A Muddled Story

The aftermath of the attack at Baghdad International Airport that killed Iranian General Qassem Suleimani

The president who called himself an “extremely stable genius” and boasted he has “the best words” and promised, as a candidate, to “hire the best people” heads a team that cannot agree on an explanation of the rationale for killing General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force. President Donald Trump and his aides say they had to kill Suleimani because he was planning an “imminent” attack. When pressed, they cannot define “imminent.” Then, they spoke of multiple attacks. What were the targets of those “imminent,” or perhaps not so “imminent,” attacks? They could not say, then gave conflicting answers. Perhaps, it was not about “imminent” attacks after all, but about Suleimani’s murderous past. Or, maybe he was plotting an attack on an American embassy. Maybe four embassies. Maybe not.

And, then, Trump suggested the United States acted to eliminate a bad guy. “The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was ‘imminent’ or not, & was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!” Trump tweeted. This version dovetails with a report from NBC News that Trump authorized the killing of Suleimani seven months ago if Iranian aggression led to the death of an American. 

There was a time — up to the end of 2019 — when many people who find Trump abhorrent and his policies malevolent took solace in the belief that he was also incompetent. No matter how evil his intentions, he and his aides could be counted on to gum up the works. Trump’s time in the White House might be a stain on American history, but, in the end, he would not do lasting harm because he was too lazy, too unfocused, and too blundering to accomplish much.

The “incompetence” theory always had a fallacy at its core, for it ignored the possibility that even amateurish officials can do great harm. Now, granted, in many aspects of governance, bad decisions may inconvenience some and may set back progress for a time, but the replacement of the incompetent with capable officials eventually restores health to the body politic. But, when it comes to matters of war and peace, incompetence, obviously, is not only dangerous, but deadly. The world has witnessed many occasions when nations stumbled into war because of miscalculations and false assumptions. The events of June and July 1914 provide ample evidence of the tragic consequences of international bumbling. 

The besieged U.S. Embassy in Tehran, November 4, 1979

Trump, it appears, ordered the killing of Suleimani because he is obsessed with Iran and fears, on his watch, another embassy crisis like the one that undid Jimmy Carter’s presidency. He also fears a repeat of the 2012 Benghazi attack, so when he viewed, on his favorite network, the storming of the American Embassy in Baghdad, his visceral reaction was to lash out at Iran. That is why, when presented with options on possible responses, Trump chose the most extreme of the choices, much to the shock of his advisers who offered the killing of Suleimani in the hope the president would select something else from the menu. 

Apparently, Trump ordered the murder of Suleimani without hard and fast intelligence on what the Iranian general was plotting and without serious consideration of Iran’s possible reaction. It is fascinating that the president who discounts a mountain of intelligence accusing Russia of interfering with American elections past and future is so quick to accept the intelligence of “imminent” attacks. Of course, we do not know if that is what the intelligence really showed or it is what the Trump team wants us to believe the intelligence indicated.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper

Trump and his aides simply cannot get the story straight, suggesting the intelligence is unclear, at best. The latest inconsistency in the account comes following Trump’s claim on Fox News that Iran, under the aegis of Suleimani, was  planning an attack on four U.S. embassies. But, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who appears increasingly uncomfortable in his role, disputed the notion that there was hard intelligence suggesting the targeting of multiple embassies. “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday. 

Surely, if the evidence were incontrovertible, the president and the defense secretary would be able to agree on a version of events. Their inability to do so suggests, at best, that the intelligence was murky, and, at worst, that Trump reacted, then sought a justification. And, a justification must, under international law, rest on evidence of an imminent threat. The United Nations Charter decrees that nations cannot use force in a third country without its consent except in response to an armed attack or a threat of an imminent armed attack. As one former lawyer on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush told The New York Times, “…under international law, the attack on Suleimani would not have been lawful unless he presented an imminent threat.”

Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah

The muddled explanations are so absurd that even some Republicans have joined Democrats in criticizing the administration. Democrats — and Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky — have said the administration has not provided evidence in classified briefings to support the claim of an “imminent” attack. Even some Pentagon officials say privately they are unaware of any intelligence suggesting a large-scale assault on embassies was about to occur. Nevertheless, Trump sycophants — former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley most notoriously — have suggested that questioning the president is tantamount to supporting terrorists. That is a malicious canard reminiscent of the worst excesses of McCarthyism. 

So, we are left with a president who may, or may not, have received intelligence suggesting an “imminent” attack on an embassy or multiple embassies. Trump cites that evidence even though no one else privy to American intelligence can verify his version of events. The United States and Iran appear to have stepped back from the brink of war, but the situation in the region remains volatile. That is worrisome when contemplating what the “stable genius” in control of the American military might do next.

Posted January 14, 2020

Comments are closed.