Assassinating Iranian Major General Qaseem Soleimani was a justified act. But it took place within the context of a largely unjust and strategically indefensible grand strategy, so it is unlikely to be a net positive in the long run.
Soleimani was a terrorist. The fact that he wore an Iranian uniform only makes Iran complicit with his terrorism; it does not shield him from culpability for the terrorism committed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force, which he commanded, or the many militias under his direction or influence.
The problem goes beyond Soleimani. Iran has been waging a cold war, proxy war, and sometimes overt war on the United States since 1979. Iranians and Iranian-backed terrorist groups seized a US embassy and held US diplomats hostage for over a year (1979), kidnapped and murdered US officials in Lebanon, and committed the terrorist bombings against US military forces in Lebanon (1983) and Saudi Arabia (1996). In 2001 Iran gave refuge to, and still to this day shields, an al-Qaida cell. The US and Iran fought a short naval war (1988) over tanker access to the Persian Gulf, and Iran fought against the United States by backing Shia militias in the Iraq War (2003–11). Iran and its proxies ramped up its provocations in the past year, attacking ships in the Gulf of Oman, downing a US drone, backing Yemeni rebels in their rocket attack against Saudi oil fields, and attempting to storm the US embassy in Baghdad.
Responding in kind to Iran’s aggression was well within our rights and long overdue. But just war aims at peace, not at a never-ending escalating spiral of tit-for-tat violence. US strategy in the region since 2009 has aimed at nothing more than a spiral of tit-for-tat violence.
Against non-state groups, we whack terrorists with impunity and ignore the conditions that give rise to terrorism. That’s not just stupid. That’s unjust. We help perpetuate a state of war because it’s too inconvenient to work for peace. Against Iran, we vacillate between threatening all-out war, as the Bush administration did, and seeking a grand bargain at any price, as the Obama administration did. Neither course would advance peace or justice in the region. Playing whack-a-mole with bad guys is not, by itself, an effective or defensible strategy, but I see little evidence that we’re even trying to do anything other than that.
President Donald Trump and many of his supporters complain about “endless wars,” which I think is usually a lazy and bad-faith argument. But the United States literally has a policy of endless war against terrorists (including the proxies that Soleimani supported), and endless cold war against Iran, because we have no plan to actually win and end these wars. A just grand strategy looks toward peace and justice. If that means assassinating a state sponsor of terrorism (which, again, it can), it also must mean embedding that assassination within a set of policies that collectively move toward peace and justice.
That probably should include a public declaration of our aims and our demands against Iran; an offer of talks to deescalate; an increase to our reconstruction and stabilization operations in Iraq; some coherence to our policy in Syria; efforts to educate the American people and world opinion, rally support, and prepare for a longer fight; outreach to allies; conducting public diplomacy to publicize Iran’s crimes; denigrate the ideology that leads to their terrorism; champion a viable alternative; and more. Trump’s speech Wednesday morning was a good start, but only a start.
My good friend Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project disagrees. He tweeted that insisting on a grand strategy that moves the world toward peace and justice is unrealistic, foolish, and naïve. (Note to the internet: it is possible to disagree and still remain friends.) Nicholson argued, “To think the US can come up with (and impose) a comprehensive strategy to stop a multifaceted regional war is the height of ignorance and hubris. The Middle East will be plagued by conflict for the foreseeable future regardless of our well-laid plans.” He believes that the search for this kind of grand strategy is “the height of ignorance and hubris” because “there is no strategy for peace, only tactics of power. ‘Cycle of violence’ is just the way things work… You kill my guy, I kill yours. Stronger side wins, other side settles.”
If Nicholson thinks my view is ignorant and hubristic, I think his is amoral, narrow, and unjustifiably cynical. (Yes, we’re still friends.) He frames a choice between “a strategy for peace” and “tactics of power.” With respect, I see no need to choose between them. Between a strategy for peace and tactics of power, I choose both. It’s a both/and relationship, not either/or.
Power is, like Thanos, inevitable. It simply is. There is no getting around the exercise of power in politics. Paul Ramsey wrote that power is the esse of politics, the very essence and being of political action. Power is neither good nor bad (contrary to liberal internationalists who like to avert their eyes from the realities of power). Recognizing the inescapable nature of power is the distinguishing feature of Christian realism, or conservative internationalism.
The moral character of power is determined by the purpose for which it is deployed. The key is that all our tactics of power must add up, somehow, someday, eventually, to a strategy for peace. If they don’t do that—if they do not even try to do that—then all our tactics of power are unjust.
Perhaps Nicholson agrees: he also tweeted that “rather than try to break the cycle [of violence] we should master it, but in the context of our own values.” I’m not entirely clear what he means, but it sounds like he is trying to leave himself wiggle room to shoe-horn in some acknowledgment of “our values.” Such are the constraints of a tweet. I would simply respond that our values deserve more than the lip service he pays them here.
I also think Nicholson misunderstands what it means to have a strategy. He criticizes the view that we should “come up with (and impose) a comprehensive strategy.” But having a strategy doesn’t necessarily mean trying to impose anything (unless your strategy is to impose dominance, which it shouldn’t be unless you’re fighting a total war). Having a strategy means having an idea of our national values or goals; recognizing challenges and threats to them; defining specific objectives to meet those threats and defend our values; and matching our resources to those objectives in a feasible, achievable plan. And it means going through the whole process iteratively in response to changing conditions on the ground and in response to the enemy’s response to you.
Strategy is more a matter of planning than a plan. It is a thought-process, a frame of mind, an approach to the world. It is closer to an attitude or an intellectual habit than a blueprint. It is thus not an imposition on the world so much as an imposition on our minds. It is how we give meaning to our pattern of behavior; it is a frame of reference within which we make sense of our actions and try to make them cohere into something that makes a difference in the world.
In this sense, having a strategy that aims at peace and justice is both morally and strategically imperative. I do not mean that we should march in to impose peace and justice on the region—Nicholson and I agree that is impossible. I simply mean that we should have a habit of mind of asking how might an action contribute to peace and justice over the long run. For something like Soleimani’s killing, it might, but only if it is matched with a whole lot of other parallel and complementary actions in the realms of diplomacy, development, negotiations, military planning, and more. Pursuing all those other actions is what would make Soleimani’s killing more justifiable and more strategically efficacious.
Nicholson responds that “addressing root causes is attractive but it kind of requires curbing human nature and ‘West-splaining’ to Muslims.” Nicholson argues that “the Middle East will be plagued by conflict for the foreseeable future regardless of our well-laid plans,” and that “there will be no peace in the Middle East” for the foreseeable future.
Again, I disagree and think his view is too cynical. (For those who know me, they will recognize the irony of me complaining that something is too cynical.) I disagree for two reasons. First, regarding the specifics of the Middle East, Nicholson seems resigned to the idea that the chaos and violence in the Middle East today is how it must always be and that no improvement is possible. That is empirically wrong—the Middle East enjoyed seasons and periods of comparatively greater peace and stability in the past. It is not “West-splaining” to envision less violence and greater peace for anyone, and it would not require changing human nature to do better than today. The West did not invent peace and justice and does not own them. It would be a shameful betrayal of the world, and an insult to human potential, to expect that non-Westerners are somehow culturally unable to live in conditions of greater peace and justice than what obtains in the contemporary Middle East.
Second, and more importantly, I think it is dangerous to abandon hope. This also is an important part of Christian realism, and what distinguishes it from other flavors of realism. We must always ask how might an action contribute to peace and justice over the long run. If we answer that peace and justice are impossible, we have abandoned hope and given in to a cynical despair. Worse, our cynicism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we treat the world as if peace is impossible, we are apt to take actions—like playing whack-a-mole with terrorists and their sponsors while ignoring root causes—which only perpetuate war and thus seem to prove our cynicism right. When we act like peace is impossible, peace is impossible. When we act like justice is beyond reach, it is beyond reach.
Our choices and actions help define the parameters of what is possible. We have a moral responsibility to expand, not contract, those possibilities. (Shorter argument for international relations nerds: constructivism is true.) If we want to live in a world where a greater measure of peace and justice are, someday, achievable, we must take the first step of acting like they are. Despair and cynicism are a refusal to take that step.
We will never achieve perfect peace and justice—no one is arguing that should be the goal of US policy. But it is a kind of theological error to abandon hope. Reinhold Niebuhr, the patron saint of Providence, wrote extensively about the limits of what is achievable through the dirty instruments of political action in this fallen world. But he also wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” We must always hold to the hope of greater peace and justice, and let that hope guide our actions.