The Politics Of Killing Soleimani

January 09, 2020

The killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani has produced President Trump’s biggest foreign-policy challenge yet. Will Iran be content with Tuesday night’s barrage of missiles, or will there be other attacks on Americans and U.S. allies? So much depends on what former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events” and the unpredictable reactions they so often provoke.

As of Wednesday, both the U.S. and Iran appear to want de-escalation, a good thing. Let’s hope that lasts.

No one should shed tears for the wicked Soleimani. During the Iraq war, he gave sophisticated improvised explosive devices to insurgents to kill and maim Americans. Despite a United Nations travel ban imposed in 2007, he traversed the Middle East to create, train, finance and direct a vast network of proxy fighters to attack the U.S. and its allies on behalf of Iran and its extremist Islamic ideology. He played a key role in the Iranian nuclear-weapons and missile programs. He had the blood of tens of thousands of Americans, Muslims, neighbors and fellow Iranians on his hands.

If Soleimani was planning new strikes against Americans and U.S. interests—and recent attacks in Iraq, including the attempt to overrun the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, suggest he was—then the justification for removing him is even greater.

As for political ramifications, Mr. Trump’s approval rating won’t jump as it did for Ronald Reagan after Grenada, George H.W. Bush after the first Gulf War, George W. Bush after 9/11 or Barack Obama after the death of Osama bin Laden. America is too divided and Democrats too close to voting for their presidential nominee. Mr. Trump may receive a slight bump among that sliver of voters truly up for grabs, but Republicans and Democrats have gone to their corners to cheer or boo, as their tribes require.

Among Democrats, former Vice President Joe Biden responded to the attack by defending the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and demanding “a sober-minded explanation” of Mr. Trump’s “decision and its consequences.” This came across as defensive. Mr. Biden’s declaration that “democracy runs on accountability” unfortunately brings to mind the Dunkin’ slogan.

Far worse was Sen. Bernie Sanders, who compared Mr. Trump’s strike on Soleimani with Vladimir Putin’s killing Russian dissidents. That he sees a bloodthirsty terrorist as the moral equivalent of peaceful protesters who want liberty, democracy and an end to corruption is grotesque, even for the self-proclaimed socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union.

Suggesting that Mr. Trump wanted a “Wag the Dog” moment, Sen. Elizabeth Warren told reporters, “The question we ought to focus on is why now?” The idea that the president’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, is Mr. Trump’s Stanley Motss is far-fetched even for her. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was less feverish than feeble. “I am interested in the process,” he said, wondering if the president’s action was legal.

All this deepens the sense of many voters that Democrats are unwilling to take the hard steps needed to keep Americans safe. This crop of presidential candidates appears more scornful of Mr. Trump than of Soleimani, showing themselves to be the rightful heirs to Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “San Francisco Democrats” who’d rather blame America first.

Turning abroad, Soleimani’s death may have helped unify Iranians—for now. The massive crowds for his funeral were partly generated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s pressure. Only a few weeks ago, demonstrators crowded the streets of Iranian cities to protest the regime’s failure to deliver jobs and prosperity, sometimes singling out the wasteful foreign engagements that Soleimani led. Whether they’ll now back the ayatollahs is an open question.


The Iraqi Parliament voted Sunday 170-0 for a nonbinding resolution calling on the government “to work towards ending the presence of all foreign troops on Iraqi soil,” but more than 150 legislators abstained, including all the Kurds, many Sunnis and even some Shiites. Many Iraqi leaders and ordinary Iraqis, a great number of whom took to the streets recently to protest Iranian meddling, desperately want America to stay. The alternative—Iraq as a Persian satrapy—is anathema, and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi knows it.

We’re still in the early stages of this crisis, and much could change in the coming weeks and months. The politics of the Soleimani strike hang in the balance. If events conspire for or against Donald Trump, neither party’s efforts to create a narrative will make much difference.

In the end, reality is more important than spin.


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