It’s official now, the sabers are out and swinging.
A U.S. attack on the Baghdad airport in Iraq overnight that killed the powerful commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps is a major escalation of violence with Iran that now threatens expected retaliation—in the Middle East and wherever Iranian’s terrorist partners can reach in embassies, on isolated bases or even in Israel.
There are always consequences. The question is whether our White House has thought them through, a question that has been in the air all week.
Both U.S. and Iranian governments confirmed the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, an important figure in the Iranian hierarchy, and four others, including the head of Iranian militias operating in Iraq.
Americans are trying to figure out whether there is a strategy here, whether this was a gut reaction by Trump, whether we know how to get out of yet another Middle East cauldron.
We are playing out the years’ long resentments between the United States and Iran just as Donald Trump is withdrawing American troops from Syria and Iraq, and just as Trump himself is burdened by the impeachment proceedings he faces in Congress. Indeed, Trump has been talking about seeking peace with Iran even as we have launched two strikes against Iranian-leaning militias and Suleimani.
Bombings, More Troops
Earlier this week, of course, Trump ordered an attack on an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, killing 25 and wounding 50—including Iraqi citizens who ally with Iran, an action that sparked protests from Iraq for violating their space, from Iran, and from an Iranian-leaning mob that attacked the U.S. embassy.
That incident had already sparked another ratcheting of Mideast tension, with Trump sending more U.S. Marines, Apache gunship helicopters and 750 troops from the 82nd Airborne to protect the embassy and its personnel. The overnight attack will be seen by Iran as closer to an act of war.
Once again, Americans are left trying to figure out whether there is a strategy here, whether this was a gut reaction by Trump, whether we know how to get out of yet another Middle East cauldron of boiling tensions.
And once again, we have too few troops in the fight to do much actual peace-making, but too many to take seriously that we are withdrawing. We are showing ourselves to be closely allied with Iraq, but not closely enough to share our attack plan with them beforehand. We are insistent on pushing back militarily against Iran for orchestrating the attack on the embassy, without actually taking on any Iranian troops.
Indeed, our actions apparently have forced a pending vote in the Iraqi legislature to oust Americans altogether, something that most observers seem to agree would be a bad sign for anti-terrorism reasons.
Reactions to the assassination were quick, ranging from concern about American troops in the area and families of personnel in embassies in Iraq and elsewhere to worries about uncontrolled war. Trump himself weirdly tweeted out just an American flag.
So, we have Americans in reinforced safe rooms in the embassy in Baghdad while unfriendlies have been crashing through the outside barriers in a spiraling storm of violence. The protests no sooner started dissipating yesterday as Iraqi and American military took up guard positions.
The reality here is that once more we have acted with no defining clarity about how this will play out.
Let’s remember that the current round of tensions started building as soon as Trump took office and started making moves to cancel U.S. participation in a multi-nation treaty with Iran to forestall the development of nuclear weapons. He called the deal terrible and ridiculed Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry for making the deal. Now the United States has withdrawn and imposed extreme economic sanctions from an American perspective.
Along the way this week, we have twice ignored Iraqi sovereignty to launch air attacks.
From Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Iraqi officials to underscore that the United States will protect and defend its people, who are there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq. Trump later tweeted: This would be no Benghazi, where four diplomats died under-guarded in a distant Libyan consulate in a riot.
A stream of former generals turned television commentators have tried futilely to game out what has happened this week, why and what to expect. It is clear that Trump got advice to bomb the surrogate Iranian militia in return for the death of an American contractor, prompting threatening tweets to Iran as well. The Trump administration long has warned about militias operating in the region with backing from Iran, acting as surrogates.
Each of the generals made clear only that we are dealing with an extremely dangerous and flammable international situation, adding that there is much uncertainty about U.S. goals in the region. That has only gotten a whole lot more dangerous overnight.
The only clear statements were around a White House wanting to show it will not be pushed around by Iran. Obviously, we can expect Iran to say the same.
A Part-Time President
What keeps occurring to me is that the serious business of national security, as with other governmental undertakings, is complicated and important. We can’t afford a part-time president who seems to spend almost all of his time on self-preening and self-promotion rather than keeping his eye on the ball. We lack the chassis in place for diplomacy needed to pair with economic sanctions, and we lack a workable strategy.
Further, we have a secretary of state on his way out to run for the Senate from Kansas, we have Trump questioning the Pentagon and military leadership over its departmental justice system, and we have distanced ourselves from needed allies. This is not a formula for feeling safer.
The sabers are out and swinging. North Korea, Iran, Russia, China and others are lining up to test a U.S. president, perhaps emboldened by perceived weakness from impeachment, or worse, because the White House itself is erratic and unclear in pursuit of a foreign policy without direction.