Much of the domestic and international critique of President Donald Trump's unusual and unilateral decision to assassinate top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani centers 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 American 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, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphatically states that Soleimani was planning additional "imminent" attacks on U.S. interests in the region. But this is nothing new. Soleimani and the Iranian Quds Force he led have long been chief adversaries 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 nonstate 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, Iran 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 Iran and the European Union under President Barack 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 ragtag terrorist we are talking about. This is state-on-state war.
Just a year ago, in January 2019, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who served for five years (under Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama) as head of the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command, 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 nonstate actor like ISIS or al-Qaida; 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.
"There was good reason to eliminate Soleimani," McChrystal continues. "At the time, Iranian-made roadside bombs built and deployed at his command were claiming the lives of U.S. troops across Iraq. But to avoid a firefight, and the contentious politics that would follow, I decided that we should monitor the caravan, not strike immediately." Fast forward to the events of this past week. While Soleimani has long been a worrying adversary in the region, strategic and political considerations mitigated against assassinating him in the past -- even when it was known that he helped to coordinate attacks on U.S. troops and was responsible for thousands of Arab deaths. The question is: What changed, either strategically or politically, to justify assassinating him last week? That is a question the Trump administration has thus far failed to clearly answer.
McChrystal admired, and perhaps even envied, Soleimani because, unlike American war generals, who were constrained by domestic policy considerations, Soleimani enjoyed decades in power and almost complete autonomy that made him particularly effective. Such a leader, McChyrstal argues, "simply could not exist in the United States today. Americans do not allow commanders, military or otherwise, to remain in the highest-level positions for decades. There are reasons for this -- both political and experiential."
Most presciently, McChrystal concluded, "despite my initial jealousy of Soleimani's freedom to get things done quickly, I believe such restraint is a strength of the U.S. political system. A zealous and action-oriented mindset, if unchecked, can be used as a force for good -- but if harnessed to the wrong interests or values, the consequences can be dire." This question seems apropos to pose with regards to the current president. In one sense, he has been lauded for his boldness, decisiveness and willingness to follow his own counsel. Certainly, those can all be good things when they work out in favor of America's interests. But Trump's "action-oriented" mindset might also backfire if misused.
Consider that World War I was sparked by a singular act of political assassination that caused four years of unprecedented slaughter. Could Trump's impulsive act of revenge for the life of a U.S. contractor and Iran's previous attacks on U.S. interests spark a similar conflagration? Petraeus argues that Iran is in no position -- amidst ongoing U.S. sanctions and a decimated economy -- to mount a serious direct assault on the U.S. But that does not mean the country is without options, including fomenting "proxy actions -- and not just in the region, but even in places such as Latin America and Africa and Europe."
More to the point, however, even if this seemingly hasty decision by the president does not result in a major Iranian backlash in the near term, might we be so lucky the next time? Could the president become so emboldened by the lack of consequences in this instance that he commits an even more grievous-- and consequential -- error in the future?