The killing of Qasem Soleimani shows America has not learned from the Iraq War

As conflict escalates in the Middle East, once more America lacks a strategy.

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In the hours after it was announced that Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force, was killed by a US airstrike under the direction of US President Donald Trump, Ari Fleischer appeared on Fox News.

Fleischer, who was the White House press secretary in the first term of George W Bush’s administration — that is, as the United States began its war in Iraq — had this to say: "I think it is entirely possible that this is going to be a catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a similar sentiment: “Iraqis — Iraqis — dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more.”

The killing of Soleimani has been likened to the hypothetical killing of a US vice president or the head of the CIA. The man was close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, took credit for his country’s foreign policy, and oversaw the extension of Iranian influence throughout the region, including, critically, to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war. His death comes at a particularly fraught time in US-Iranian relations; in September, the United States blamed an attack on a Saudi oil field and plant on Iran, and, this past week in Baghdad, where Soleimani was killed, a crowd enraged by US strikes targeting an Iranian-backed militia attacked the US embassy. One struggles to imagine, if an American of similar importance were killed at a similarly tense time, that the reaction would be Americans rejoicing and celebrating the foreign power that carried out the deed. 

But one need not imagine the death of a high-profile American to suspect that the death of Soleimani, presented as an act of deterrence, will cause at least as many issues as it solves. Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it has been estimated that half a million Iraqis have been killed. The influence that Iran exerts over the country, years after the United States came vowing to spread democracy and the American way, has increased, arguably because of the mess the United States made. The Trump administration has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, hit Iran with a host of sanctions, and dedicated itself to weakening the Iranian regime — and yet that regime is still standing.

And yet Fleischer felt comfortable going on television and thinking aloud that this time it would be different, and the United States would truly be celebrated for killing a military leader with tremendous political influence, and change — but good change this time — would come. And yet Pompeo pointed to a video as proof that, even while Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said the US strike was a breach of the deal under which the United States has a presence in Iraq, the strike would somehow endear Americans to Iraqis.

Democratic members of Congress, who were not notified that the strike was going to take place, felt the need, in their tweets condemning Trump for making a high-risk move with no apparent sense of what is to come next, to note that Soleimani was a bad man. CNBC went a step further, running a tweet that said simply, “America just took out the world's no. 1 bad guy."

In fairness, the tweet linked to an op-ed that ran under the same headline, until it was tweaked to add a little more nuance. And in fairness, the framing of the issue in that light — good guys versus bad guys — makes it seem as if the past 18 years never happened.

But the year is 2020, not 2003. The United States continues to see itself, despite no small amount of evidence to the contrary, as the world's number one good guy. Even so, it should know by now that it cannot blow up political or military leaders without consequences, or without putting the people on the ground — Americans, yes, but also the citizens of other countries, who also consider themselves to be the good guys — in very real danger. The media should have learned to be sceptical in its presentation of the government line on actions that are ostensibly in the interest of national security. Members of Congress — who, it should be noted, only recently voted for a National Defense Authorization Act having stripped out an amendment that would have cut off money in the event of an offensive against Iran — should have understood by now what happens when they do not take with the utmost seriousness their constitutional obligation to check the executive branch.

There are other differences, of course, between now and 2003. In many ways it is a different world. The war in Syria wasn’t being waged back then, with Russia and Iran both making sure that, whatever the United States may have wanted, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad would stay in power. The Iran nuclear deal hadn’t been negotiated or signed under President Barack Obama, and the United States hadn’t taken itself out under Trump, which is to say the United States had not yet put itself at odds not only with Iran but also with the deal’s other signatories — the European Union (and specifically France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), China, and Russia — all of whom are trying to keep the deal in place even as Iran, seeing fewer economic returns on its investment, breaks out of parts of it.

One could argue that Russia, in 2003, did not know how to use the Middle East to effectively establish itself as one of the essential voices in the global room of geopolitics. It has since learned to do so, with Syria and with now with Iran, keeping an international deal together and issuing a statement that clucks at the United States for escalating tensions. The United States, in 2003, had yet to burn through global goodwill with the war in Iraq, and or to do so again with Trump, who has spent much of the past three years bullying allies to whom the United States will now potentially turn when Iran, as it has promised to do, takes its revenge for the death of Soleimani.

But the main difference, or a main difference, is that the United States has almost two decades of lived policy experience from which it could have learned, and from which it could see that, no, the death of one leader does not mean that a country or region will fall at America’s feet; that, yes, the United States is viewed with suspicion in the Middle East; that, yes, actions have consequences that have consequences.

We do not know, exactly, what those consequences will be. We do not know if Trump, who famously pronounced before Obama’s re-election that his predecessor would start a war with Iran in order to spend four more years in the White House, will deliberately escalate the situation further ahead of November. We do not know how, exactly, Iran will fight back – if it will be against Israel, or Americans in the region, or somewhere in the European Union, or in the United States, or in cyber space, or all of the above. We do not know what, if anything, Congress will do now, or how Trump will pivot from presenting himself as the candidate vowing to end endless wars to the president starting yet another one. The only thing we know for certain is that this isn’t it. It’s not as simple as one man’s death. It never is.

We could have learned that by now, but we didn't. There’s Ari Fleischer, back on television. There’s a clip of joyous Iraqis in the streets. There we are, back again, poised to make the same mistakes, but differently, and with more regional proxies involved. The same mistakes, but worse.

This article appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran