It’s plausible, even likely, that with Tuesday night’s missile attacks we’ve seen the extent of Iran’s overt, immediate retaliation for the targeting of Qasem Soleimani, one of its most important government officials. Open warfare has probably been averted.
However, the long-term, less obvious consequences will play out over months and years to come, and are likely to prove much more deadly. This thing is far from over.
As President Trump bragged on Twitter and again in a speech to the nation on Wednesday, the United States enjoys such overwhelming military superiority that Iran knows it cannot compete militarily in a direct confrontation. Wisely, it has made a face-saving gesture and backed down. But as it has in the past, Iran will find other, less direct means to make its bite felt. The notion that we’re all even now, that both sides are satisfied, contradicts everything we know about the history of the Iranian regime and how it has responded to challenges in the past.
And if the Iranians don’t have F-35 jets, aircraft carriers and the 82nd Airborne at their disposal, what they do have is time, and if you don’t understand how time can trump the world’s most powerful military, you haven’t been paying attention. Over the course of almost two decades, for example, the militarily primitive Taliban have used time to push us to the brink of defeat in Afghanistan, just as the Vietnamese did a generation earlier. The Iranians play the same game. They are in that region forever; we are only temporary. What happens in that region is core to their existence, to their identity and futures. For most Americans, it is an abstraction.
Those who support the targeted killing of Soleimani point out, quite accurately, the central role that he played in the killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq as well as his sponsorship of terrorist attacks. No one should mourn his passing, but the argument in favor of his removal is a bit too familiar.
“Saddam Hussein is a terrible human being,” we were told in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and there was no arguing that fact. “How can you oppose the removal of such an evil man?”
The answer turned out to be that one evil man is rarely the real problem, and that actions have consequences that you better think through before taking them. In the end, removing Saddam turned out to be the single biggest unforced error in the history of American foreign policy, and over the past 17 years we have spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives trying vainly to contain its consequences.
In this most recent case, the United States has legitimized the targeted killing of a top government official without benefit of an actual declaration of war, and other nations will take notice. Iraqis are growing restive about a continued American presence in their country, and if Soleimani’s death turns out to be the price of our ouster from Iraq, then it would be a price that Iran and probably Soleimani himself would deem worthy. And in Iran itself, the anti-government protests that recently shook the government have fallen silent, because there is nothing like an outside attack to silence internal dissent.
In his speech Wednesday, Trump called upon the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China to join us in a new initiative to contain Iran and prevent any effort at rebuilding its nuclear program. But even if Trump’s offer is serious, it is real doomed because he has burned those bridges to the ground. His unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, his erratic behavior, his calls for attacks on Iranian cultural sites, his pardoning and celebration of U.S. criminals have him impossible to take seriously as a negotiating partner.
I don’t credit Trump with much sincerity in anything that he says or does, but I do think he has a genuine, gut-level instinct against getting involved in another Middle East war. The problem is that he has surrounded himself with Cabinet members and advisers in positions of power that they would not hold in any other administration, Republican or Democrat.
It’s not that they are incompetent third-stringers, although they are exactly that. Many are also people for whom war with Iran has been a life-long goal if not obsession. Seventeen years ago, many advocated the invasion of Iraq because as they put it at the time, “the road to Tehran runs through Baghdad.” In Trump, they have been gifted an ill-informed, erratic president whom they are trying to goad into taking them into that dead-end canyon.
They know that he is terrified of appearing weak, that he loves the applause from Fox News, that he is obsessed with undoing any legacy of Barack Obama, and all that makes him easily manipulated. Look at how many times Trump has announced troop withdrawals from the Middle East, bragging that he’s keeping a campaign promise, yet actual U.S. troop levels continue to rise and rise and rise.
So no, we have not heard the last of all this, not from the Iranians and probably not from our side either. If Trump is defeated in November, it will take years if not a generation to undo the damage that he has already done. If he is returned to office for four more years, then the road to hell will probably go through Tehran.