That doesn’t mean that there are no possible valid critiques of bombing Soleimani. But honestly, I can’t think of any. Here are the main candidates:
1. It will provoke Iran. Well, maybe. But Iran has been at war with us for 40 years; we’ve mostly chosen to pretend otherwise. Iran’s top priority is wrecking our presence in the mideast, and then eventually destroying America. This doesn’t change that. At most it might make them spring an operation earlier than they had planned, which is as likely to do them harm as it is to do anything.
2. It increases the risk of war. We’re already at war, see above. If anything, it makes Iran look weak, which hurts them in the region and gives domestic rebels heart and momentum. (See: ‘Overthrow is within reach’: Leader of Iranian resistance group hails death of Qassem Soleimani.)
3. It was illegal because there was no congressional authorization. Pretty hard to take that argument seriously in 2019, but at any rate Soleimani orchestrated an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, which is for these purposes an attack on American soil. (Even the governor of a state is allowed by the Constitution to wage war without Congressional authorization when actually attacked.) Besides which, we have a Congressional authorization for use of military force in Iraq, and this is covered by its exceedingly broad terms. Also, it’s reported that he had a large anti-American operation in the works.
4. We can’t know the ramifications. That’s true. But that’s also true of not acting. Unintended consequences rule in the sphere of government action, but you can’t base your policy choices on not having any.
5. Orange Man Bad. To be honest, this seems to be the real objection. It’s a stupid one.
Related: Trump’s Ground Game Against Iran.
Building up on this successful experience, Mr. Suleimani spent the last decade replicating the Hezbollah model in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, propping up local militias with precision weapons and tactical know-how. In Syria, his forces have allied with Russia to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a project that, in practice, has meant driving over 10 million people from their homes and killing well over half a million. In Iraq, as we have seen in recent days, Mr. Suleimani’s militias ride roughshod over the legitimate state institutions. They rose to power, of course, after participating in an insurgency, of which he was the architect, against American and coalition forces. Hundreds of American soldiers lost their lives to the weapons that the Qods Force provided to its Iraqi proxies.
Mr. Suleimani built this empire of militias while betting that America would steer clear of an outright confrontation. This gambit certainly paid off under President Barack Obama, but it even seemed to be a safe bet under President Trump, despite his stated policy of “maximum pressure.” Mr. Trump was putting an economic squeeze on Iran, and popular protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon were adding to the pressure, but Mr. Suleimani assumed that, in the end, control of military assets would win the day. Mr. Trump, it seemed, feared getting sucked into a war. Washington, in short, lacked a ground game.
In September, Mr. Suleimani and his colleagues reportedly pressed their advantage by attacking a Saudi Arabian oil field, an act of war that went unanswered. He followed this up by orchestrating attacks by Iranian proxies on Americans. The Trump administration had said clearly that attacking Americans was a red line, but Mr. Suleimani had heard threats in the past from American leaders. He thought he could erase Mr. Trump’s red line.
His departure will make Iran much weaker. It will embolden the country’s regional rivals —primarily Israel and Saudi Arabia— to pursue their strategic interests more resolutely. It will also instill in the protesters in Iran, Lebanon and, especially, Iraq, the hope that they will one day wrest control of their governments from the talons of the Islamic Republic.
In Washington, the decision to kill Mr. Suleimani represents the final demise of Mr. Obama’s Middle East strategy, which sought to realign American interests with those of Iran. Mr. Obama’s search for a modus vivendi with Tehran never comported with the reality of the Islamic Republic’s fundamental character and regional ambitions. President Trump, by contrast, realized that Tehran’s goal was to replace America as the key player in the Middle East.
One mild caveat: The Bush Administration in 2005 seemed to suddenly go soft on Iran. I speculated at the time that Iran was somehow deterring them, but with no obvious mechanism for that wondered about things like bioweapons. Whatever, they don’t seem to have deterred Trump in the same fashion.
UPDATE: Some thoughts on the subject from Spengler.
Without attempting to read the minds of Iran’s leaders, one may conjecture that Iran badly needed a moral victory to show that it was not cowed by massive Israeli airstrikes in Syria, nor, indeed, by a deteriorating economy at home. In November, the Iranian regime ruthlessly suppressed anti-regime protests, killing up to 1,000 demonstrators. After the US struck five bases of Iran-backed militias in Iraq on Dec. 30, Iran decided that its credibility required a demonstration of power, and ordered the attack on the US embassy.
That left Trump with few good choices. After 5,000 dead, 50,000 wounded and trillions of dollars in expenditures in Iraq, the US had succeeded in turning a former counterweight to Iranian ambitions into an Iranian satrapy. The embassy attack was intended by Iran as a public act of ritual humiliation, and the United States had no choice but to respond. Trump chose to respond by subjecting Iran to an even more poignant form of humiliation, by assassinating a national hero, Gen. Qassam Sulemaini. It is easy to criticize the US president, but harder to recommend an alternative course of action. US airpower has limited effectiveness in constraining the diffuse Iranian-backed militias.
Neither Iran nor the US has good choices here. Iran must respond or its credibility will collapse. The question is how. An Iranian attack on an American ally like Israel or Saudi Arabia would not suffice, now that Washington has acted in its own name against a key Iranian leader. The indicated course of action is to attack an American asset. In the extreme case, Iran could use a combination of intermediate-range missiles, cruise missiles and drones to attack the Doha base.
Iran’s problem is that it has the most to lose here, and it’s weak. That suggests that they will do something symbolic but essentially back down, rather than escalate and invite still further escalation in return. But that assumes they will act rationally, which in fact they usually do, but usually isn’t always. And read Spengler’s entire piece.
And lurking behind all of this is a new reality that the Iranians may not have fully absorbed: Thanks to fracking, the United States doesn’t have to keep the straits of Hormuz open anymore. We only have to be able to keep them closed.