As the news came out Thursday of evidence that Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 had been shot down, perhaps accidentally, by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile, a debate broke out about who was responsible for the disaster. California congresswoman Jackie Speier told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “This is yet another example of collateral damage from the actions that have been taken in a provocative way by the president of the United States.”
That was poorly put, and the Trumpist social media machine immediately kicked into high gear. And it is true that Iran must bear full responsibility for the 176 lives tragically lost on the doomed flight. Their forces fired the missile.
That said, Speier’s larger point remains salient and worth considering. Had Donald Trump not ordered the Qassem Soleimani attack, it is virtually certain the Ukrainian flight would not have been shot down. Troops would have been at a different alert level. That means her use of the term “collateral damage” was on its face, accurate. This does not absolve the Iranians of one iota of the guilt they rightly must bear. And Donald Trump and his planners could not possibly have foreseen the specific circumstances that led to this tragedy.
But what they could have and should have planned for is the cascading consequences of an action so profound as the killing of the leader of Iran’s most elite military forces, the second most powerful man in the country. Even casual observers know that Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. Iran even underscored this point in one of the first appearances of Soleimani’s successor, his long-time former deputy, Esmail Ghanni. He stood before flags not just of Iran and of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard but of Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hashd al-Shaabi, Hamas, Liwa Fatemiyun and Liwa Zaynabiyun, as well as the country’s air force.
The message was that they had a reach that extended across the greater Middle East. The organizations whose flags were displayed were all Iranian proxies. Their operations covered Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While Iran’s immediate response to the Soleimani killing was measured with Tuesday’s missile attack on an Iraqi base that was preceded by hours with a warning the attack was coming in order to minimize the risk of casualties, they were simultaneously sending a message that their reach and their appetite for revenge was great. Indeed, this was also underscored on Thursday when a U.S. official told NBC’s Ken Dilanian that further retaliation for the attacks was expected, adding, “If I were a U.S. ambassador, I wouldn’t be starting my own car for the foreseeable future.”
When both George W. Bush and Barack Obama contemplated the option of killing Soleimani, they resisted precisely because the aftershocks of such an attack might be so great… and so hard to predict. This is the key. The exact sequence of circumstances that led to the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner were impossible to predict. But that tensions would rise, troops would be on alert, nerves would transform normal rules of engagement into hair trigger events, and that civilian as well as military lives would be at risk was entirely knowable. Soleimani had earned his status as a potential target. He was a very bad man with many lives on his hands including hundreds of Americans. But he also earned being treated with caution as he had been by past administration because the consequences of killing could be so complex and long-lasting that their net effect was beyond calculation. In a region primed for war already, taking such a risk was even more profound.
The ability to predict the chain of events that might be initiated by the Soleimani attack was complicated further still by a host of other actions—many by or involving Trump and his administration that were still reverberating through the Middle East. Any planner’s mind would boggle trying to calculate the odds, the game-theory calculations and the complex geometry of the shockwaves of any of these actions—much less all of them at once.
How would Trump’s pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal struck by the Obama administration be impacted by the attack and how would it shape perceptions of the attack? That the Iranians would promise to increase uranium enrichment almost immediately after such an attack was perhaps predictable. But what about their underlying intentions? They have taken a prudent path with the other signatories of the agreement thus far. How much more fragile would that commitment become?
What about the consequences of Trump’s apparent closeness to Iran’s top enemies? He gave the Saudis a free pass after they brutally murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He looked the other way as the Israelis ratcheted up pressure on and abuse of Palestinians. How would those relationships color the Iranian wariness? (Team Trump should also have calculated how the world at large would view the gross hypocrisy of not holding the Saudis accountable on Khashoggi and then saying that part of the rationale for the Soleimani killing was the death of an American contractor in Iraq.)
What will the consequences in the region be as Trump’s actions alienate important groups within Iraq? The Iraqi parliament immediately asked for the U.S. to pull its troops out of Iraq. If the U.S. complies with that request, it would create a void. Who would fill it? ISIS? Or, as Strobe Talbott and Maggie Tennis argue is likely in Slate, Russia?
In a region that has long been primed for war that planned or accidental military conflict or a spiral of escalating attacks, responses and possibly errors could produce profound and lasting instability, rising oil prices, unpredictable political shifts and opportunism among American rivals and adversaries—as well as divisions within American alliances.
Past planners did this math. They said no. They said the risks outweighed the rewards.
But Trump’s team is notorious for its broken planning process and its impulsive, internationally unsophisticated and impulse-driven president. What is more, of course, is that while past planners viewed this question in the context of geopolitics, Trump was only concerned with a potential short-term domestic benefit, distracting from his impeachment trial.
That is why, of course, he didn’t see the issue as being as challenging as his predecessors had. To him every unknown was irrelevant. All he cared about was his momentary political standing. So the complex instantly became simple. And then, this week, in the wake of the brief break that followed the Iranian missile attack, when his team declared victory and said the matter was done and over with, it was their complementary effort to bury the risks that loom in the future, an effort to make simple what is impossibly complex. It was their effort to deny responsibility for what the responsible among them know was too difficult to anticipate.
But history will not be so forgiving, nor will be the families of victims like those of the families of the passengers of Ukrainian Flight 752. They won’t care much who accepts responsibility or who shirks it. They certainly won’t care about any bump Trump might have hoped to achieve at the polls. All that will matter to them is a series of human consequences that spread out from here to the horizon, pain, suffering and loss that will be traceable in one way or another to the events of this past week.
David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, host of “Deep State Radio,” and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, an advisory firm providing services in the areas of technology, education, and culture to public and private clients from around the world, including the United Arab Emirates. He is also the author of Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.