While it may perfectly suit the machismo image that President Trump has stridently tried to cultivate, there are several reasons why the recent Qasem Soleimani assassination by the U.S. military is wrong.
It is doubtful if whatever intelligence that supposedly provided the basis for the U.S. action is of such high value, and the threat of such magnitude to warrant the assassination of a top official of a foreign government.
The nature of the threat that would justify such aggression by one country against another should be so clearly evident, and the urgency unimpeachable. Even so, going into a third country to effect such an act remains ever questionable.
The UK-Russia diplomatic beef on the Sergei Skripal poisoning saga, is a compelling reference point. Countries restrain from undertaking such escapades, not because it is so difficult to pull through, but paradoxically because it is within the capability of several countries to do. Without such self-restraint, assassination of this nature would become commonplace, with every country a ready and potential victim. With it, all pretences to order are lost, and the global system equates effectively, a complete jungle.
Thus, in the context of international law, the Soleimani assassination comes across as one of the most brazen violations of the rules of engagement. Many of such rules or conventions may be inconvenient, but nations appreciate their place in the sustenance of some semblance of order in a basically anarchical system. What Trump did in the instant case, therefore, amounts to a legitimisation of assassination of state officials by foreign governments. Even under the old order, in which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had authorisation to undertake similar acts, such were done discretely, often through proxies, to enhance deniability.
The suggestion that Soleimani had to be killed, supposedly because he was a terrorist, stands against the grain of logic. No country is permitted to randomly appropriate the right to so tag and target officials of another country. Thus, Soleimani was different from Osama bin Laden, and Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, both of whom operated outside of state structures. No matter how carefully, therefore, Trump tries to present the assassination of the Iranian General as equating some form of victory over a terrorist, who in the words of Secretary Mike Pompeo, was taken out ‘on the battlefield,’ such doesn’t wash with anyone with a fair level of appreciation of the workings of the international system.
The type of injury Trump has inflicted on the psyche of the Iranian nation is such that would not heal. The position of the ideological moderates in Tehran has also suddenly become completely untenable… When Iran finally arrives at that threshold, the pattern of recriminations between it and the U.S. is bound to assume a most dangerous proportion…
As well, it would be very naïve of anyone to assume that the Iranians would not retaliate, as they have clearly indicated. This is the sense in which Trump’s promise to hit 52 cultural sites in Iran if the latter makes goods its threat, sounds a bit off track. To assume such threats would deter a nation that is so gravely hurt by the assassination of its top official calls to question the depth of intellectual engagement in the Trump White House. It is the type of assumption that made Adolf Hitler attack Poland in 1939. Even countries that are calling for the de-escalation of the situation are merely doing what is expected in diplomatic parlance, hoping that the full ramifications of this unnecessary attack could be avoided. No one is in doubt about the inevitability of an Iranian response, and ultimately some form of armed engagement between Washington and Tehran.
George H.W. Bush’s decision to spare Saddam Hussein upon the invasion of Iraq in 1991 wasn’t out of lack of capability on the part of the U.S. Rather, wisdom dictated that it was needful to leave in office one man, who in spite of his evil proclivities, was capable of holding Iraq together. Such care was not demonstrated under similar circumstances under Bush, the 43rd president. He went for broke, brought down the government of Saddam, and ensured that the man paid the supreme sacrifice. Iraq, and now Libya, are evidence of the banality of regime change as a policy tool. The U.S. lost 4,500 service personnel, and civilians, and humungous amounts of money in the Iraqi expedition. These have now practically come to naught, with the assassination of Soleimani – in Baghdad. The nature of the consequence is what has now been given effect to by Iraq’s parliament, in its decision to expel all foreign (American) troops from the country. The same reality consists in the State Department’s advice that all Americans scurry out of Iraq. What purpose the assassination was meant to serve when it has now put the lives of innocent Americans in Iraq in danger, remains unclear.
In the same vein, the Soleimani assassination eliminates virtually the possibility of a rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. The type of injury Trump has inflicted on the psyche of the Iranian nation is such that would not heal. The position of the ideological moderates in Tehran has also suddenly become completely untenable. Thus, Iran has latched onto this incident to ditch the nuclear deal, making the path to a nuclear bomb for the country too clear. When Iran finally arrives at that threshold, the pattern of recriminations between it and the U.S. is bound to assume a most dangerous proportion, given the nature of the permanent hostility that has defined relations between the two nations for 40 years.
…realism dictates that you do not assume away the real world in pursuit of some highfalutin and ephemeral values. To conjecture that you would assassinate a serving top official of a state as truculent as Iran without consequence, is illusory. Such an act comes with consequences, which a realist will never ignore.
In the event of a war with Iran, it is doubtful if the U.S. would have too many of its erstwhile allies’ support to readily call upon. Meanwhile, it remains axiomatic that whatever power capability countries possess, no nation fights the type of war this assassination has made inevitable alone. A U.S. administration that chose not to give Congress a head start, in spite of constitutional obligations, couldn’t have accorded any of what remains of its Western allies anything different from a similar cavalier treatment. Which nation would be eager to follow Trump into war blindfolded, as one may argue was the case when President Bush built arguably the largest and most effective global coalition in history against Iraq in 1991?
The theory of international relations evinces that leaders often ‘instrumentalise’ foreign policy to the ends of private, and local political advantages. Specifically, the Diversionary Theory of Conflict avers that states trigger conflicts for the purpose of diverting public attention from local social challenges. The retention of power and accomplishment of set objectives, as Machiavelli suggests, often trump all other considerations, including morality, and law, in the conduct of princes. The question all these evoke is: Why would a U.S. administration latch onto a most dangerous, and brazen foreign policy act when actually there were several more benign and potentially effective options it could have taken to achieve the same result of taming a disruptive Iran?
Foreign policy runs on the fulcrum of national interest and power, both of which Trump would seem to have called upon to justify his decision to act against Iran in the manner in which he has done. Even so, realism dictates that you do not assume away the real world in pursuit of some highfalutin and ephemeral values. To conjecture that you would assassinate a serving top official of a state as truculent as Iran without consequence, is illusory. Such an act comes with consequences, which a realist will never ignore.
Femi Mimiko is a professor of Political Science at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife; and member of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Nigeria.