Ordering the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is one of those decisions that makes a man like Donald J. Trump elated — but only for a short time. The come-down from that high will be long and painful.
As the smoke from that burning Toyota and flesh at the Bagdad International Airport blows back in the direction of Washington, it will start to dawn on Trump, as it did on Bush, how he has been duped into something that will not serve him well at all.
Back in the summer, when Iran shot down the RQ-4 Global Hawk flyer at its border in the Gulf of Oman, Trump’s instincts served him well. The war hawks around him, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), were pleading with him to hit Iran hard, a step they knew would increase the likelihood of an all-out war. He smelled the trap — perhaps Bolton’s bushy mustache spooked him — and he backed off at the last minute.
It seemed in hindsight that the world had dodged a bullet. But unless you are Neo from the Matrix, there are only so many times one can dodge bullets when the supply of bullets seems to be endless. The Iranians contributing their fair share of them, in the form of routine incremental escalations. It was clear that for those who want war with Iran, they just needed patience and perseverance.
Eventually, the combination of Pompeo and Graham’s show of absolute loyalty to Trump on one hand, and Trump’s diminished self-confidence courtesy of becoming the third president in history to be impeached, did their magic. On Friday night, after a late night visit by Graham and others, Trump finally took the bait.
For those neocons who for years have dreamt of the day America goes to war with Iran, it must have been an exciting night. Along with them, Isareli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Muhammad Bin Zayed, and of course ISIS, are all having a very happy 2020 so far.
But like their elation on the evening George W Bush announced the commencement of war on Iraq early in 2003, the long-term blow-back will be slow and unforgiving. Supporting that war has already consumed the political careers of heavyweights like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, and if not for last night, might have also consumed that of Joe Biden. For America, it has meant trillions of dollars and millions of units of American blood sunk into Iraqi sand.
At that time, Iran’s establishment was fearful for a year or two that they would be next, then that fear soon turned to elation when it became clear that the Great Satan was not so great when it comes to long-term planning. With their foes the Taliban and Saddam crushed by the U.S., they soon found the road from Kabul to Beirut wide open for Iran’s political, cultural, economic, and now direct military influence.
The outlines of the blowback from this most recent American adventure are already taking shape. The Iraqi government, even some neutral and anti-Iran factions, have condemned the attack as, at the very least, an insult to the sovereignty of their country, which is supposed to be America’s ally. Iraqis — who has lived with hellish war on their soil for over 4 decades, and just got a breather after the defeat of ISIS — are once again pondering the prospect of their cities becoming the main battleground for a new war between Iran and the U.S. Within hours, anti-Iran Sunni and Shiite parties, as well as Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has maintained a strong resistance to Iran’s control of Iraq, have spoken out condemning Trump’s hit.
One problem is the choice of target given to Trump. While Iran’s influence is looked at with great suspicion in Iraq, Qassem Soleimani is widely seen as a military man who help defeat first Saddam and later al-Qaida and ISIS. The Iraqi defense minister who served during the time when ISIS was at its peak in 2014 said in a panel years later, on the role of Soleimani: “You don’t understand. Daesh [as ISIS is known in the region] was 5 kilometers for my house in Baghdad. No one could stop them. They would have killed us all. If it were not for Soleimani and the Iranians who came to the front lines we’d all be dead and ISIS would have taken Iraq.” This was at a time when Iraqi’s American-trained and equipped army was fleeing ISIS’s advance, leaving their weapons behind.
Even inside Iran, Iranians see Soleimani and internal Revolutionary Guards forces in a very different light. Many Iranians loathe the internal IRGC and their para-militaries, the Basij. Internally, these are seen as deeply involved in economic corruption, and for violently crushing open protest against that corruption. But when Iranians think of Qassem Soleimani, they see a stoic warrior who in his 20s fought and was wounded protecting them from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in the 1980s, and in his 60s was still at it, protecting Iran from ISIS attacks by meeting the enemy inside Iraq and Syria. They credit him and his men with the fact that ISIS failed to mount the kind of widespread attacks inside Iran they have launched in Iraq and Syria. A recent U.S. university survey showed Soleimani is the most popular figure in Iran, polling higher that many internal leaders. Over the past days, I’ve heard from Iranians who are at the forefront of opposition to the regime who planned to turn out for Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran. One told me, “If not for men like Soleimani, ISIS would have taken Iraq, then Syria, then Lebanon and Jordan, and Iran would not have been able to stop them.”
For the regime in Iran, starting this Friday and the funeral procession on Saturday, this popular sentiment is a much needed break. Recall that just weeks ago, they carried out one of the bloodiest repressions of street protest in years. In addition, financial corruption has hollowed out their claims to religious legitimacy. The only tool they have left in their ideological grab bag is Iranian nationalism, and no one represented that better that General Soleimani. Like most countries, Iranians of all stripes rally to their flag when faced with an outside attack, especially if it is perceived as an injustice. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded in 1980, anti-regime monarchists, leftists, and nationalists all volunteered to join the army or otherwise support the war effort. A new war with the USA, coming on the heels of the huge compromises Iran made (in their view) in the Iran nuclear deal, will provide a big “out” for the regime. They long for the 8 years of war with Saddam when all dissent was put on hold in the interest of national survival. An Iran at war with America is the Iran that suits them best. For decades, it’s been an economic war, which, given the widespread corruption inside Iran, was hard to use to gin up nationalist sentiment, since the blame for the economic hardship was shared between both the regime and the U.S. A shooting war is a different story.
For the remnants of ISIS, whose dreams of a Wahhabi Caliphate with slave markets and head-chopping blocks in every Arab town were crushed in no small part by one Qassem Soleimani, there is elation. So too in the palaces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Another likely joyful place is the home of Bibi Netanyahu, who has built his entire political career on conflict with Iran. When the risk of an Iran war goes up, Israelis are more likely to turn again to him and support his bid for immunity in his own corruption case.
For America’s real strategic rivals, China and Russia, the strike on Soleimani was also great news. Both have used wars in the Middle East to push into the region aggressively. In Syria, war has allowed Russia to gain a permanent robust presence and complete control of the skies. Conflict and sanctions have mortgaged Iran’s economy to China. Just last week, Iran, Russia, and China held joint naval exercises for the first time. There is nothing Iran won’t give these two powers to help it survive a war with the U.S.
By agreeing to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Trump has guaranteed that many more Arab, Iranian, and American lives will be lost in 2020. He’s given heart to America’s strategic enemies and dismayed America’s wavering allies. Most of all, for Trump personally, he has gambled his presidency on the advice of people around him who couldn’t care less for it. By November 2020, the longer term consequences of his decision last night will be clearer, and it most likely won’t be pretty.