In a vacuum, a case can be made that killing Qasem Soleimani might deescalate conflict with Iran. That is initially what President Trump said the aim was. “We took action last night to stop a war,” he said. “We did not take action to start a war.”
There are more- and less-believable versions of this. No one should kid himself into thinking that most Iranians will be pleased at this action or that it will weaken the regime’s grip on the Iranian people. On the contrary, even people with despicable governments tend to rally around their leaders when they feel threatened or under siege from outside. And the Iranian revolution still has its true believers: They were out in the street mourning the death of Soleimani.
The case for doing what Trump did revolves around the United States’ need to punish those who inflict death and damage on its people, hopefully while achieving tactical or strategic ends that are greater than the costs of action. Soleimani was Iran’s indispensable man, whose Quds Force and its proxies were constantly harassing American clients and even Americans in the region. In recently leaked Iranian cables, high-level sources in the Iranian government are shown worrying about Soleimani’s aggressive methods and whether they were keeping the Americans more engaged in Iraq and focused on Iran than Tehran wished. America needed to respond to an increasing tempo of provocation from Iran, including the death of an American contractor and the wounding of a handful of servicemen. Striking him may simultaneously hamper Iran’s effectiveness in using proxy forces, retain American honor, and perhaps allow the United States to do what the president claims to want: make an orderly exit from unproductive wars.
In fact, the strongest case for Donald Trump’s realism is that he is simply incapable of being educated into the “wisdom” of Washington, D.C., which has held that malefactors don’t have to be punished with limited strikes, but instead that their entire government and society surrounding them can be transformed through limitless commitments.
There are problems with this case, of course. First, Trump has proven almost unwilling to put an exit into America’s exit strategy. Second, the collateral damage to our relationship with Iraq is already coming in, with members of the Iraqi parliament already threatening to withdraw their consent for our continued presence. That would be a shameful exit for us, though one we should take. There’s also the notorious unreliability of America’s intelligence in the Middle East (or anywhere). And there’s the larger fact that since America’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, the nation’s policy toward Iran seems to be one of drifting toward war lazily and thoughtlessly. Making unreasonable demands, imposing sanctions, and then watching Iranian provocations roll in.
But most important, we don’t live in a vacuum. And perhaps you’ve noticed that since the news of this assassination broke, the president has sounded out of his mind.
He has returned to his idea of vandalism, blasphemy, and outrage as strategy. Contradicting his own secretary of state, Trump promised that the United States would respond to further Iranian provocation by deliberately bombing cultural sites in Iran. “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
This disgusting threat is in many ways worse than his promises of “fire and fury” in North Korea. The punishment would fall not on the government, or on the military that tortures and maims, but on the whole Iranian people — and really all of humanity that has an interest in the preservation of great treasures of antiquity, of which there are many in Iran. These are jewels of ancient civilization that ought to outlast Iran’s current government, and that deserve a better custodian than the mullahs. That aside, the threat carries zero strategic value for us while offering infinite propaganda value for the Iranian regime.
Trump wasn’t done. “These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner,” the president tweeted. In this, he reveals he has heard about language of proportionality but doesn’t understand its place in just-war theory. Proportionality is not about returning an equal or ever-so-slightly more forceful slap to someone who slapped you. Proportionality is about using the appropriate amount of force to achieve the desired end.
This unhinged rhetoric is not just dangerous in itself, it’s unproductive. NATO members put out statements supporting America’s decision to strike at Soleimani, statements that read as if a stage director had scrawled the word “cringe” in the margins. They are tempered precisely because the publics of our various European allies find Trump’s rhetoric crazy, and unlike Americans, they are not inclined to lower their standards of sanity to accommodate his. They may also remember that the last two expansions of American hostilities in the Middle East created the refugee crisis and a wave of terrorism headed their way.
If Trump wants our allies and the American public to back his Iran strategy, he needs to show that he has one — and he has to pursue it in a mode that doesn’t look like a tantrum.