President Donald Trump’s order to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad was the right call. At the same time, that he had to make this call, how he had to make it, and the mortal danger to American assets it presents, illustrate exactly why U.S. forces should not spend a day longer in Iraq than necessary to end our long-dwindling interests.
Iran needed to learn a hard, swift lesson. For four decades, it has ratcheted global temperatures up and down with a close eye on America’s reaction. Kidnapping, terror, extortion, sabotage, and blockades have all been used since the Islamic Republic’s inception in 1979. On Thursday, the U.S. president made Iran understand what should have always been understood: Orchestrating an attack on a U.S. embassy is a line no country shall cross.
For more than 30 years, from 1988 until Jan. 3, 2020, Soleimani had been the Michael Jordan of Iranian black-ops, leading his elite al-Quds fighting force to wage and plot unconventional warfare from neighboring countries to Washington, D.C., killing at least 500 U.S. servicemen along his merry way. He seemingly moved about the Middle East with impunity, even making time for a jaunt to Moscow shortly after President Barack Obama granted him run of the region with the ill-fated Iran Deal.
The ticket to his final destination took him from Lebanon, where he coordinated his pet Hizbollah, to Baghdad International Airport, where, roughly 15 miles from the U.S. embassy he’d ordered besieged that week, his trip came to an abrupt end.
Some say as illustrious career as his ought to end with a gold watch or silver plate; instead, it ended a smear on the road. His dead friends, including the leader of the Shia militia whose killing of an American contractor had launched this whole fracas, had driven out to meet his plane. No doubt they felt safer from U.S. retaliation close to their Iranian overlord. In the meantime, Soleimani’s family will have to take heart he was with those friends– that, and the low priority Islam places on an open casket.
When the Romans ruled the world, it was called Pax Romana — Roman Peace — and it held. Two thousand years ago, when St. Paul was ordered scourged, he asked a Roman centurion, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?” The soldiers “immediately let go of him; and the commander also was afraid when he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had put him in chains.”
As Paul’s story unfolds, ruler after ruler, king after king twitch and fumble, fearful of Caesar’s retaliation were an injustice to befall this one, solitary citizen of Rome. For years it has been hard for the American reader not to feel a twinge of envy at this story. What would happen if an American citizen were scourged in today’s Middle East? On Thursday, Iran got this president’s answer.
Pundits have been quick to say this will escalate tensions, and it certainly will. Many, however, neglected to mention how Iran has been ratcheting up tensions for years.
Democrats and supporters of Obama’s Iran Deal, which sought to convince Iran to act like a responsible regional power, claim the recent kidnappings and attacks on tankers, oil fields, U.S. personnel and, finally, our embassy, were a predictable response to Trump’s maximum pressure strategy. Maybe, but this ignores that under the previous “be a good boy” policy, Soleimani led Iran’s imperial effort to destabilize Iraq, crush Syria, and plunge Lebanon into crisis, all with the intent to cement Iranian rule over the whole north of the Middle East.
He had little reason to think he would be stopped. Obama was loathe to detour from his new peace, and Trump was rightly loathe to put American soldiers into the bad-guy blender that was Syria. Iran was warned after a drone strike on Saudi oil fields and a number more on tankers in the strait. An attack on an American embassy is a step far beyond, though, and there is reason to believe Iran’s leaders will heed it rather than continue their little play time.
When a past ayatollah hit a U.S. warship with a mine, President Ronald Reagan sank or disabled half their navy. They pulled back, because while radical the ayatollahs know their survival does not lie in war with the United States. The same is true today, though their ability to cause unconventional harm to U.S. interests remains strong. Hence the problem: Toward what end are we putting American interests in harm’s way in Iraq?
Even the stupidest blue checkmarks on Twitter have identified that while one can get away with a lot in Iraq, it’s a tricky little sandbox to frag a famed Iranian general in. A sizable portion of Iraq’s population reveres the recently deceased as a terror to their Sunni neighbors and a destroyer of ISIS. The other sizable portion of the country sympathize with ISIS, either wholeheartedly or in thinking that when Soleimani and friends want to kill your family you can go without beer and cigarettes a while.
To keep this madhouse on the level, the president ordered the 82nd Airborne to reinforce the Middle East and, if it goes south, will have to send more of our men and women. But should he have to? Rather than ask how to whip Iran, we should be wondering if our blood and treasure is better served in defending against the real threats to our homeland.
These days in New York and D.C., it’s all the rage to claim our every move away from unending war benefits our enemies. The reality, of course, is that unending American war in the Middle East drains our coffers, military strength, and political will, all to the glory of Moscow and our true enemies in Beijing. Meanwhile, foreign policy hawks in Washington are terrified Russia might follow our lead, as they have in Syria. Have at it, say those with an ounce of sense and a glimmer of memory from the past 17 years.
Regardless of whether a war kicks off over Thursday’s strike, regardless of which strongman is in charge in which region, and regardless of whose saber rattles next week, the situation has not and will not dramatically improve in this undesirable, less-and-less strategic region of the world.
Since his inauguration, President Trump has killed the leader of ISIS, and now the Iranian general responsible for hundreds of American dead. He’s done a great deal to clean up the mess his predecessors left him in Iraq and Syria. Now it is time to disengage.
A new war in the Middle East won’t make us safer. Long term, it won’t change a thing in the region. Just one more president’s time in office spent sending America’s sons and daughters to war in the wastelands. Cable stations will air every pop and explosion they can get their hands on. Ratings will soar. A president’s realignment will be derailed. The Washington foreign policy blob will cheer.
Beijing will tune in. Get the popcorn.