Strongly held views are unlikely to change regarding the morality and tactical wisdom of President Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani as he traveled on a road outside the Baghdad airport after having arrived on a commercial flight. But the debate regarding the long-term impact of this act on America’s place in the world, and the potential vulnerability of U.S. government officials to similar reprisals, has just begun.
How did it become acceptable to assassinate one of the top military officers of a country with whom we are not formally at war during a public visit to a third country that had no opposition to his presence? And what precedent has this assassination established on the acceptable conduct of nation-states toward military leaders of countries with which we might have strong disagreement short of actual war — or for their future actions toward our own people?
With respect to Iran, unfortunately, this is hardly a new issue.
In 2007, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution calling on the George W. Bush administration to categorize Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as an international terrorist organization. I opposed this proposal based on the irrefutable fact that the organization was an inseparable arm of the Iranian government. The Revolutionary Guards are not independent actors like al-Qaida and the Islamic State. They are part of the Iranian government’s formal military structure, with an estimated strength of more than 150,000 members. It is legally and logically impossible to define one part of a national government as an international terrorist organization without applying the term to that entire government.
Definitions define conduct. If terrorist organizations are actively involved against us, we attack them. But a terrorist organization is by definition a nongovernmental entity that operates along the creases of national sovereignties and international law. The Revolutionary Guards are a part of the Iranian government. If they are attacking us, they are not a terrorist organization. They’re an attacking army.
The 2007 proposal did not succeed. But last April the State Department unilaterally designated the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist entity. Although more than 60 organizations are listed in this category, this is the only time our government has ever identified an element of a nation-state as a terrorist organization. And the designation was by many accounts made despite the opposition of the CIA and the Defense Department.
Which leads us to Soleimani.
The assassination of the most well-known military commander of a country with which we are not formally at war invites a lax moral justification for a plethora of retaliatory measures — and not only from Iran. It also holds the possibility of more deeply entrenching the U.S. military in a region that most Americans would very much prefer to deal with from a more maneuverable distance.
No thinking American would support Soleimani’s conduct. But it is also indisputable that his activities were carried out as part of his military duties. His harm to American military units was through his role as an enabler and adviser to third-country forces. This, frankly, is a reality of war.
I fought as a Marine in Vietnam. We had similar problems throughout the Vietnam War because of Vietnam’s propinquity to China, which along with the Soviet Union provided continuous support to the North Vietnamese, including most of the weapons used against us on the battlefield. China was then a rogue state with nuclear weapons. Its leaders continually spouted anti-U.S. rhetoric. Yet we did not assassinate its military leaders for rendering tactical advice or logistical assistance. We fought the war that was in front of us, and we created the conditions in which we engaged China aggressively through diplomatic, economic and other means.
Now, despite Trump’s previous assertions that he wants to dramatically reduce the United States’ footprint in the Middle East, it seems clear that he has been seduced into making unwise announcements similar to the rhetoric used by his immediate predecessors of both parties. Their blunders — in Iraq, Libya and Syria — destabilized the region and distracted the United States from its greatest long-term challenge: China’s military and economic expansion throughout the world.
At a time when our political debates have come to resemble Kardashian-like ego squabbles, the United States desperately needs common-sense leadership in its foreign policy. This is not a failure of the executive branch alone; it is the result of a breakdown in our entire foreign policy establishment, from the executive branch to the legislative branch and even to many of our once-revered think tanks. If partisanship in foreign policy should end at the water’s edge, then such policies should be forged through respectful, bipartisan debate.
The first such debate should focus on the administration’s unilateral decision to label an entire element of a foreign government an international terrorist organization. If Congress wishes to hold Iran to such a standard, it should then formally authorize the use of force against Iran’s government. The failure of congressional leadership to make these kinds of decisions is an example of why our foreign policy has become so militarized, and of how weak and even irrelevant Congress has allowed itself to become in the eyes of our citizens.