On January 3, 2020, an American drone strike killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, and one of the most influential military and political figures in Iran. It is an extraordinary event—former American army general and director of the CIA David Petraeus called it “more consequential” than the killing of Osama bin Laden—with potentially profound implications for US-Iranian relations, and the entire Middle East.
Here, international relations experts from UC San Diego discuss why the Trump administration killed Soleimani; what might come next; and the implications for US domestic politics. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter Gourevitch: The Trump administration wants to send a strong message to Iran, thinking that the United States has been weak in its responses. Now the problem is not to escalate.
The Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran provided a framework for US-Iranian relations, but the Trump administration didn’t like the deal, partly or largely because it was Obama’s. Now they have to recover that relationship, on a new basis—but what new basis? What will Iran agree to that it did not before? I doubt they will agree to much change—in fact, they are likely to demand something from Trump. Or will this become like NAFTA: a mild change with a new name? I suspect the latter.
So, with luck we will get a new version of what the Obama administration already did: a system for getting the Iranians into a process where they have some incentive for restraint. At the moment, they have none.
Health care, trade, the Middle East… Blowing things up and then wanting them back?
David Lake: A simple answer to your question is the utter lack of strategic thinking within the administration. As in other instances, in killing Soleimani they failed to ask “what next” or perhaps substituted a fantasy—Iran will be deterred because we’re tough—for reasoned calculation. In my view, Iran must retaliate for its own domestic reasons as well as international strategic reasons. (See George Packer’s essay in the Atlantic.)
But this explanation is too facile. Trump may not be a strategic thinker, but the US government as a whole, and the military in particular, has systems in place to induce strategic thinking. Somebody in the Pentagon must have been thinking about the consequences. This was not a spontaneous act—the administration obviously decided to kill Soleimani, was tracking him, and waiting for an opportunity without too much collateral damage. So, this has likely been in the works for a while. As such, analysts within the government must have been anticipating the event and considering its consequences. That we immediately flew in more troops suggests this as well.
The question, then, is why didn’t the analysts in the Department of Defense, the CIA, etc., penetrate the decision-making process in the White House? Again, we can point to Trump, his attacks on the deep state, and his inability to process intelligence. But we also need to expand the inquiry to why his advisors—who surely know better—go along with such impulsive decision-making.
Peter Gourevitch: David is right that the upper reaches of the deep state have surely been part of this, tracking Soleimani for a while, proposing this, as they have to previous presidents, and Pompeo and others surely knew. So, is it impulsive?
Anonymous X: Isn’t this straight up organizational politics? In any administration the professional security community holds a wide range of views. Maybe 5 percent of the national security community at any time would advocate strongly for what we did against the general. Everyone else will be thinking a few steps down the game tree. Then the decision goes up to the principals, who are now almost all Trumpians in their lack of strategic thinking. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s national security advisor, has held B-team positions in previous administrations and worked for the campaigns of foreign policy strategic powerhouses (ahem) like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz. His book about American foreign policy is almost totally devoid of strategic thinking and littered with an anti-Obama world view (i.e., whatever Obama did, we do the opposite) and American exceptionalism. The rest of the principals committees have been cleaned out of big thinking. It says a lot that we may be longing for the days of John Bolton.
It is probably the case that in our lifetimes there has never been an administration where the president has cared less about substance and more about posturing and politics. Given the election coming up and all the drama in Washington, this has the feel of something that a “tough man” would do against an unpopular enemy. Beyond that, practically nobody in the public is paying attention. In the professional world of elite strategic thinkers this is recklessly dumb. But in the political and organizational world of today’s White House and the looming election, it is readily comprehended.
With that kind of mindset, and national security principals that are cleaned out of big thinking and devoid of the experience or interest in understanding how to constrain a presidential inner circle, dumb decisions like this get made. And the probability of those decisions is probably rising.
Erik Gartzke: If the public isn’t paying attention, then the strike is a dud in terms of US domestic politics. If the goal was to score points for the election, then it pretty much failed.
Maybe Trump or someone in the White House thought the strike would score something big for the election, and were just wrong, but this still does not explain the operational details. If you want smoke and mirrors, then any attack will do, the flashier the better. This is the opposite. The strike puts US intelligence at risk. The use of a drone suggests that they were tracking Soleimani for some time. It also limits the size of the strike. They can blow up a truck or a building but there will not be big explosions and exciting video. If Trump or one of his key underlings went to the Department of Defense (DoD) and said, “give me something splashy,” they would have gotten something very, very different.
The details of the strike say the plan originated in the Pentagon or the intelligence community. The decision to act came from the White House, but, again, operational details suggest that they were following, not leading. If the White House had gone to DoD and asked for something less flashy, say, to put the Iranians on notice that the game was not all one way, then again a Pentagon in a hurry to meet the instructions of command authority could do many things that would take much less time to arrange. Think of the dozens of times that Washington sends cruise missiles. The Israelis are hitting Iranian storage bunkers and command and control facilities in Syria. We could also strike a few to show that we care, but not too much.
This was a carefully planned attack. It must have been carefully thought out by Pentagon officials, at least on the military side. There is a risk that they did not think down the game tree far enough (yes). They have all grown up fighting insurgents, where grand strategy is at most counterinsurgency. But even here, I suspect that they batted this around a great deal before taking it to the White House precisely because they feel a responsibility to get things right since there is no critical thinking on Pennsylvania Avenue. If I am right about the first bit—the plan originated bottom up, not top down—then it never needed to see the light of day. Anyone at the JCS could have squashed this, if they wanted to.
Stephan Haggard: This was a highly risky move, but what if there really was intelligence of some sort of Iranian action—albeit a result of US sanctions and pressure—and we killed a bad guy and Iran is actually in a weak position to respond? I don’t think it can be ruled out. If you look down the escalation ladder, people are talking as if the US is in the weak position. Really?
Because President Trump’s foreign policy-making process is so dysfunctional and the assassination marks such a clear escalation, it has been quite natural to think that catastrophe looms. And it well may. But here are number of points that constitute a counter-narrative to the outrage.
- Now that he is not wanted, President Trump has changed his mind about the US presence in Iraq. But he didn’t want to be there to begin with; the fact that US forces may be pushed out is the equivalent of being forced to do what you wanted to do anyway.
- Iran was not in a particularly strong position to escalate this conflict, despite the fact that it had an array of possible targets. The economy is in bad shape, the regime just stared down the most significant protests since 2009, and the Iranian presence is not that popular in Iraq either. Despite the many possible ways the Iranians could have killed Americans, they ultimately went with a relatively minimal response. After killing Soleimani, did Trump’s threat to further escalate look more credible?
- Some are arguing that the strike was totally counterproductive from the perspective of getting Iran back into the Iran deal. But Trump ultimately cared little about getting back to such an agreement; what effort has there been in that regard? In any case, the Iranian calculation on how far to go with their nuclear program is driven, not only by US, but by the delicate game with Europe. It is one thing to announce you are suspending compliance; it is quite another to race for the bomb. I don’t see Iran breaking out over this.
- Soleimani’s “diplomatic mission” in Iraq was met by Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed in the attack. The assassination hardly stops the Quds Force from operating across the region. And it is quite possible that US forces will be distracted by assuring their own security; the ISIS mission in Iraq is now on hold. But the effect on how Iranian proxies across the region will respond is also unclear; targeted drone strikes could well be a deterrent for those militia leaders contemplating further attacks.
- The dust has not settled, but Democrats appear tied in knots about this. It reminds me of the trade issue, where it’s hard to figure out how the Dems would have handled China differently if they were in fact serious about the issue. They are complaining about process: whether there was intelligence of an imminent attack, which AUMF would provide the legal foundation, the lack of consultation with Congress. These are crucial issues, and the administration is all over the map in its defense of the action. But the public doesn’t necessarily care about these fine points. If nothing disastrous happens—and there is at least some chance it won’t—this will all be forgotten. In any case, I don’t see this changing any minds about Trump’s foreign policy competence. Those who believe he is responsible for a string of policy disasters—myself included—will continue to believe that. Those who think this was a justified response to attacks on Americans—including on the Embassy just lack week—are not likely to change their minds. Trump will cast this in his typical polarizing way: are you for killing bad guys or are you with the bad guys?
David Lake: According to recent reports, the Department of Defense gave Trump the traditional “Goldilocks” memo—options that were too extreme, options that were too passive, and one or more options they wanted to carry out. Trump surprised them by choosing one that was “too hot.” The bottom up process played a critical role—the options put on the table—but Trump, as an impulsive thinker, still played a critical role in neglecting the strategic consequences that had previously made the assassination too extreme.
Branislav L. Slantchev: More interesting now is trying to predict Tehran’s response. If they really hate this administration, they should be very careful with their escalation choice. If they do something drastic that could provoke a massive response, they will ensure Trump’s reelection. I know it’s not a popular view, but if the Trump administration can sell the response as a disproportionate attack on the US, enough voters will rally. If they want to undermine his presidency, they should respond with scattered acts of global terrorism: enough to make it hurt and, more importantly, to portray the administration as a failure. Trump would then have to either disengage, admitting defeat, or, more likely, deploy more troops to various points around the world (since our allies aren’t likely to be very helpful). Both options would be bad for him politically.
We might not have many military options if one wants to think about what happens in Iran if we depose the regime. But I’m not sure that’s relevant: it would be scarce consolation to the Ayatollah that Trump isn’t a strategic thinker when he’s dead and the country is in ruins. The fact is, we can afford to behave like a bull in a China shop and, ironically, this administration has the reputation to pull off such a threat.
Peter Gourevitch: Good analysis Branislav. How many voters do not believe the account of the administration? In Iran, reports suggest that they are rallying around the regime.
But who is rallying? You can ask the same question here in the US. I think the answer is that it depends on the nature of events. We have generally thought that a crisis would help an incumbent President, as it did Bush. But these days everything seems screened by people’s political affiliation and prior beliefs. That suggests that Republican and Democratic voters will have opposite reactions to events, cancelling out any boost. But this might be wishful thinking. I fear just the process Branislav outlines.