Late last week, President Trump authorized the radical escalation of America’s 40-year-long conflict with Iran. The January 3 drone attack at Baghdad International Airport was not aimed at deterring an “imminent” attack on Americans, as claimed. It was the preplanned exploitation of a pretext.
Haaretz has reported that Israel, but not the United States Congress, was briefed on the proposed drone strike days before it took place. Its purpose was to eliminate a senior foreign official the Trump administration had designated as an enemy. The killing of the commander of an Iraqi militia hostile to the United States was a bonus. The assassinations were an act of war that will inevitably evoke reprisal. Iran has already promised that it will exact “savage” retribution for the murder of a senior official of its government by the United States.
Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was the equivalent of the US national security adviser or the commanders of CENTCOM, SOCOM, and SOCCENT. All are now potential Iranian targets. In Iraq itself, the followers of Kataeb Hezbollah’s commander, Abu Mahdi (whose sobriquet was “al Muhandis” or “the Engineer”), will seek their own revenge. The fact that they are part of the Iraqi national security establishment and armed forces is not irrelevant. Kataeb Hezbollah is likely to be joined in its campaign against US forces and officials in Iraq by other patriotic militias, including some historically hostile to both it and Iran.
The Iranian government seldom makes decisions in haste. It is the heir to one of the world’s longest and greatest traditions of politico-military statecraft. It will make considered judgments as it calculates and plans asymmetric responses that hurt Americans without provoking a large-scale conventional war with the United States. If Tehran miscalculates, which is a very real possibility, the now open but low-intensity warfare between the United States and Iran will escalate. Those, like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and former US national security adviser John Bolton, who have long sought a war with Iran will get one. So will everyone else.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the timing of the attack was dictated by the turmoil in American domestic politics. The assassinations were preceded by air strikes on elements of Kataeb Hezbollah, allegedly in retaliation for the death of a US civilian contractor in Kirkuk. None of these air strikes was anywhere near Kirkuk. They bore the marks of a preplanned operation looking for an excuse to launch.
Just so with the assassination of Suleimani and Mahdi. The charge that these two were planning attacks on American soldiers and officials could equally well be leveled at US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House officials, and US military commanders at all echelons who plan the deaths of selected Iranians and Iraqis. At what time have officials on both the Iranian and American sides not been planning such attacks on the other? Both sides have carried them out as part of the low-intensity conflict they have long been engaged in. No concrete evidence has been put forward to justify preemptive defense against an “imminent” Iranian escalation of attacks on the United States or its overseas representatives, civilian and military.
The assassinations seem intended to appease neoconservatives who have charged President Trump with vacillation and weakness in his responses to Iranian ripostes to his policy of maximum pressure on Iran. They provided a welcome distraction from the pending impeachment proceedings and appeal to the bloodthirsty instincts of the president’s most ardent supporters. They prepare the way for Mike Pompeo to offset his lack of diplomatic accomplishments with a demonstration of his ruthlessness to the “conservative” voters of Kansas, where he intends to stand for the Senate in preparation for a subsequent run at the presidency.
In the new political order in the United States, in which the checks and balances of the separation of powers have been replaced by the separation of parties, the attack was politically expedient, despite its blatant violation of the clear language of the US Constitution. These assassinations thus represented an extrajudicial execution that marked a further departure from constitutional government and the rule of law in the United States.
In foreign policy terms, this drone attack made no sense at all. It was not a deterrent to Iran so much as a provocation. It violated Iraqi sovereignty and the terms of the continuing US military presence in Iraq. It pushed Iraq further into the arms of Iran and invited the humiliating expulsion of US forces from Iraq, which the Iraqi parliament has now called for. It made every American in Iraq and elsewhere a target for murder or hostage-taking. It gave Iranian hard-liners everything they need to make a compelling case for building a nuclear deterrent.
The assassination demonstrated to the world the overt amorality of US policy and the indifference of the United States to the constraints of international law and comity, especially when the object of American hostility is Muslim. It was a strategy-free gambit, equivalent to beginning a game of chess with only an opening move in mind. It stands as a reminder to the world of the witless hubris and violence with which the United States now conducts its international relations.
Americans, once the most prominent proponents of international law as the regulator of relations between nations, have just fully validated the law of the jungle and appeared to legitimize assassination as a tool of foreign policy. We are now likely to experience it ourselves.