Last week, President Donald Trump ordered an extrajudicial assassination of a foreign military official, Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. He did so without any authorization from elected representatives of the American public, flouting the treaty he withdrew from in 2018, and with reckless disregard for the consequences. He marked his accomplishment by posting a pixelated image of an American flag on Twitter. “America just took out the world's no. 1 bad guy,” said CNBC, like a state media outlet under a tinpot dictator.
America just took out the world's no. 1 bad guy https://t.co/60FJtQmTJ7— CNBC (@CNBC) January 3, 2020
As many have observed, it is all too reminiscent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, one of the most historically consequential, destructive political incidents in living memory, which extended the lifespan of the war on terror indefinitely, facilitated the deterioration of domestic civil liberties, and precipitated the rise of ISIS.
It is not difficult to figure out how to respond to this. Those who oppose the march to war, and what is fairly described as American imperialism, should be against it. That’s all. When your adversary is someone so belligerent and so openly wrong as Donald Trump, it is unnecessary to cede any ground. But that is just what our political intelligentsia has proceeded to do.
There is an aphorism, often attributed to the poet Robert Frost, that a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in a fight. True to form, statements from leading members of the supposed opposition party have tended to include a conciliatory shrug of the shoulders. Most Democratic presidential frontrunners have released statements dissenting from the president’s decision, but only after conceding that, well, he did have a point though.
“No American will mourn Qassem Soleimani’s passing,” said Joe Biden. “Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans,” said Elizabeth Warren. “Qassem Soleimani was responsible for directing Iran’s destabilizing actions in Iraq, Syria and throughout the Middle East, including attacks against U.S. forces,” said Amy Klobuchar.
Pete Buttigieg released an even stronger statement, conceding the premise for Trump’s actions (and making a point of spelling the target’s name differently): “The top priority of a Commander-in-Chief must be to protect Americans and our national security interests. There is no question that Qassim Suleimani was a threat to that safety and security.” While his competitors went on to express disagreement, Buttigieg seemed merely to feel that a more level-headed person, perhaps a Harvard graduate or a Rhodes scholar, should have given the order. “We must act wisely and deliberately,” he said, “not capriciously or through Twitter.”
Bernie Sanders departed from the pack, citing his opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars in what appears to be a freestyle rap.
I was right about Vietnam.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 3, 2020
I was right about Iraq.
I will do everything in my power to prevent a war with Iran.
I apologize to no one. pic.twitter.com/Lna3oBZMKB
Only Warren and Sanders have been willing to call the event an assassination, which, if it helps, is literally what happened.
Whether or not Soleimani was “the world’s no. 1 bad guy” is beside the point, but even that case was never made. “I haven't seen intelligence that taking out Soleimani was going to either stop the plotting that was going on or decrease other risk to the United States,” said House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff. For all his documented bad behavior, there is no evidence he presented an imminent threat to the United States.
But this is a situation where an evaluation of Soleimani is not at issue, because it is not the criminal record of the target that makes people in foreign countries subject to American drone strikes. The program has killed hundreds of innocent civilians, including at least one American citizen. Besides, the moral defensibility of foreign leaders is never what determines their treatment by the U.S. government, or their depiction in U.S. media. When Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced out of office at gunpoint after a military coup, the New York Times called him a “strongman,” in a since-revised article that was characteristic of coverage of the incident.
NYT really offering a master class in the manufacturing of consent today pic.twitter.com/Rx3O45zXro— Current Affairs (@curaffairs) November 25, 2019
Morales was depicted as an aggressor to suit the narrative; other foreign leaders have been exonerated to suit a different one. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were supported by the United States until they no longer served its interests, while the authoritarian regimes of Saudi Arabia and Israel continue to receive support in spite of their monstrous treatment of their residents. There is good reason for people in the rest of the world to pay attention to political climates like these, and to side against those responsible. But showing solidarity with civilians does not mean indulging in apologetics for bombs headed in their direction. There is no context that merits the deflection of scrutiny from the abuse of power, whether by Donald Trump or any holder of the executive office of the U.S. government.
This kind of equivocation often arises in cases that should be unambiguous. It is the standard sometimes applied to torture, carried out by the United States government in a program for which no one was ever prosecuted. Yes, the subjects of the so-called enhanced interrogation program were poorly selected, mostly without meaningful access to relevant information. Yes, the infliction of torture tended to result in false intelligence. Yes, it was bad for America’s reputation. None of these true statements is why torture is wrong. Torture is wrong because torture is wrong, and no government should hold the right to carry it out against a human being.
Similarly, the question of which foreign leaders the world would be better off without is a different one from the question of whether the leader of the United States should be permitted to conduct unilateral military actions in other countries. And it is safe to say, based on the record — in an almost interminable litany including Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, and Libya — that American military intervention has not served the purposes of promoting democracy or human rights in those regions. It has served to do the opposite, promoting violence and tyranny, while lining the pockets of those with monied interests in the military-industrial complex and foreign trade.
Everyone of a certain age has memories of the last time, and I have my own. In 2003, I was 15 years old, too young to vote or buy cigarettes. But it was clear to me, and to most people on the planet, that the pretext for the invasion of Iraq was false. On February 15th of that year, we held an antiwar walkout at my high school. One of my friends brought in a note from his dad that read "Please excuse Rob from school today to participate in an act of civil disobedience." We were joining millions of people in an outpouring of events around the world, likely the largest mobilization of protest in human history.
The war took place anyway. The Iraq Resolution of 2002 had already passed, with the support of many Democratic members of congress still in public office or public life, including Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Adam Schiff, and Joe Biden. The Washington Post described the case for the war as “irrefutable,” quoting Biden’s description of a speech that Colin Powell gave to the UN, which Powell later admitted was eminently refutable. There have been no consequences. There never are. Engineers of mass destruction like Henry Kissinger and George W. Bush are seen as lovable old statesmen, and warhawk rhetoricians like David Frum and Jonathan Chait continue to hold prominent positions in media.
We face the same situation again. It will not be sufficient to wring our hands while the president sows destruction. You do not, under any circumstances, gotta hand it to him.