Donald Trump continues to be under fire. He has been impeached for a gross abuse of power: attempting to blackmail the Ukrainian government into libeling his likely 2020 Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, with allegations of corruption. To induce the Ukrainians to do this, Trump ordered the withholding of military aid. This was an illegal act. When a congressional investigation followed, Trump and his rather clownish minions in Congress tried to obstruct it. This constituted yet another impeachable offense.
There is an old adage: when a leader is in trouble domestically, the thing to do is start a crisis in the field of foreign policy, and this is what Trump proceeded to do. On 3 January 2020, Trump personally ordered the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani—which, by the way, may well have been unconstitutional because it was done without prior consultation with Congress. Soleimani, who was the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed by a US drone attack at the Baghdad International Airport. At the time, he was carrying the Iranian reply to a Saudi request for talks aimed at reducing tensions in the region. Reportedly, Trump himself had encouraged this contact.
The rhetorical firestorm that immediately followed this attack brought predictions of World War III and, of course, overshadowed the impeachment crisis. However, it did put Trump in a position of having to make up all manner of rationalizations for what was, after all, blatant murder (aka a “targeted killing”). Those rationalizations came in two interrelated forms: illogic and lies.
Part II—Illogic and Lies: “We Did It to Stop a War.”
General Soleimani was one of Iran’s top military commanders. Assassinating him was the equivalent of Iran’s killing a member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The comparison gives one the sense of the audacity of Trump’s act. Soleimani was also the most effective military strategist in the war against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. He, along with elements of the Iraqi Shia militias, also stood against the military presence of the United States in the region—a presence originally established through George W. Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Soleimani’s role in this resistance led to charges that he was a terrorist (anyone who opposes U.S. policies in the region is ipso facto a terrorist or supporter of terrorism). A contrasting picture was offered by Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst: “He [Soleimani] has been in combat his entire life. His soldiers love him. He’s a quiet, charismatic guy, a strategic genius and a tactical operator. These are all the kind of things, looking at him from the enemy’s perspective, [that] are going to create a great deal of angst in this part of the world.”
Oblivious to other people’s angst, Trump immediately put out the claim that Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of “thousands” of Americans and was planning “imminent” new attacks on American soldiers and diplomats. These claims, for which the White House refused to give evidence—conveniently claiming it was classified—were at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies.
The claim that General Soleimani was a dangerous terrorist was picked up by the American press and soon formed the basis for more administration lies. The first of these was that the general’s murder was committed in order to stop a war and not to start one. It is probably true that Trump was not looking to start a war, but rather to provide a distraction from his domestic troubles. Nevertheless, the claim that he sought to stop a war belied the fact that Soleimani was carrying proposals that may have led to a reduction in tensions—and that Trump was aware of this. Thus, the president’s deceitful claim made no sense—it was illogical. The second lie was the related claim made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had reportedly urged Soleimani’s murder, that the assassination of Soleimani made the Middle East safer for Americans. He made this claim at the same time that Americans were being urged by the State Department to evacuate Iraq, and Iran was throwing off the last remnants of the nuclear treaty Donald Trump had overthrown upon coming to office.
The illogic was pushed further by Pompeo, who went on to claim that the murder demonstrated that the U.S. was committed to “de-escalation.” However, if the Iranians have the audacity to respond, the U.S. will escalate. It is at this point that Trump made the threat to attack 52 Iranian targets among which are the country’s cultural sites. Trump seemed totally unaware of the fact that attacking cultural sites violated the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of cultural property and thus would constitute a war crime.
On 5 January 2020, the Iraqi Parliament voted to set a timeline for the removal of all foreign troops, which meant principally the 5000 U.S. troops now in the country. This upset Trump, who immediately announced that he would put significant sanctions on Iraq if they did so, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper proclaimed that the U.S. had no intention of leaving Iraq. He said the Trump administration “remains committed to the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq and the region.” The meaningfulness of such a statement, coming on the heels of the administration’s murder of the most effective strategist in the fight against ISIS, seems in doubt.
American Reactions: Fear and Gullible
The picture of General Soleimani as a terrorist, responsible for killing and maiming Americans was accepted by most of the American public, including those who had served and been injured in Iraq. This was due to much of the media’s over-cautious and un-analytical reporting of Washington’s claims, even though those claims came from known liars. This was a practice many U.S. media corporations swore never to repeat after the debacle of Vietnam and invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush. This obsequiousness even reached the level of “how to talk to kids about the situation with Iran.” Time magazine’s children’s edition, Time for Kids, offered an essay on this subject that turned out to be little more than a compendium of administration assertions.
Though it did little to analyze the claims of political con-artists, the media coverage of the crisis was received as largely true by a population deeply ignorant of Iran and the Middle East. Under such circumstances, average citizens can know only what they are told. they have no context or ready facts to know otherwise. Nonetheless, ignorance has its consequences.
This put the Democrats in a bad position, which was no doubt a welcome consequence for Trump and his 2020 campaign organization. One thing that has always characterized Democratic Party consciousness is a fear of appearing weak on foreign policy. This party inferiority complex goes back to the immediate post World War II years, when the Republicans accused the Democrats of “losing China” to the Communists. The complex now reasserted itself in the form of an overly cautious response to the Soleimani assassination. At least initially, the position of the Democrats essentially echoed that of the Republicans: General Soleimani was a terrorist and deserved what he got. The fact that his murder violated both U.S. and international law and thus was a clear abuse of power—which can be added to the abuses that form the basis of Trump’s impeachment—was missing from early Democratic responses.
It was only after the administration’s shallow excuses for the assassination began to unravel from lack of evidence that the Democrats became bolder. The House of Representatives has now invoked the War Powers Act to limit Trump’s ability to wage war against Iran. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, probably will not follow. Trump, on his part, seems to hold Congress, particularly the Democrat-controlled House, in utter distain.
Acts of Stupidity
The murder of General Soleimani stands as part of a long American tradition of political violence, as does the president playing the role of assassin. American leaders have been bullying, stealing and killing for a very long time—particularly in Central and South America, Asia and the Middle East. In these endeavors they have never had any trouble finding henchmen and followers. Or, for that matter, military pawns like those in the chain of command down to the person who guided the drone murder weapon to its target at Baghdad airport. And, as suggested above, they have never had any trouble peddling lies and illogical explanations to the rest of us.
Collectively, this all adds up to a steady, apparently never-ending, array of stupid, inhumane acts—almost always supported by a fearful and gullible public. Fear and gullibility are not, of course, and never have been rational responses to the commands of history’s real or would-be tyrants. Giving in to fear and gullibility tends to result in doubts about democracy as it is presently practiced.
And now the citizens of the United States have managed to elect an egocentric, narcissistic, would-be tyrant as president of their country. Over the last three years his behavior—racist and authoritarian—has managed to get him impeached. But, his Republican henchmen in the Senate, particularly the repugnant Mitch McConnell, have, for all intents and purposes, betrayed their constitutional oaths in an effort to protect their party boss.
As a consequence, Iran and the rest of the world will have to wait for the U.S. election in November of this year to get this congenital bad boy out of the Oval Office. But then, given just how easily misled by election-time propaganda American voters can be, they may ignore Donald Trump’s criminal behavior, his seeming intent to ruin the climate of the entire planet, his almost gleeful destruction of programs related to health, welfare and the environment, his creation of labor shortages by immigration restrictions, his irresponsible running up of a trillion dollar debt, and his authoritarian undermining of the Congress and U.S. Constitution. And then, mesmerized by Trump’s Faustian charisma, the American electorate may go on to reelect him! You just can’t underestimate the power of fear and gullibility to produce yet another American act of stupidity.