By Lawrence Philby
The anti-democratic nature of the US national security apparatus is why we’re in this mess, and preventing future escalation spirals requires changing not just who is in power, but how power works at the highest levels.
To be clear – and don’t let the reams of ex post facto justification distract you – this is fucking nuts.
It would be nuts even if it were the result of careful consideration and not Donald Trump picking “D – all of the above” on a hastily prepared multiple-choice policy planning document.
The United States should not be in the business of assassinating foreign leaders abroad on the flimsy pretext of undefined “terrorist” threats.
This is true whether, as the Church Commission did in 1976, you reject assassination as an inappropriate and immoral tool of US foreign policy (which it is), or, as a cold-blooded strategist, you view it as a rational choice that reinforces the relative influence of great powers upon the world stage.
Qassem Soleimani was an agent of a state responsible for tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths across the greater Middle East. He spent a decade and a half working to advance Iranian interests at immense cost to Arab citizens of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, albeit in a region destabilized by US intervention as well as the stagnation and collapse of ossified autocracies.
His death is no doubt a source of joy and jubilation for many, many victims of Iranian interventions the world over.
Yet this joy and jubilation should not be selectively mobilized into the debate to justify a course of action that exemplifies the worst of the Trump-era policy process. Nor should it be used to normalize the sense of impunity and short-termism that pervades extant US foreign-policy establishment thinking.
For all the talk of the enduring norms of the liberal international order, and the US role in enforcing them, the re-normalization of assassination in US foreign policy took place at the zenith of US power and influence.
Little wonder that the leading lights of the present-day blob are left with only the anodyne language of cost-benefit analysis and imperfect processes to state their criticisms.
If Trump ordered the targeted killing of Ayatollah Khamenei tomorrow, we’d be reading a Bret Stephens column about the “ideological terrorism of the Ayatollahs” long before the funeral procession got underway.
In a political system where domestic politics trump all (pun most certainly intended), relying on high-level norms and clever calculations to constrain the worst excesses of the American Empire is a losing proposition.
And even if WW3 is not imminent, let’s recall that the toll of conflicts in the region can always get worse.
We’re talking about a region home to several of the most heavily armed, resource-rich, personality-driven dictatorships the world over.
Populations on the lower side of the Gulf are clustered in a handful of highly vertical, highly vulnerable mega-cities, whose scarce water supplies rely on equally concentrated and vulnerable desalination plants.
A wide-scale war would leave thousands dead, create millions of refugees, destroy much of the accumulated capital of the Arab world and wreak havoc on global energy markets, to say nothing of the crushing environmental impact.
Even the Saudi government – not known for being a bastion of caution of late – has been backing away from this latest move and emphasizing de-escalation.
As for Iran itself, the folly of regime-change true believers is laid bare in the fact that the United States qua government and qua people barely have any idea what’s afoot in Iraq despite years of direct and indirect occupation.
Though the United States will never again muster up the kind of post-9/11 war fever that sanctioned the invasion of Iraq (with legislation that continues to underwrite imperial misadventure to this day), even the result of that grandiose effort was an unmitigated disaster.
The idea that we could somehow be better prepared to impose direct rule on a country with twice the territory, four times the area, far more difficult terrain and a far more capable military than the post-sanctions Iraqi Army therefore beggars belief under even the most cynical of imperial logics.
Then again, so did the idea that more soldiers and more resources might have secured South Vietnam forever through force of arms, once upon a time.
First, there is no alternative to aggressively interrogating the received wisdom of US foreign policy tools every step of the way. A debate about whether this was the correct person to assassinate is one that has already ceded too much ground to the policy status quo for any left foreign policy to take root.
Without establishing a clear sense of right and wrong in US foreign policy, we very quickly fall back on retroactive approval of whatever the US president chooses to do unless their actions actually bring about World War III – at which point there will hardly be more space to debate the wisdom of particular policy choices.
Second, whatever the massive shortcomings of President Trump, this is not a matter of “getting the right people in office.” Not only has our system manifestly failed to get the “right” people into office, but it has seen even the “right” people build up vast bureaucracies to carry out and normalize assassinations the world over.
Third, and building on these two points: there is no way to instill our foreign policy with a greater sense of right and wrong, of appropriateness and morality, without greater public engagement into the what, how, why, and how much of US foreign policy.
Attempting to wall off foreign policy into a private matter for experts to handle will inevitably bring us back to the present situation – foreign policy for short-term efforts to rally domestic support at home, potential consequences for future generations or the many millions beyond US borders and US bases be damned.
Lawrence Philby is an occasional literary translator as well as a student of power and policymaking.