PARIS–When it comes to the art of deal-making in Middle East statecraft, death is part of the bargain. At least since the days of the Crusades, assassinations have been used as negotiating tools rather stronger than a diplomatic note, but not so disastrous and fraught with unforeseen consequences as a war.
And while some American commanders in chief might have balked at that proposition, even tried to rule it out, Donald Trump apparently saw the decision to liquidate Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani as a natural negotiating ploy. Perhaps his hawkish advisers told him—without some important caveats—it’s the kind of thing the Israelis have been doing for years.
That would explain, in part, Trump’s tweet on Monday that simply dismissed the debate over whether Soleimani was plotting an “imminent” attack on U.S. installations or personnel. Trump continued to insist without presenting evidence that he believes that to have been the case with Soleimani, then added, “It doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”
It’s now being reported the decision to terminate the Iranian commander “with extreme prejudice” dates back months—to about the time when Trump, having shown restraint in the face of bloodless Iranian provocations, decided he needed a tougher negotiating posture. His favored means of coercion, fiery rhetoric and economic warfare, weren’t getting the results he wanted, so he added murder to his toolbox if and when any American blood was shed in an attack that could be pinned on Soleimani.
Washington being Washington, some political insiders have drawn parallels between Trump’s tweet and an oft-quoted but misquoted rhetorical question by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost and a separate CIA installation in Benghazi, Libya. That incident cost the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“What difference does it make?” Clinton is said to have responded to hectoring by a Republican senator during testimony in 2013.
In both cases, impatience led to seeming insouciance about some very serious matters. But the two citations are very different.
The issue with Clinton was whether the jihadi origins of the Benghazi attack were misinterpreted or downplayed by an administration supposedly soft on terrorism, as the Republican questioner insisted.
In fact, reporting from the ground was confused after a day of protests in the Arab world and a partially successful attempt to break into the fortress-like U.S. embassy compound in neighboring Egypt. The diplomatic outpost in Benghazi was not an embassy or consulate, and not defended as such. Stevens and a security officer killed there died from smoke inhalation after the compound was broken into and fires set using generator fuel found on the scene. The attack on the separate CIA facility, hours later, involved mortar fire that killed two more Americans.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” Clinton said. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?”
Clinton was insisting with increasing irritation that the real issue was how to avoid such tragedies in the future. She was not suggesting a radical new departure for U.S. policy.
Trump, on the other hand, is claiming a presidential license to kill officials of foreign governments whose records he deems to be “horrible.”
To be sure, the Obama and George W. Bush administrations used a lot of Hellfire missiles to blow away members of al Qaeda, its affiliates, and the Islamic State terror group. Trump followed suit, lighting up Osama bin Laden’s son and successor, Hamza bin Laden, and sending special-operations forces to chase down ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In those cases, some legal justification was provided by open-ended congressional authorizations for the use of military force after the 9/11 attacks.
But Trump’s recent tweet suggests that in his gut he doesn’t even think that was necessary when it came to snuffing Soleimani, a senior official of a foreign government recognized by the United Nations and most governments around the world and one that, technically at least, is not at war with the United States.
Because Soleimani’s record was “horrible,” Trump asserts, he could shoot first and find the legal justifications later, and if those didn’t hold up, “it really doesn’t matter.”
Of course, it does, and not only in moral and legal terms, but as a matter of negotiating strategy.
Nobody knows that better than the Israelis, who have applauded Soleimani’s demise—but seem to have made little or no effort over the last decade to take him out on their own. The calibration of escalation is an art they have mastered and Trump clearly has not.
As a counterterrorism adviser to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told me in the early 1990s, Israel’s use of assassinations as a tool of statecraft relies on “rules as old as the Bible” that all the governments in the Middle East understand—including and especially those in Jerusalem and Tehran. “An eye for an eye,” keep in mind, is another way of saying “proportional retaliation.”
According to a report by Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, some of the advice being sent Trump’s way last spring, as the confrontation he provoked with Iran began heating up, was to disregard proportionality and instead use assassination—specifically of Soleimani—to “disrupt” the Iranian regime. As with most such outside-the-box thinking, however, the question of what comes next appears to have been left unanswered.
A figure like Soleimani can wage war–or make peace–while controlling his assets. Take him out, and you throw everything up in the air.
As I wrote a decade ago, Soleimani’s forces occupied the shadows in Iraq long before America’s troops entered and occupied. He was the go-to guy for much of the Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite opposition to Saddam Hussein, and after the U.S. invasion deposed the tyrant but left Iraq in chaos, it is no wonder Soleimani wrote to the U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, “You should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.”
In all those countries, Soleimani built up networks of agents, collaborators, and militias so that he could create a crisis—and then solve it, at a political price. Petraeus told an audience in Washington in 2010, Soleimani might say, “We’ll stop the crisis immediately, but of course, you know, we’d like to have one more vote in the council of this and that.” A talented extortionist knows how to set a price that will be met.
But Soleimani did not originate this Iranian approach, it will not end with his death, and he arguably tempered the terrorism while he was commander of the Quds Force.
As I noted back in 2010, “dangerous as Soleimani may be, his style is notably different from that of his predecessor at the Quds Force, Ahmad Vahidi,” whose “list of alleged links to horrific terrorist incidents stretches from Beirut to Buenos Aires.”
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vahidi’s Quds Force agents waged a ferocious assassination campaign in Europe to wipe out leading dissidents and political opponents. Soleimani, appointed in 2000 when the reformist President Mohammad Khatami was in office, “concentrated on events closer to home and played more subtle political games.”
Soleimani’s deputy and successor, Brig. Gen. Ismail Qaani, is known mainly for his work with Quds Force operatives in Afghanistan, where in the 1990s they—and the CIA—supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. But that era of mutual tolerance, if not cooperation, is long past and no longer even imaginable in the aftermath of the Soleimani assassination.
A 2012 report by the American Enterprise Institute that predicted Qaani as Soleimani’s likely successor also advised that “decision-makers planning U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan can safely assume” that a Quds Force led by Qaani “would engage much more aggressively in Afghanistan and central Asia.”
So, the dangerous future ahead is more unpredictable than ever and, yeah, Soleimani’s assassination really does matter.