Jan 13, 2020

What D.C. is talking about: the Iran debate.

What D.C. is talking about: the Iran debate.

What the left is saying, what the right is saying, my take.

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This read: 5 minutes.

We’re diving into the debate over whether we should have executed a drone strike in on Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casting his vote for 2017 presidential and local election. Phot: Hossein Zohrevand | WikiCommons / Hossein Zohrevand

What D.C. is talking about.

It’s been 10 days since a U.S. drone strike killed the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, and the Trump administration’s justification for killing him continues to shift. Since the strike, Iran attempted one counterattack in public: a series of missile launches directed at Iraqi bases where U.S. soldiers were stationed. There were no casualties and little damage done. Shortly after those strikes, Iran shot down a passenger jet inadvertently identified as a cruise missile, killing 176 people. Experts on the region have also warned that Iran’s revenge is most likely to come in smaller, terrorist-like attacks on U.S. or Israeli soldiers in the region. With more than 3,500 soldiers deploying to the Middle East in the wake of the strike, though, Americans have been pining for a reason for the strike, which was largely considered an escalation.

What the right is saying.

On Friday, President Trump said Iran had planned to attack multiple U.S. embassies across the Middle East, including the embassy in Baghdad where Iranian militias stormed the gates and started fires. He told Laura Ingraham on Fox News that four embassies were under threat. But on Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Face the Nation he was never shown any specific evidence that Iran was planning to attack four embassies, though he insisted he shared “the president’s view” that Iran was going to go after the embassies. White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien claims the strike will “reset deterrence” and bring Iran back to the negotiating table. Republican senators like Rand Paul and Mike Lee have said they were not shown specific evidence to justify the attack, but the highest-ranking intelligence officials have all maintained there was cause for concern: CIA director Gina Haspel and Gen. Mark Milley (the highest-ranking military official in the country) have both forcefully said the intelligence was “compelling” and a “major attack was coming,” according to NYT. Other conservatives have insisted that the intelligence is irrelevant: Soleimani has the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on his hands and has suppressed and killed his own people, so it’s a good thing he’s gone.

What the left is saying.

The “shifting rationale” is not a good look. Take this lede from The New York Times:

“They had to kill him because he was planning an ‘imminent’ attack. But how imminent they could not say. Where they could not say. When they could not say. And really, it was more about what he had already done. Or actually it was to stop him from hitting an American embassy. Or four embassies. Or not.”

Politicians on the left have insisted the Trump administration testify before Congress or explain to the public the specific rationale for the attack. Some have also pointed to the Wall Street Journal article noting Trump told associates he was “under pressure… from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial” to execute the strike. This would comport with many liberals’ belief that Trump only acts in his own self-interest. Some liberal pundits have noted the U.S. government has a long history of leading us into war based on false premises. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly referenced Vietnam and Iraq. Others have noted the administration’s claims are absurd on their face. Pence tried to tie Soleimani to 9/11. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, claimed the planned attack could have taken “hundreds of Americans lives” (which would be the deadliest single attack in the Middle East over the last 20 years). It certainly seems like the administration is doing everything it can to justify killing Soleimani in hindsight. Some on the left have even pointed to the downed passenger plane as a result of U.S. escalation, claiming it got caught in “crossfire.”

My take.

I’ve found myself almost agreeing with folks on both sides but yet to find a coherent rationale or stance that really satisfies me. So I’ll try to make one of my own: I believe the administration decided to execute this strike in haste. I don’t think there was appropriate foresight or planning, and I think it was extremely dangerous as the escalation could have easily broken out into an all-out ground war overnight. While I struggle to ever write that it’s a “good thing” someone is dead, I certainly don’t think Soleimani needs to be mourned by any American. Not just because he killed U.S. soldiers — something he did as general fighting in a war — but because of how he treats his own people. Soleimani has crushed dissent in Iran and Iraq, helped orchestrate the murders of pro-Democracy protesters and repeatedly helped the Iranian regime and Iraqi government hurt or kill its own people while they tried to fight for individual rights and freedom. That, above all else, is what makes him a bad person.

I also think there’s a perfectly sane rationale for the strike from a military perspective. The best case I heard for the drone strike came from Noah Rothman on the We The Fifth podcast. Noah makes the case that America was operating in a longstanding exchange of attacks and counterattacks with Iran, and explains how it’s possible this strike actually leads to less conflict going forward. If you’re looking for a “pro-bombing-Iran” view that is born out of historical precedent and public evidence, Noah’s argument is about as good as it gets (to be clear: he didn’t convince me that the strike was a good thing, but I did think he made a compelling case).

On the other side, Nathan Robinson from Current Affairs also wrote eloquently about how to avoid swallowing wartime propaganda whole, most pointedly noting that we have little reason to trust “government officials” citing evidence that justifies military action. While Noah Rothman is a reliable conservative, some might even say a “neocon,” Nathan Robinson is a hardcore leftist. If you’re interested in hearing cogent, intelligent takes from both sides, I’d recommend listening to Noah’s interview and then reading Nathan’s article.

The truth is this administration appears to have killed Soleimani in an effort to rock the status quo and frighten Iranian leadership. If there had been a clear imminent threat, it seems unlikely the administration would have shifting and contradictory explanations. So I’m not really buying that rationale. If there was a good rationale for killing Soleimani, it’s that he has done irreparable damage to his own people. And if there was a good way to kill him, it wasn’t an attack on Iraqi soil that effectively infuriated our allies. I’m glad Soleimani is no longer a powerful figure in the Middle East, but I struggle to find anything positive about why, how, where or when the administration decided to take his life.

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