America's warm war

Matthew Walther

When it was reported late on Thursday evening that the United States had killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's extraterritorial Quds force, in an airstrike, many of us heard ancestral voices prophesying war in the Middle East. Surely the assassination of their top general was the inevitable prelude to a war with Tehran that President Trump has been hinting at ever since he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal.

I am not so sure. There is no reason to think that this latest attack is any different from Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian chemical facility in 2017, which also occasioned a great deal of foreboding among those of us who would not like to see the United States pursue (or passively abet) regime change in the region for the fifth time in two decades. Despite all the dire warnings about an impending invasion and the co-opting of the administration by the (now departed) John Bolton, Trump's Syria policy remained fundamentally unchanged: As long as Bashar Assad does not directly threaten American security, he should be allowed to remain in power, but that does not preclude the possibility of occasional small-scale interventions that do not involve the use of ground troops. This was clarified again last year when he sided with a NATO ally over a rogue nationalist movement.

Instead of the beginning of a new war, we should regard the killing of Soleimani as the predictable continuation of an old one. It has been clear since the beginning of the Obama administration that Afghanistan and Iraq, the wars in which we continue, formally speaking, to be engaged with in the Middle East, are only two fronts in a much wider campaign whose end is nowhere in sight. This is because it has never been clear what our actual goal is in the region.

Here it is helpful to think of the Cold War, which lasted nearly half a century and encompassed two failed large-scale wars of liberation against clients of our real enemy. The Cold War's objectives were articulated clearly by the United States and her NATO allies in 1947. Disagreements, both at home and within the alliance, were limited to prudential decisions about methods. The scope (which excluded direct aggressive war between the Soviet Union and NATO) and the underlying strategy (containment) were never seriously questioned except by Hollywood communists and a handful of inconsequential New Left intellectuals, and the conflict was pursued by successive American administrations until its successful conclusion.

What is the ultimate goal of our "warm" war in the Middle East, which for two decades now has occupied a curious position between the pre-1946 sustained direct hostilities between major powers and the second and third-hand exchanges of the Cold War? What, in a word, is the contemporary equivalent of the Cold War's parallel aims of defeating the Soviet Union and containing the spread of communist ideology, and with it, Moscow's sphere of influence)? Are we attempting to defeat the countries that now belong to the broad Russia-backed Shiite axis, chief among them Iran and Syria? If so, what has that got to do with September 11, with Osama bin Laden, with the Taliban, with Saddam Hussein, with the Islamic State and its inevitable successors in the Wahhabist cause?

More than 10 years ago now, John McCain paraded his ignorance before the world when he insisted repeatedly that al Qaeda was a client of Iran. It is only under the grip of such convenient fantasies that it is possible to make sense of our policy in the region. Otherwise we are left to face the reality that we are pursuing two simultaneous objectives — the defeat of the Shiite powers and the curtailment of Wahhabism — that pull us in inexorably opposite directions. We can shore up relations with the Shiites in the hope of defeating al Qaeda and its successors forever at the risk of alienating our allies; we can side with the Sunni backers of the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia, the checking of whose regional hegemony would put an end to Iran's nuclear ambitions. We cannot do both except fitfully, in a series of ultimately meaningless spasmodic gestures like those we have spent the last 20-odd years making. When will we reach a decision?

Not for a long time, I suspect. Trump, like his predecessor, came into office after campaigning against the follies of our recent adventures in the Middle East. Upon arriving there he inherited a conflict that transcends both Iraq and Afghanistan, one that we cannot win because we do not know what winning would mean. Instead, as the White House changes occupants we watch all the old actors in their familiar roles: Democrats chanting peace slogans and asking why Congress is not being asked to ratify decisions made by the executive branch, the GOP cheerleading the heroism of their commander-in-chief.

In the meantime our warm war shows no signs of either cooling down or heating up.

Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.

More stories from
America is guilty of everything we accuse Iran of doing
Pompeo and Pence reportedly pushed Trump to kill Soleimani. Pentagon leaders were 'stunned' Trump agreed.
The hawks were wrong about everything