In a statement discussing the targeted assassination of Iran’s General Soleimani this afternoon, President Trump struck a reassuring note: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” he said. I’m relatively certain this reflects the president’s intentions. He has been accused of courting war before — on the Korean peninsula — but the bluster and promises of fire and fury gave way quickly to talk of peace and development.
General Soleimani has been a very effective Iranian general, a kind of viceroy of Iran’s proxy empire. He was an airport general, flying to Syria, Yemen, Jordan, and Iraq to train, coach, and command Iran’s various non-state proxies and militias. These militias have exacted a terrible price on America’s servicemen. And an American president has a presumed duty to see those deaths avenged. He has a duty to prevent other deaths at the hands of a man like Soleimani.
The only reason not to kill Soleimani is if you believe doing so would likely result in greater evils. I’m not privy to the current or best intelligence, but my immediate worry is that Iran does have options for escalation at a level that will be difficult for us to match. Namely: that Iran can up the pressure in nations that Americans are tired of fighting in already. If Iran has an ability to disrupt the oil trade, they can also get into Trump’s mind ahead of the election. Gas prices will matter to him.
My other fear is that in the Middle East, Trump’s sometimes confused policy — are we in or out of Syria?– ends up defaulting toward the kind of drift we saw in the Afghanistan papers. Missions and priorities multiply without ever being accomplished when the public accepts the war as mere background noise.
Despite Trump’s promise of putting America first, rebuilding at home, and bringing our men and women back, the number of troops deployed to the Middle East has risen and will continue to rise under his administration. 3,500 more American servicemen and women are deploying to Kuwait in the wake of this skirmish with Iran and its proxies. I also worry that America’s swift exit from the Iran deal made the steps of escalation that led to Soleimani’s death inevitable.
After Trump’s election, a reassessment was in order. And looking back on the years of our wars and interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the most obvious conclusion is that the disorder that follows the smashing of a Middle Eastern authoritarianism does not lead to democracy and liberalization, but a frightening rush of Sunni extremists and Shia militancy. In the meantime, the military and political capacities of other states — Russia and China — has grown greatly, and some of our alliance structures in Europe and East Asia have needed better tending.
My hope is that Trump is telling the truth, and that the death of Soleimani is well-calculated to extract a price from an Iranian regime that has grown too confident. I hope that in taking away Iran’s indispensable man, Trump has defanged Iran and made it reconsider its pattern of provocation.