Little did I or anyone else suspect that Trump’s next move would be an airstrike that killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of Kataib Hezbollah, and Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, which sponsors Kataib Hezbollah and numerous other proxies around the region.
Soleimani’s death has been compared to that of terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Soleimani was as evil as those men — he has the blood of hundreds of Americans and thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of Arabs on his hands — but the comparison is misleading. Soleimani was not the leader of a stateless terrorist organization. He was one of the most powerful figures in the Iranian government. His death makes him the highest-ranking foreign military commander assassinated by the United States since the shoot-down in 1943 of an airplane carrying Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack.
This is a major, unexpected development whose full import no one can predict. In the near term, Soleimani’s death provides a political boost to Trump by allowing him to change the subject from his impeachment. In 2012, Trump tweeted, “Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected.” Is this another case of Trumpian projection?
Beyond the immediate political payoff, there is a larger benefit here for Trump’s image abroad. After three years, most of the world had written him off as a Twitter tiger — someone who talks big but shies away from conflict. His lack of a response to Iran’s attack on a Saudi oil facility in September reinforced that reputation. Thursday’s attack disrupts that narrative, showing that Trump is serious about enforcing his red line against killing Americans and creating a measure of deterrence. Other international actors, including North Korea, will now be more wary of provoking Trump.
But the death of Soleimani, contrary to a Pentagon news release, was a hardly a “decisive” action — and, contrary to what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN on Friday, it will not necessarily make Americans safer. Indeed, the fact that the State Department is telling all Americans to evacuate Iraq suggests otherwise.
Charles de Gaulle supposedly said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Soleimani was perhaps the most important man in the Middle East, but even he can be replaced. Indeed, Iran has already appointed his deputy to fill his position, although it remains to be seen if the little-known Brig. Gen. Ismail Qaani will be as effective. The history of decapitation strikes — such as Israel’s 1992 killing of Hezbollah Secretary General Abbas al-Musawi or the joint U.S.-Israeli operation to kill Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyah in 2008 — suggests that they seldom debilitate the targeted organization and sometimes backfire. Musawi’s death, for example, led to the emergence of Hasan Nasrallah, an even more dangerous leader.
Israel’s practice when assassinating terrorist kingpins has been to let its actions do its talking. By neither confirming nor denying responsibility, Israel gives itself plausible deniability and its enemies an off-ramp from further escalation. That is not Trump’s way. The Pentagon news release on Thursday night specified that Soleimani’s death was ordered “at the direction of the President.” This further increases the pressure on Iran to retaliate, as its leaders have repeatedly vowed to do.
It is difficult to see how Soleimani’s death, justified as it was, will trigger regime change in Tehran, as former national security adviser John Bolton suggested. It is easy to see how it could trigger a bigger conflict. Iran has hundreds of thousands of militia fighters at its command and thousands of missiles such as the ones used against the Saudi oil facility. The United States has more than 60,000 troops in the Middle East, as well as numerous diplomatic installations and lots of civilians that could be alluring targets. The Iranians also have the capacity to carry out terrorist strikes and cyberattacks around the world. If there is a major Iranian attack in retaliation, we could easily be drawn into a full-blown war that no one wants and that Congress has not authorized. At the very least, the blowback over Soleimani’s death could force the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq. That would be a major victory for Iran.
One would hope that at this moment of peril the United States would be led by sober, experienced leaders presiding over a well-oiled national security decision-making process. But that is clearly not what we have. Many experts have long feared how Trump would react in a genuine, no-kidding crisis. We are now about to find out.