
There is another scenario, however. The Iranians under General Soleimani, with the concurrence of the Ayatollah, was conducting an escalating campaign against American interests to test the limits of what they could get away with. Since there was no US response, to numerous provocations (shooting down a U.S. drone, mine attacks on tankers, a missile attack on Saudi oil fields, etc.) they were slowly ratcheting up their activities. They thought that Mr. Trump was afraid of conflict in the Gulf region. They were trying to get the president to accelerate his promise to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by making it painful to stay. They were trying to do so without crossing the line into provoking an all out American response. Since their economy is in dire straits, they desperately want to have sanctions lifted. This attack on the second most important man in Iran may cause them to recalibrate their thinking, even to the point of starting back channel negotiations with the U.S. The danger is, that even if such negotiations come to pass, it will literally go up in smoke if the US or Iran miscalculates on its military response.
It is well known in international relations that one cannot deter an opponent if they don’t know what it is they are supposed to be deterred from doing. With the, at best, uneven, at worst, ignorant, Trump foreign policy, it is difficult for friends, enemies and allies to know what is expected of them. Surprises and unpredictability are assets in actual combat. They are a detriment in trying to implement a strategy to fulfill any policy, especially in the Middle East.
We are in dangerous times. All out war is not inevitable. However, current events are disconcerting given the context that there seems to be no clear strategy to implement our policy, should it be a possible to discern a clear U.S, policy in the region in the first place.
Careening from tweet to tweet does not help us with our allies, our friends or deter our enemies. Mr. Trump and his advisers need to step back, but not step down, and think through exactly what they are trying to achieve. They need to think five or six steps ahead and not just react to day to day developments.
I know that there are still conscientious and professional people in the intelligence community, the State Department and the Department of Defense. The question is whether decision makers will understand what they are being told and will they listen?