The Tail Has Wagged

Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren believes President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani for a domestic U.S. political reason: To distract the American public and Congress from his trial in the Senate. “We know that Donald Trump is very upset about this upcoming impeachment trial,” Warren said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But look what he’s doing now. He is taking us to the edge of war.” 

Warren was accusing Trump of employing a “wag the dog” tactic: Launching a military strike to divert attention from impeachment. The phrase comes from the title of a 1997 film satire starring Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman. The same accusation was leveled against President Bill Clinton in 1998 when he ordered strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan in the midst of the scandal that led to his impeachment. 

Qassem Suleimani

Warren said it was “reasonable” to ask questions about Trump’s motivation because “the administration, immediately after having taken this decision, offers a bunch of contradictory explanations for what’s going on. There was a reason that he chose this moment, not a month ago, not a month from now, not a less aggressive, less dangerous response.”  Trump claims he ordered Suleimani’s death to “stop a war,” but many Democrats find — in the words of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer — the evidence for an “imminent” Iranian attack “very unsatisfying.” Schumer added, ”We don’t know the reasons that it had to be done now. They don’t seem very clear.”

Reading the president’s mind — to ascertain his motives — is a tricky proposition, but two points should be obvious. First, Trump is a pathological liar, so believing anything he says about anything is next to impossible. And, second, no one should ever doubt that Trump will do anything if he thinks his actions benefit him, which is — after all — what his impeachment is all about: The withholding of aid to Ukraine in exchange for that country smearing Trump’s political rival. Trump simply has no filters — and no scruples or morals — when it comes to self-interest. 

This is a serious problem, and one of the president’s own making. By lying continually and by demonstrating his willingness to act in his interest rather than the nation’s, Trump automatically makes his motives suspect. He cannot be believed when he states a purported reason for an action — any action — and it is reasonable to assume he acted to further his own political success. Suleimani was a “bad guy” who may have deserved to die, but questions will always linger.

Trump was not impeached by the House for acting like a king, but he surely is behaving as one in his handling of the current Iranian crisis. Witness the bizarre way Trump believes he has notified Congress regarding his Iranian policy. “These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress…. Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!” posted the tweeter-in-chief. Actually, as in so many other matters, the president is wrong. The War Powers Act of 1973 requires formal notification to Congress within 48 hours of the onset of hostilities. 

The aftermath of the attack on the Baghdad International Airport in which Suleimani died

Like many monarchs of old, Trump is impetuous. In the chaotic events leading to the attack on Suleimani, military officials presented Trump with a menu of options to punish Iran for the attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad. The menu included the most extreme option — killing the Iranian general — on the assumption that the president would reject the improbable choice in favor of a more palatable possibility. It is a strategy used by the Pentagon since 9/11 — one that worked with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom rejected targeting Suleimani. But, Trump is not like his predecessors. To the surprise, and perhaps chagrin, of his advisers, Trump chose the extreme option. 

And, like despots of olden and modern times, Trump acts with little input from others. The president faces the prospect of war hamstrung by a lack of trusted and experienced advisers. His constant disparaging of American intelligence agencies has taken its toll. The president’s national security team is short-staffed, depleted by scores of departures. His closest White House aides are consumed by the impeachment process, and Trump hardly can turn to America’s traditional European allies for assistance and advice since he has bullied and alienated most of them from the beginning of his tenure in office.

An impetuous president lacking an experienced team of advisers — who he probably would not heed in any event — is ill-equipped for the coming game of tit-for-tat with the Iranian theocrats. Trump’s rashness caused this escalating crisis in the first place. He tore up the nuclear deal with Iran because of its fatal flaw: It was negotiated by Obama. He did that without considering a Plan B, and now he has to confront the Iranians without any apparent long-range strategy.

Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War

The ayatollahs in Tehran are prepared for the long haul, which is why Suleimani was in Baghdad when he was killed. As Dexter Filkins points out in his superb New Yorker 2013 profile of Suleimani, the Iranian leaders learned a lesson in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The carnage of that war — and its indecisive outcome — convinced the leadership of the futility of traditional combat. Instead, the Iranians decided to wage asymmetrical warfare — attacking stronger powers by using proxies, first in Lebanon, then in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Suleimani’s Quds Force (Quds means Jerusalem, which Tehran promises to “liberate” from the Israelis) was key to this strategy.

Image posted on a U.S government website by hackers

The reliance on this kind of combat means the Iranians are unlikely to launch a direct attack on U.S. interests. The mullahs surely will thunder from their pulpits about the “Great Satan” in Washington, but their response may rely on unleashing Hezbollah in Lebanon to strike Israel or a cyber attack of some kind on the United States. A cyber attack of unknown origins already hit a U.S government facility, and while it cannot be attributed directly to Tehran, it shows the perils of Trump’s actions. 

Whatever the Iranians do, Trump will not care. His goal was distraction, after all. He will not succeed if the American public is able to view Iran through a different lens than impeachment and sever any linkage between the two. John Bolton, the former national security adviser, now says he is willing to testify before the Senate if subpoenaed, keeping impeachment at the forefront regardless of the next steps in the Iranian crisis or how much tail wagging Trump does.

Let the Senate trial begin!

Posted January 7, 2020

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