In the aftermath of the strike ordered by President Trump that killed Iranian Quds Force Major General Soleimani there has been a furious reaction by progressives who are always furious about something. But complaints have also been registered by the populist right, most notably by Tucker Carlson. But the objections coming from Carlson and the objections coming from progressives are very different.
Let’s take Carlson’s argument first before heading to the progressives. Carlson asserts that “Washington has wanted war with Iran for decades”. As evidence for his proposition Carson has produced…nothing. But there is the obvious question. If “Washington” wanted war with Iran for “decades” why is it that President’s Bush and Obama declined the opportunity? In the tin foil hat land where Carlson resides, “they”, wanted war and this was their opportunity, so “they” prevailed upon the least interventionist President in modern history to unilaterally commit an act of war without provocation. This doesn’t even have a veneer of plausibility. As the late Christopher Hitchens once remarked, assertions without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Interestingly enough, the argument coming from the left is, in some ways the polar opposite of Carlson’s. To the surprise of no one, progressives argue there is a “rush” to war—but this is in spite of, rather than because of, the bureaucracy AKA the intelligence community. We are now being informed, courtesy of leaks to the New York Times, that “…while Trump’s top military advisors offered the option to kill Maj. General Qassim Suleimani, they assumed it would be rejected as too extreme.” Trump, however, made his decision “despite disputes in the administration about the intelligence that warned of imminent threats.”
Let’s unpack this. When an action memo is sent to an executive decision maker in government, it typically includes a number of policy options with estimates of possible costs and benefits. And typically the options are phrased in such a way that one option stands out as the most favorable. So as a matter of course one of the options given to President Trump would have been to knock off General Soleimani. But why would anyone believe that Trump, of all people, would shrink from an action because it was “too extreme”. Nuance is not the first word that comes to mind when it comes to Trump.
The next argument now being test marketed is that, among the intelligence community, there is mounting skepticism of evidence that a threat was imminent. This one has been dusted off from the George W. Bush years and sent onto the field of play once again. And from the standpoint of the bureaucracy it has a major advantage. It provides bureaucratic cover no matter which way things turn out.
Leaving aside (for now) the question of where decision making authority resides, let’s examine the quality of some the intelligence community’s analysis. To start off with, there is what is politely called a credibility problem. To put it more bluntly, it is indisputably the case that James Clapper (NSA), John Brennan (CIA), James Comey (FBI) and Andrew McCabe (FBI) are liars. It remains to be seen if they managed to fulfill the requirements necessary to sustain a perjury indictment and prosecution.
But let’s not dwell on individuals; instead let’s recount the long history of spectacularly bad calls. It is hard to forget that George Tenent insisted that Iraq had nuclear weapons. It was, he said, “a slam dunk”. Note also that the Inspector General found that Tenet bore “ultimate responsibility” for the intelligence community’s “failure to develop a plan to control Al-Qaeda in the lead-up to 9/11”. And how was he held accountable? President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
If that was an isolated incident, it would be one thing. But it wasn’t. The intelligence community was convinced that Yuri Andropov was a sophisticate with whom the West could deal. After all, he liked scotch. That was before Andropov ordered the assassination of the Pope. Likewise, the CIA was caught flat-footed when the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Just as they were stunned when the Shaw of Iran was deposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. That was the Shaw whose rise to power was engineered by the same CIA. And let’s not forget the Keystone Cops efforts of the CIA in Cuba—including the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion, numerous attempts to assassinate Castro at the behest of the Kennedy brothers, all while the CIA was working in conjunction with the Mafia.
So given this well-documented history it is reasonable to wonder why it is that we should accept what the CIA says as if it is coming straight from Mount Olympus.
But leave all that aside. There is one key fact that dominates (or should dominate) the discussion. Like it or not (and I don’t) Trump is President. He has the authority as Commander-in-Chief to make the call. The proper question is a prudential one: Should he have ordered the killing of General Soleimani?
Unfortunately, a great deal, if not most of the analysis is based on faulty assumptions about the nature of the Iranian regime. The underlying assumption is that traditional tools of diplomacy should be used in dealing with the Iranian government. This in turn rests on the widely shared assumption that the West can wait Iran out until it comes to its senses. That mistake was made by a number of U.S. Presidents including President Reagan who got himself ensnared in Iran Contra and the the arms-for-hostages scandal.
The argument that Iran can be contained and dealt with by using conventional diplomatic tools is faulty because it rests on the assumption that the Iranian government is conventional and legitimate. It is not. Iran is a revolutionary regime. And it has been since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution seized power in 1979.
Revolutionary regimes are different from conventional, even tyrannical and authoritarian governments in that they do not merely seek to rule. They seek to create a new man molded (by them of course) to create perfection here on earth. Resisters will be ruthlessly dealt with and the streets will run red with their blood. It has been true throughout history, especially, but not only, the bloody history of the 20th century. Robespierre, the radical Jacobin and leader of the Insurrectionary Paris Commune, ran the terror during the French Revolution from his perch on the Committee of Public Safety. Historians estimate that he had thousands sent to the guillotine in his quest for the perfect republic.
In the 20th century we had the Nazis and the extermination camps, Stalin and his forced starvations and show trials with mass executions. Which is not to leave out Castro, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pot Pol, and the Kim family in North Korea. To name a few.
And then there is Iran which, since 1979, has been run by the Supreme Leader and backed by the Revolutionary Guards. Note the nomenclature. The operating theory of the Iranian Islamic State as propagated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution is that the State is a Theocracy governed according to the Absolute Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. (See Wikipedia). That theory of state now forms the basis of the Iranian Constitution. The Islamic Jurist is the Supreme Ruler. Which is to say that the Supreme Leader governs a total state. Just like, Stalin, Hitler, Kim Jong-un (another Supreme Leader).
The brutality of these regimes, although bad enough, is not the only feature they have in common. Unlike conventional dictators, revolutionary states and their leaders have imperial ambitions. As does Iran. So, pace President Obama, they are not going to be gently talked out of their habit of spreading terror and mayhem around the world. Because Iran is a revolutionary state with imperial ambitions led by revolutionary theocratic fanatics.
The prudential question is not whether the U.S. should act to protect itself and the Liberal order. The question is how the U.S. should act, especially in the wake of the latest Iranian provocations. The Iranian regime has been at this game since 1979, over 40 years. They have had plenty of time to age out. There are no signs that this is going to happen anytime soon. Moreover with every passing day they come closer to acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon. The clock is ticking in favor of the regime.
By ordering the assassination of General Soleimani, President Trump achieved a number of important goals. First, he erased the fiction that there is a difference between the Iranian regime and its terrorist operations. They are one and the same. Second, by changing the rules of the game he served notice on the regime that the era of touch football wars with the U.S. is over. Actions taken by the regime and its terrorist proxies will be dealt with swiftly and severely. The Iranian leadership is now vulnerable, a development that will surely grab their attention.
There is also an additional qualitative change in the incentive structure. It is that the U.S. merely seeks to contain Iran’s behavior; it does not seek to acquire or occupy territory or engage in nation building, the great mistake of previous efforts in Vietnam and Iraq. The U.S. has served notice that it is in a position to impose tremendous costs on the Iranian leadership and that it will do so if need be. Finally, the U.S. has also delivered a message to Kim Jong-un in North Korea. He is personally vulnerable, a message he has undoubtedly heard loud and clear.
In the end Trump had little choice, especially with the nuclear clock ticking both in Iran and North Korea. The strategy is not without substantial risk. Even now Iraq is threatening to toss the U.S. out of the country. That would achieve for Iran a long sought objective. But Iranian control over Iraq would just create a bigger economic mess for Iran, and would be a hollow victory in the long term. In the end, directly attacking Iran’s terror master and changing the rules of the game works in favor of the U.S. and the West. The potential benefits exceed the costs, and the action is justified from both a moral and legal perspective.