If you ever wanted the opposite of what you asked for, the assassination of Soleimani couldn’t provide a better opportunity to Donald Trump. First, the basics: the assassination of political leaders is exceeding rare in history. It happens, but usually as a result of internal politics, like Kennedy and King.
As statecraft — it’s pretty rare. Think World War I and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That’s where the war really took off; a duke killed in his carriage in Sarajevo.
And there is a reason: Backfire. What do I mean? Backfire, big and little, is the consequence of deliberately killing a political leader of another country. The Iranian missile strike on U.S. bases in Iraq is, quite possibly, only the first, and most obvious, backfire.
Start with the simple equation. You kill my leader; I kill yours. With this political assassination, Trump puts a bullseye on himself. The Secret Service knows this and probably has him locked up like a squirrel in a cage by now. But the hunters are down for this chase.
The adversary is looking for targets, wherever they are. It could be the Secretary of Defense or the Commander of the Central Command, or a U.S. Ambassador in the Middle East somewhere. They are all now targets. There is a bullseye on every American official in DC or the region; just a question of who, and when.
And there is a bullseye on every American citizen in the region, or maybe somewhere else. That is why the U.S. Embassy invited non-governmental Americans to leave Iraq after the attack, fast. U.S. citizens have been targets for a while; more of them died as contractors in Afghanistan than soldiers did; the count is 3,800 civilians to 2,500 military. Americans on bases in Iraq dodged this bullet for now.
But there is a bigger, more long-term backfire. By assassinating Soleimani, the U.S. has squandered what little influence it had left in the region. Oh, sure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes this, until he is convicted of corruption. It lets the Israelis fight Iran to the last American if a war breaks out (he hopes). And Mohammed bin Salman, the supreme power in Saudi Arabia likes it too, I bet. It’s the same deal — the Americans agree to fight Iran, instead of him and that puny Saudi military that somehow can’t subdue the Houthis in Yemen after years of trying.
But seriously, the U.S. has now said to countries where it has troops “we reserve the right to kill political officials in your country, as they pass through. What about your sovereignty? It’s not so important to us. We are, after all, the king of the hill.”
It’s an attitude most countries in the Middle East are unlikely to welcome. The net result: the assassination is likely to push even more countries in the region away from the U.S., continuing a trend that started with the strategic mistake of invading Iraq in 2003 to, oh, by the way, kill a politician — Saddam Hussein.
Backfire is not all of it. This assassination reeks of the basic feature of Trumpian foreign policy: random tactics without a strategy. Manhood without real cojones, the cojones of a real leader. Nobody seems to have had a thought about what the goal is of such a killing. Do the Iranians suddenly “collapse?” Or do they bite back? Do they rush to the negotiating table, stop having influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere? Or does the road get even tougher in the region?
No, of course, they escalate their regional role, become an even more significant player. It is what followed from the U.S. abandoning the nuclear agreement; a harder line and more involvement in the region. After all, they live there, beloved by the others, or not. And we don’t. Isn’t that what you would do?
In the end, the assassination is a futile act, a confession of a bankrupt non-strategy. Killing on impulse belongs to street gangs, not to presidents. If Trump were truly interested in change in the Middle East; if he were truly seeking an end to the “endless wars” in the Middle East, he would not kill for manhood’s sake; he would have a strategy that combines diplomatic outreach with firmness and long-term thinking.
Killing people thrills Tom Cotton, Lindsay Graham, and Mitch McConnell. And it virtually guarantees a deeper, endless conflict in the Middle East, exactly what he has said he wants to avoid.
This is another act in the Shakespearian tragedy that is U.S. policy in the Middle East. It produces exactly the opposite result from the outcome it pretends to seek.