Second verse, same as the first
a little bit louder and a little bit worse.
I was 23 in the run-up to the Iraq invasion—a just-out-of-college reporter for a local newspaper in Florida, part of a generation that had been shocked out of a brief era of unquestioned American hegemony by Sept. 11, 2001. We had just watched an entire country rally, drone-like, around a ground war in Afghanistan.
The Taliban had been routed, and the “peacekeeping” effort had taken its turn toward the generation-old morass we’ve come to know and love. The Bush administration then turned its eyes to a new target—a more dangerous target, we were told. One with Weapons of Mass Destruction. With Nuclear Ambitions. Run by a Madman. An Axis of Evil™. A country that, any day now, would attack the United States, so we had to act now or risk a “mushroom cloud,” as President George W. Bush ominously intoned.
I was skeptical of the Bush administration’s eagerness for war, of the constant drumbeat of stern men warning of immediate danger. But I was also young and naive, or perhaps not yet jaded enough to imagine that my government would wholesale manufacture a justification for war—that it would lie to the world and to the American people as a pretext for war. I distrusted Dubya and his cronies, but I figured there had to be some legitimate casus belli. Besides, for the most part, the national media wasn’t challenging the president’s claims, and neither were leading Democrats.
The Iraq War cured me of such naivete. My government lied to me, to the public, to the world. It did so brazenly and callously. It invented evidence to sell a war of choice—a war its chicken-hawk proponents had been itching to fight for a decade. (The fact that not a single one of the war’s architects is rotting in Leavenworth is a moral stain that won’t be easily erased.)
Although Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and the like had been fantasizing about toppling Saddam Hussein for years, and although these men had been in and around the highest levels of government for decades, no one apparently thought through what would happen afterward. Defeating Saddam—who had no weapons of mass destruction, let alone nuclear capabilities—was easy, but, as we soon learned, there was no plan for the vacuum of power.
Everything soon went to shit.
American soldiers ended up in a sectarian civil war. In time, the chaos gave rise to ISIS, which led to more fighting in Iraq and Syria, which had its own devastating civil war, which produced a refugee crisis in Europe, which prompted a surge of right-wing populism, which led, in part, to Brexit. Iraq’s collapse opened the door for its regional adversary Iran, which seeded Shia militias throughout the Middle East—including those in Iraq—and took steps toward its own nuclear program, and, more recently, engaged in a catastrophic proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
These are just some of the second- and third-order effects of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that reverberate 17 years later. For all of their foreign policy experience, his war planners never envisioned any of it—or anything like it. They thought it’d be simple; we’d be “greeted as liberators.” Instead, we got war without end.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on Qassim Suleimani, the high-ranking Iranian official that the U.S. assassinated via drone strike in Baghdad early Friday. Like most Americans, I’d never heard his name before he was killed. A New Yorker profile from 2013 paints him as a powerful-yet-invisible behind-the-scenes operative in the Middle East, “assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.” He was also an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another blood-soaked human being who, in the convoluted politics of the Middle East, has been battling ISIS.
Suleimani had arrived in Iraq after Iranian-backed Iraqi militias marched on the U.S. embassy on Tuesday, imprisoning diplomats for 24 hours. (No one was harmed.) That was in response to the American bombing of three Kataib Hezbollah militia sites in western Iraq, and two more in Syria, which killed about two dozen people. That was in response to Kataib Hezbollah allegedly firing 31 missiles into an American base on Dec. 27, which killed an American contractor.
This strike goes well beyond what the military calls a “proportional response.” Though the American government considered him a terrorist, Presidents Bush and Obama had passed on opportunities to kill Suleimani, the ayatollah’s friend and the second-most-powerful person in Iran. (By longstanding executive order, the U.S. does not “engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination,” though “assassination” is never defined.)
President Trump’s move wasn’t just taking out a bad guy. It was an escalation, akin to Iran offing a secretary of defense or a four-star general. It was an act of war—conducted without congressional notification, much less approval.
The context shouldn’t be ignored: Trump is headed into a re-election year with lackluster approval numbers and facing an impeachment trial. The day he authorized the strike, evidence surfaced that he had personally directed the Office of Management and Budget to withhold Ukrainian aid while he was pressuring that country’s president to investigate his political rival, even as the Pentagon worried that doing so was both illegal and contrary to America’s interests. You’d be forgiven for suspecting the dog is being wagged.
But I’m not sure that’s the case, because I’m not sure that much thought went into it. Trump is nothing if not impulsive—and nothing if not driven by an atavistic impulse to prove himself tougher than his predecessor. Obama had negotiated with Iran; Trump was going to kill its No. 2. Iran jabbed; Trump pulled out the sledgehammer. To Trump, foreign policy is a dick-measuring contest; as long as he has to U.S. military to fight for him, he has no need for the soft power of diplomacy.
But there’s a reason Obama—who was never shy about hunting human beings with drones—declined to kill Suleimani. No one knows what happens now, only that it’s probably not good. In its statement, the Defense Department said it took out Suleimani to deter future violent acts. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a video that showed what he said were Iraqis “dancing in the street.”
That seems unlikely to be the final word.
Iran’s supreme leader vowed “forceful revenge.” The State Department told Americans to leave Iraq. Iraq’s prime minister “strongly condemned the assassination,” called Suleimani a “martyr,” and labeled the strike a “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty, a blatant attack on the dignity of the country, and a dangerous escalation.” He also said it violated “the conditions for the presence of the American forces in Iraq and its role which is supposed to be limited to training Iraqi forces and fighting ISIS.” Foreign-policy experts say a conflict with Iran won’t look like anything we’ve seen before: “It will be fought throughout the region with a wide range of tools versus a wide range of civilian, economic, and military targets.” Oil prices are already rising.
Say what you want about the Bush administration, but they were the A-team of the neoconservative movement. Yet they failed to see beyond the first move. Trump’s foreign policy crew, on the other hand, isn’t the A-team of anything. His National Security Council is a dysfunctional mess. He’s on his fourth national security adviser—the first a convicted felon, the second short-tenured, the third fired via Twitter. The president has sought to purge dissenters and surrounded himself with sycophants. He’s degraded intelligence officials while seeking guidance from talk-show hosts.
As important, Trump has strained the alliances he’d need to fight Iran. The Europeans have been trying to make Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran work despite Trump pulling out. Now that hope is gone. And it’s increasingly likely that Iraq will ask the U.S. to withdraw its 5,000 troops from the country, which might allow ISIS to again develop a foothold. For all of this, Trump’s never had a coherent strategy in Iran; he paints himself as a noninterventionist, yet everything his administration does points toward wanting to force regime change, and those two things usually don’t go together.
Donald Trump is about to face an honest-to-god foreign policy crisis—one that stands to get a lot of people killed. What are the chances that he’s thought through what happens after he waves his dick around?
As with Saddam Hussein 17 years ago, the question isn’t whether we could kill Suleimani. Nor is it whether he deserved to die. The question is whether assassinating him is worth the blood we’re about to spill—and whether we even paused to ask ourselves that.
Second verse, same as the first
a little bit louder and a little bit worse.
Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at email@example.com.