In the Soleimani assassination Trump threads the needle between boldness and rashness

Armstrong Williams | 1/16/2020, 12:23 p.m.
Much of the domestic and international critique of Trump’s unusual and unilateral decision to assassinate top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani ...
Armstrong Williams

Much of the domestic and international critique of Trump’s unusual and unilateral decision to assassinate top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani center around two issues. Firstly, was doing so part of a broader strategic aim? And secondly, will the consequences of this action backfire in terms of hampering U.S. interests in the region? The answers to both questions remain murky, but some evidence is emerging.

The president himself has indicated that Soleimani’s assassination was retaliation for an Iraqi militia attack that culminated with the killing of a U.S. contractor. Subsequently, Sec. of State Pompeo emphatically states that Gen. Soleimani was planning additional “imminent” attacks on U.S. interests in the region. But this is nothing new. Gen. Soleimani and the Iranian Quds Force he led have long been a chief adversary in the region. In fact, former Iraq War commander Gen. David Petraeus, confirmed as much in an interview on International Public Radio last Friday, when he admitted, “[Soleimani] was our most significant Iranian adversary during my four years in Iraq, [and] certainly when I was the Central Command commander, and very much so when I was the director of the CIA. He is unquestionably the most significant and important—or was the most significant and important—Iranian figure in the region.”

The decision to assassinate a major Iranian military general––as opposed to a non-state terrorist leader ––should involve, not only strategic military considerations, but also complex political and diplomatic dynamics. The fact of the matter is that Iran is one of the strongest and most stable nations in a region that has largely fallen into statelessness, as the ongoing carnage in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Libya and Syria confirm. Along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iraq is one of the few state actors capable of exerting influence in the region. While Iran has long been a U.S. adversary dating back to the days of the Shah––America has at times relied upon Iran as a partner for peace in the region, and even entered into a multilateral nuclear arms control treaty with Iraq and the EU under Pres. Obama. Therefore, the president’s actions in bluntly assassinating a major component of Iran’s government and military, especially in the absence of a clearly articulated strategy, takes on very grave implications. This is not some rag-tag terrorist we are talking about. This is state on state war.

Just a year ago, in Jan. 2019, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had served for four years (under both Presidents Bush and Obama) as head of the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), published an article in Foreign Policy magazine in which he discussed, in his words, “a particularly tricky [choice]: whether or not to attack [in 2007] a convoy that included Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force—an organization roughly analogous to a combination of the CIA and JSOC in the United States.” Note here that McChrystal did not compare the Quds Force to a non-state actor like ISIS or Al Qaeda––he put it squarely on par with a U.S. military agency. This is important to consider in the context of how America deals with corresponding institutions of political adversaries.