The mob- style killing of General Qassem Soleimani, at the direction of a vacationing President of the United States, has evinced three predictable reactions:
In the Middle East, especially in Iran and its Shi’a neighbours, outrage that soon mutated into the ghastly 1979 revolutionary chorus “Death to America’.
Among America’s allies, expressions of confusion and whispered condemnation. In France, which still reveres the spirit of Rousseau and reason, these whispers were audible, but they came from all around.
And in the United States, a spectrum of opinion that mirrored Trump’s turbulent standing in the polls. The military and intelligence crumblies, powdered up for appearances on CNN, FOX, and (even) MSNBC seemed weirdly unanimous: Bad man, Good that he’s gone, Questionable timing. Being purveyors of catastrophe and disaster, the only questions were, What’s next? When?” Will is be awful? Consensus: Revenge. When Iran decides. Yes.
The anti-Trump coalition, somewhat flustered that this deliberate act of distraction takes the focus away from a looming impeachment pre-game show, moaned that that this was–a deliberate act of distraction. A few (very few) astute souls like Barbara Slavin were savvy enough to call the action “stunningly stupid and counterproductive.” And the liberal cognoscenti, behind ivory doors, rumbled that the “hit” (Pentagon and gangsta-speak) should be added to the abuse of power article now pending in Congress. (It should.)
All of these reactions come with reasons. Except from the basest of Trump’s base who believe with an urgency approaching rapture that Trump is a strong president who was not afraid to take the tough decisions when duty called and circumstances warranted. Seizing on their behavioral cue to boo, cheer and bark for a biscuit, Trump assured them and masses of the Undecided that, indeed, circumstances warranted: American lives were in danger. Now as never before. The world has never seem anything like this. This was done to stop war, not start one. Unbelievable The butcher is dead and Americans live! (Applause.)
The Trump faithful in other words, will regard all dissent as sedition– a typical case of their liberal pussyfooting attitude to guns and baby-killing–their tree-hugging, flag-hating, immigrant-loving more-of-the-sameness.
Trump has encouraged them to think for three years that anyone who exhibits any of these traits hates America and has no right to be here, or to vote. We know that unless daddy drops the remote the tube is permanently tethered to FOX news and that FOX news is saying that Trump is just about the bravest man alive, maybe ever.
I don’t remember a time when America has been looking at the same object or event in two such conflicting ways.
Our “normal” like and dislike of past presidents has become unfixably riven in the last generation. Expectations have become apocalyptic and messianic. A lot of people hated Bush, at least after his Weapons of Mass Destruction fiasco (of which this is a result). A lot of people hated Obama–for one reason: Because he was the visible reminder that the colour of America is changing, and with it the colour of American attitudes towards social issues.
The calculation of the Trumps and Trump-worshipers was simple. America cannot both be the land of opportunity and the land of freedom and Justice for all. So let it be the land of opportunity for those who know how to work it. That’s justice, isn’t it? Obama being the most visible reminder of an “alternative vision,” his legacy had to be be shredded. That includes his halting and (as some saw it) over-cautious approach to the Middle East crises. It made it easier for Trump to bravely go where no one had gone before.
Trump’s performance is not trackable, which makes media attempts to chart it risible. He has no consistent or discernible policies. He lives to surprise, even himself. His lies are gratuitous, personal– detached both from reality and strategy. They are not about politics but himself within a political matrix, just as before his election they were about himself in a business framework. Once he wanted to be the richest and most influential man alive. Now he wants to be the most powerful, the Best (be Best?) president of all time. He thinks the way to achieve that is to be, at least for his disciples, the tough guy he once played on TV. He disdains “intelligence” when it reflects badly on him (e.g., election meddling) and eats it up when, as now, it serves his needs.
To be a hero, he has to make all other presidents look puny –above all his relatively popular game-changing predecessor. For Trump, the fact that his predecessors “passed” on chances to kill Qassem Soleimani shows they were weak, double-minded losers. He did not take much persuading to murder the man who seemed to personify the threat (he feels) all Americans fear most: the creeping Brown terror that approaches us from the south, spoils our “rat infested” cities, changes voting demographics in favour of public freeloaders, takes jobs away from real Americans, and captures, terrorizes and threatens us abroad. If you want the whole of Trump’s philosophy in a nutshell, it is in his impromptu reference to “shithole countries” in a 2017 cabinet meeting and his off-the- cuff remark that he would like to see more Norwegian immigration to the United States.
If he were a shock radio host and not their client, Trump’s remark could be labeled spam and left to self destruct in 30 days, or long before, given the attention deficit of most citizens. But he is not. He is the President of an important country. And he thinks that his map (which exists nowhere but as a series of illogical opinions and ungrounded harangues against his personal hatreds) will lead to the slogan on his red cap. War with Iran is a destination, maybe now a gateway, on that map. It has probably been a destination since his presidency began or at least a contingency in case of trouble.
So why is the killing of Qassem Soleimani different from all the other swill he has swilled in the last three years?
It is different for three reasons.
The most obvious (obvious because even media heads are saying it) is that despite megaphone shouts to the contrary this was not the “elimination” of a terrorist. There is no equivalency between killing an extra-statal (freelance) actor and the legitimate chief officer of a sovereign nation-state. In rhetoric this fallacy is usually called “false analogy” and incorporates a number of sub-fallacies, such as oversimplification (dicto simpliciter): It relies on the false assumption that because two things are alike in one or more respects, they are necessarily alike in other or all respects. Thus, if religion-related terrorism has been an especially persistent problem in the Middle East anyone associated with terrorist-related death, especially the deaths of Americans sent to deal with the problem, is a terrorist, not a “legitimate” actor.
This way of thinking has been the one used most vigorously by the Trump administration and now the Pentagon to justify the the killing of Soleimani: he killed others–including Americans–and thus is subject to being killed himself. The spin-off is the rationale that his killing, even if it leads to more deaths, was done to prevent conflict and death, a rationale so specious and illiterate that is can be classified as sub-fallacious. As Barbara Slavin tweeted on 3rd January 2020 (@barbaraslavin1) “By what legal authority can US forces kill the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Does @realDonaldTrump realize the import of this?”
No, and yes. His ordering the murder means that Trump gave in to advice that since the United States had declared the legitimate army of Iran (including al Quds) a “terrorist” organization, there would be nothing wrong in treating a senior commander in that organization in the same way bin Laden and al-Baghdadi (and others) were treated. Except of course , the “real” terrorists were not representative of any nation or military force recognized in international law, or by the United Nations, or in international treaties such as the Geneva Convention. Mr Trump’s fiat that Soleimani was a terrorist if accepted makes every soldier fighting for his country a terrorist; a general commanding and strategising on behalf of his troops might be captured, arrested, tried. But he cannot be made illegitimate by the edict of his enemy.
As legal constraints even when they are Constitutional, mean nothing to Trump, it is hardly likely he would be deterred by something as amorphous as “international law.” The fact remains, the killing is illegal. That fact alone would have been enough to constrain a conscientious president. Even the fate of Saddam Hussein following the disastrously expensive invasion of Iraq in 2002 was decided not by a US bullet to his head but by an Iraqi tribunal.
Soleimani, moreover, was a hero in the war against terror, especially in Iran where he got full credit for defending his homeland. But his contributions were also known to other members of what we like to call the “US-Led Coalition” in Iraq.
Without ever embracing the United States’ political designs on the Middle east, he was a pragmatist who realized that ISIS–the offspring of American adventurism–was a thing that has to be dealt with it. In that battle, the Kurds could be useful; the Syrians? — too occupied, too divided, and too stretched to be entirely useful, the Iraqi forces too cowardly.
A strategic arrangement with the US and Kurds was the only way. In March of 2015, Haaretz beamed:
“Soleimani is overseeing much of his country’s war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Lebanon, and is commanding the Shiite militias who have chalked up most of the victories in Iraq. So long as Americas declared objective is to wage war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and not against Syrian President Bashar Assad – Soleimani is an American ally, and not for the first time… Several times Soleimani has accused Assad of faulty management of the war, and he claims that Syrian army commanders aren’t prepared to heed his advice. ‘If I had one division of Iranian Basij forces, I could conquer Syria’, he said in one of his public statements”.
Third, only four years ago, Qassem Soleimani was universally, if quietly among American operatives, regarded as the key player–not only in the success of efforts to eliminate ISIS. He also came loaded with fair criticisms of the Syrian regime’s inability to contain the threat. His advice had been sought in outlining the boundaries of post-US-Invasion Iraq. At America’s request, he also instructed the al-Mahdi forces led by separatist Shiite leader Muqtada a-Sadr to stop attacking American targets in Baghdad, and indirectly coordinated the establishment of Nouri al-Maliki’s government in 2003, personally. choosing members of the interim Council. He was the chief arbitrator in organizing military operations involving Kurdish, Iraqi and Iranian-trained militias against the ISIS armies. Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador in Iraq, told The New Yorker in an interview that the names of the candidates for interim prime minister were presented in a way that would assure Soleimani’s consent.
A Sinister Outcome
Trump has eliminated the key player in regional efforts to contain and eradicate the threat of ISIS-style extremism, now widely regarded as resurgent after the assassination of its Imam. It has even been suggested that Trump was despondent that the killing of Baghdadi did not receive the attention it deserved and was overshadowed by stories about his impeachment.
The question remains, Why? Half an answer is, to create noise. Trump needs to create a blizzard in Washington to shift the focus from his crimes and abuses of power. Trump is relying on low-information voters, Christian and Jewish Zionists, other evangelicals, and wealthy Trump-backers who may be smart enough to see through his antics but not virtuous enough to oppose them.
Secondly, Soleimani was not a difficult target. He was not discovered living in disguise in Pakistan, hiding in a hole in Tikrit, or scrambling through a cave in western Syria. Part of the shock of this killing is that is was so public, so cowardly and (apparently) so reckless. But that is a viewer reaction, not the while story. Trump did not act alone. He acted on advice from some–not the best or brightest–members of his national security and military team to activate plans long on the John Bolton to-do list.
Qassem Soleimani was a soldier, an organizer, a saboteur, and a statesman. If there is a Pentagon plan to destabilize Iran and start a shooting war–as Trump repeatedly threatens in his increasingly deranged tweets, the best way to make it happen is to chop off the head of Iran’s indispensable military leader. Soleimani was in a position to do the most damage to American forces in the event of a full-scale war, initiated by a president desperately clinging to power and badly in need of a victory. It would be the fulfillment of the Bolton Scenario, perhaps even a ransom paid to Bolton for his silence or dissimulation if he is called to testify against Trump in an impeachment trial. In the long run, this is the most plausible explanation for implausible and rash action–not saving lives, but saving his job
It is also the saddest and most unvirtuous episode in the history of the American presidency. Murder most foul.
R Joseph Hoffmann 1/5/2020