Iran’s Indispensable Man Is Dead

Members from Hashid Shaabi hold a portrait of Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Suleimani during a demonstration to show support for Yemen’s Shi’ite Houthis and in protest of an air campaign in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition, in Baghdad March 31, 2015. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

This is one of those mornings where there’s just one big issue: Last night, the U.S. military killed Qasem Soleimani, the second-most powerful man in Iran — and the Middle East will probably never be quite the same.

Qasem Soleimani Is Killed, and We Wake Up to a Different World This Morning

The good news is that after decades of abominable acts and wanton cruelty, the United States just surprised everyone by walking up to the biggest bully in the Middle East and punching him harder than he’s been punched in about forty years. The bad news is that the bully isn’t incapacitated and now has a chance to hit back.

Yesterday morning, Qasem Soleimani was commander of the Quds Force, benefactor of Hezbollah and Hamas, the personification of Iranian foreign policy and support for terrorists, the architect of Iran’s ambitions for the entire Middle East, the hardliner among the hardliners, the force behind the killing of several hundred American military personnel, and one of the most important Iranians on earth — the country’s “indispensable man” as Andrew Exum put it. This morning he’s a bloody mess on the road to Baghdad International Airport.

Take your time and go read that first-rate profile of Soleimani by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker from 2013. One interestingly prophetic paragraph:

Since then, Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone. The most notorious was a scheme, in 2011, to hire a Mexican drug cartel to blow up the Saudi Ambassador to the United States as he sat down to eat at a restaurant a few miles from the White House. The cartel member approached by Suleimani’s agent turned out to be an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. (The Quds Force appears to be more effective close to home, and a number of the remote plans have gone awry.) Still, after the plot collapsed, two former American officials told a congressional committee that Suleimani should be assassinated. “Suleimani travels a lot,” one said. “He is all over the place. Go get him. Either try to capture him or kill him.” In Iran, more than two hundred dignitaries signed an outraged letter in his defense; a social-media campaign proclaimed, “We are all Qassem Suleimani.”

No one has any idea what’s going to happen next. The Iranian regime is already announcing their intention to strike back at the United States:

Hard-line lawmaker and cleric Mojtaba Zolnouri made the threat Friday after a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.

Zolnouri told state TV: “When the U.S. is killing Iranian forces outside of Iran, the U.S. must see its troops killed at its bases in the region.”

A senior Revolutionary Guard commander, Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, said that “the White House must leave the region today or it must go to the market to order caskets for soldiers.” The general added: “We don’t want bloodshed. They have to choose by themselves.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the United States.

We, the public, have no idea where or when Iran will counter-punch. Hopefully our intelligence community has some sources and methods to know what the Iranians are thinking and planning.

The response could come in Iraq, or in the Persian Gulf, or in Saudi Arabia, or Israel, or the Iranians could well try to strike the United States in their homeland. Because Soleimani was an important figure in their military, foreign policy, and intelligence communities, they may target our high-ranking officials for assassination. We’ve just hit them in a way they never thought they would be hit; they no doubt would love to do the same to us.

Last night you could see the conventional wisdom response assembling itself in real time on Twitter. It was darkly amusing to see the number of supposedly serious foreign-policy thinkers and lawmakers who skipped over the pro forma, “Make no mistake, Suleimani was a bad guy who killed a lot of Americans, but . . .” Within a few hours, that conventional wisdom had concealed: “Sure, Suleimani was a bad guy with a lot of innocent blood on his hands, but what’s the endgame?”

“What’s the endgame here?” There is none, and there never is one. Foreign policy is never “fixed,” and things never get tied up in a neat little bow, particularly in the Middle East. You manage the situations as best you can and try to adapt as best you can. We will probably know more in the coming days, but it’s not likely that the United States knew when and where Soleimani would be over an extended period of time. The man had plenty of enemies, and he traveled with security and in secrecy. There was no “kill Soleimani” button in the White House Situation Room. The U.S. forces may have known when and where he would be Thursday night, and that was about it. (You have to wonder if certain well-placed Iraqis started getting tired of the Iranians throwing their weight around on Iraqi soil.) If you have a good opportunity to take him out, do you take it, knowing the risks?

The notion that this was a bad decision unless it had some sort of preconceived “endgame” is part of this foreign-policy wonk mentality that believes that if the United States just tries hard enough, we can create peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, that Iran is full of reformers who are just itching to create a lasting peace, and that a lot can get done at international summits. There is no “five-step plan for comprehensive peace in the region.” You’re not assembling IKEA furniture.

Foreign policy is always more complicated than it looks, particularly in the Middle East. Never mind the factions and divisions and contradictions within foreign populations; there are factions and divisions and contradictions within foreign governments. (“Deep state” was originally a Turkish term.) A lot of leaders will publicly condemn U.S. action but privately support it, and vice versa. The Middle East has always been deeply dysfunctional, with autocratic regimes, bloody concepts of justice, long memories, macho posturing, strategic deception, intense propaganda, fierce scapegoating, and strict hierarchical systems, but also sudden shifts in loyalty.

American foreign policy is always going to be this messy effort to manage our interests, protect our people and allies, and deter our enemies in an amorphous, dark, confusing, complicated region with dozens of factions. If none of our people and none of our allies got killed today, we probably did it right. But in a region with factions, militias, spies, assassins, terror groups, and fundamentalist maniacs, we’re never going to keep the days and nights quiet for long.

The Trump administration and the U.S. military did something big and consequential last night, and it was probably worth the risk, but we will know more in the coming days, weeks, and months. It would be nice to have a grown-up conversation about this. Alas, the prospects for a realistic assessment of our foreign-policy options are not good. There’s a Democratic presidential primary debate in a little more than a week. In the rare moments when terrorism and foreign-policy threats are discussed, the candidates retreat into insipid clichés.

Asked about terrorism in Afghanistan in the September debate, Elizabeth Warren responded, “We need to treat the problem of terrorism as a worldwide problem, and that means we need to be working with all of our allies, our European allies, our Canadian allies, our Asian allies, our allies in Africa and in South America. We need to work together to root out terrorism.” Work with our allies! What an original and groundbreaking suggestion!

Moments later, Pete Buttigieg added, “if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Afghanistan, from Afghanistan, it’s that the best way not to be caught up in endless war is to avoid starting one in the first place.” And he’s one of the experienced veterans in the field. Did the U.S. start the war in Afghanistan? Or did al-Qaeda start it with the 9/11 attacks?

Bernie Sanders added, “I think that what we have got to do is bring this world together — bring it together on climate change, bring it together in fighting against terrorism. And make it clear that we as a planet, as a global community, will work together to help countries around the world rebuild their struggling economies and do everything that we can to rid the world of terrorism. But dropping bomb on Afghanistan and Iraq was not the way to do it.”

And Joe Biden is stuck in this reflexive: “whatever President Trump is doing at any given moment must be the wrong thing” mentality — shifting back and forth between Trump being too weak and feckless, and too aggressive and reckless, depending upon the day. Back in June, Biden declared, “Two of America’s vital interests in the Middle East are preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and securing a stable energy supply through the Strait of Hormuz. Trump is failing on both counts.” (This was after Iran claimed it had shot down an American drone.) First, it’s as if Biden had completely forgotten Iran seized American crews and released photos of them on their knees back in 2016. Second, since that drone incident, ships have been passing through the Strait of Hormuz without incident — presumably in part because of the U.S. Navy making regular exercises, patrols, and demonstrations of force in those waterways.

ADDENDA: It’s much smaller news compared to what’s happening in the Middle East, but the odds are good that two months from now, all of the delegates in the Democratic presidential primary have been won by Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg, and the all-white primary might just spur Democrats to seriously consider changing the order of the states in the 2024 presidential election. And if the Democrats can find the will to change the order . . . why can’t Republicans?

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