So as we try to determine whether we’ve been set on a course toward another disastrous war, it’s worth unpacking what the administration is saying. Let’s run down the rationales the administration has offered for the killing:
We killed Soleimani to stop an “imminent” threat. This is the most frequently repeated justification we’ve heard: Soleimani was planning imminent attacks on Americans, so it was urgent that we stop him. Officials say they have intelligence that would prove this assertion, though they refuse to release it publicly.
Yet some administration officials have told reporters that the evidence of an “imminent” attack amounted to nothing more than Soleimani going about his usual business.
The idea is also belied by the fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the most important advocate of military action against Iran, had reportedly been pressing Trump to assassinate Soleimani for months. If that’s the case, then it can’t be that the need to take him out suddenly emerged at the end of last week.
But even if what the administration says were true, it still makes zero sense as a justification for the killing. It isn’t as though Soleimani was a suicide bomber we intercepted before he could get to the train station, thereby averting a disaster. He was a general with thousands of people in his employ. Whatever operations he might have been planning can go right ahead without him.
We killed Soleimani to deter future attacks. In this formulation, it wasn’t so much that we stopped anything from happening now but that we’ll show how strong we are and make Iran afraid. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” said Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. Which it might do in the long term, but it certainly won’t in the short term. Quite the opposite: Iran now feels that it has to retaliate, and then we’ll retaliate, and on and on.
Furthermore, assassinating foreign officials as a means of deterrence is not only a violation of American and international law, but it’s also an utterly immoral and borderline insane way to conduct deterrence. Put aside for a moment what you might think about Soleimani and imagine if we made this an operating principle of our military policy. There are many countries whose future bad behavior we’d like to deter. Are we now going to assassinate the defense ministers of North Korea and Russia and China as well?
We killed Soleimani for revenge. Administration sources have also cited the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack on a base in Iraq two weeks ago, an attack attributed to militias allied with Iran, as a justification. But again, the fact that Soleimani was the architect of Iranian policies that included support for such militias doesn’t mean that once he is dead, that support will cease. His successor will presumably continue the same policies.
We killed Soleimani because 9/11. This, the dumbest of all justifications, was offered by Vice President Mike Pence. No more needs to be said.
We killed Soleimani because he was a bad guy. This justification at least has the benefit of having a connection to something true. Soleimani was indeed a bad guy. But the world is full of government officials who are bad guys. How many of them do we intend to assassinate? And how is that likely to ensure that only good guys take their place?
The fact that administration officials have offered this shifting collection of lame and unpersuasive rationales suggests that they themselves aren’t really sure why they did it, other than the fact that it was what Trump decided one day. Indeed, one report after another describes the decision catching officials by surprise. As The Post put it, some were “stunned by his decision, which could lead to war with one of America’s oldest adversaries in the Middle East.”
The assassination is also a clear acknowledgement that the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which included crippling the Iranian economy, has been a complete failure. It was supposed to make Iran compliant, sending Iranians crawling to the negotiating table where they’d beg for mercy and give us anything we wanted. Instead, the administration is saying, Iran is more dangerous than ever, which is why we have to start killing the country’s top officials. Maybe that’ll work.
That brings us, finally, to the more fundamental question: What is the Trump administration trying to accomplish with regard to Iran? What is the end state at which officials hope to arrive? Do they want to topple the regime? Defang it and eliminate its political influence in the region? Make it so weak that it can’t threaten our own position in the Middle East? Something else?
Your guess is as good as mine. And as good as the president’s and that of those who work for him, who seem to have no idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Which is not exactly a recipe for success.