President Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps General Qasem Soleimani last week was bound to rile the DC commentariat – at least as much as the Iranians. Reactions range from “It’s about time Soleimani was killed” to “He’ll just be replaced” to “Crazy Trump is starting World War III.”
Time will tell. But given that Barack Obama used drones to vaporize Islamic insurgents and their families on an industrial scale – and even joked about it – where one sits on the spectrum often corresponds to one’s loathing of Mr Trump. (Note: I think it was a good idea.)
But here are some ideas to consider amid the din and braying of the post-attack commentary:
One former US intelligence officer observed: “The impact could well be the opposite touted by many of the “expert” pundits. It’s often surprising how effective personalizing the risk can be. The bosses don’t like being targeted. They’re more than willing to let 18-year-olds or foreign proxies die for the cause but when they’re firmly in the crosshairs they begin to have second thoughts.”
The former officer continued: “My only quibble is that the US immediately accepted responsibility and touted the hit. While everyone would suspect it was the US it’s best not to come out and admit it, at least not immediately. Uncertainty, on top of knowing you’re likely on the hit list, further exacerbates the perceived – vice actual – risk and further helps influence behavior in our favor, which is the ultimate goal.
“Given that there’s 40 years of Iranian regime behavior to consider, there probably will be some kind of symbolic retaliation from Iran. But killing Sulemani just might restrain the Mullahs.”
We tend to take these things in isolation when we shouldn’t. The question is NOT: “What impact will this strike have?” That’s for amateurs and CNN talking heads.
The question IS: “What will the impact be from Trump – or any President – establishing that he will enforce his red lines?
An American foreign affairs analyst notes:
“The princes and princesses that formerly ran our foreign policy were constantly trying to finely adjust and tune every tentative action and State Department spokesperson statement. Celebrity pundits are discussing the merits of this personal target or that legalism. We were playing chess and they [our enemies] were mud wrestling with brass knuckles.”
This is, of course, nothing new.
Back in the 1960s, then-Secretary of State Robert McNamara and his “whiz kids” reckoned they could calibrate bombing of North Vietnam just right – not too much and not too little – to perfectly shape North Vietnamese behavior to do exactly what the Johnson administration wanted.
It worked so well that in 1975 North Vietnamese tanks rolled through the US Embassy gates in Saigon.
Fast-forward 26 years: The initial US attack in Afghanistan aimed to bomb the Taliban enough to bring them to the negotiating table – but not enough to allow the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance to take Kabul and upset Afghanistan’s delicate tribal balance. After a couple weeks of channeling Robert McNamara, President Bush’s people wised up.
And in the Pacific, US commanders at PACOM (Pacific Command) spent years thinking up “off-ramps” for the People’s Republic of China whenever it misbehaved in the South China Sea, harassed US Navy ships or bullied our Japanese and Filipino allies. As if the Chinese weren’t smart enough to know what they were doing – and just didn’t understand how the world works – but with unlimited American forbearance they’d eventually understand and behave as we wanted.
At PACOM a few years ago there was talk of something called “cost imposition.” As if there were some precise amount of ‘cost’ the PRC could not withstand and would then do what we wanted. Of course there is not, once they’ve started to attack. Pure McNamara.
You would think America’s policy class – civilian and uniformed – would have learned that military tools simply aren’t that fine. They can only establish broad environmental parameters.
Broadly, Soleimani’s removal is going to shift the landscape. More despots around the world, not just in Iran, will want to back up a bit from Mr Trump, to give him some space, and to avoid killing Americans or crossing other red lines.
As mentioned, they will do something but probably not what they had in mind a few days ago. And no doubt any retaliation will be blamed on Trump. Indeed, if a Persian knifes his Swedish girlfriend in Stockholm, it will be Trump’s fault and CNN will give it 24-hour outrage coverage.
Killing Soleimani was necessary to shift the paradigm, but these are difficult calculations. One imagines the administration has had a shortlist of hammer-whacks that could be used to strategically readjust our position, and the President was just waiting for the right provocation. He found it.
Sometimes it’s indeed necessary to play rough. But you’d better be ready to finish the job — and ensure the other side knows it.
But it’s still hard. As one observer noted: “That’s why we hire pros to do this, rather than contract it to minimum wage workers – or otherwise unemployable useless poli sci PhDs like the previous administration.”
And while the focus is on the Middle East, let’s look for a minute at Asia and consider a lesson from the Soleimani killing that might apply to America’s strategy towards the PRC.
As noted earlier, bosses – or in this case the Chinese Communist Party leaders – don’t like to see themselves being targeted. And I do not mean drone strikes.
But recall the CCP leadership’s fury at a well-researched Bloomberg story in 2012 about Xi Jinping’s family wealth – a good bit of it overseas.
Consider the potential effect on the PRC top leadership, the Zhongnanhai crowd, when their overseas money, property, and their relatives’ US green cards are at risk – or gone. Or even if details of their accounts and foreign bolt holes are widely publicized inside China with the hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens living on a couple of dollars a day.
That will have more of an effect on them than prospects of millions of Chinese citizens dying in a war – or the US building another dozen aircraft carriers.
In other words, just as in Soleimani’s case, make it personal.
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and a former US diplomat. He is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. This article was originally published in And magazine. Asia Times re-publishes it with thanks.