The targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani and four others in a precision strike by an MQ-9 Reaper drone at Baghdad International Airport was an impressive display of American military prowess. And it liquidated a destabilizing figure: The general was the commander of the Quds Force, which is responsible for Iran’s covert and extraterritorial military operations. In the scheme of things, he had it coming. Yet killing him made little strategic sense for the United States. In some ways, the most significant thing about his death is what it shows about the breakdown of American foreign policymaking.
President Trump ordered the strike directly, prompted by the death of an American contractor on Dec. 27 in a rocket attack by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shia militia. Mr. Trump did not bother to consult congressional leaders. As with his other displays of martial fiat, his immediate impulse was probably to shock the liberal domestic audience, vicariously make himself feel tough, and assert raw executive power by going around the normal channels of decision making.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had considered taking out General Suleimani but rejected it — not for lack of nerve, but for fear of undue escalation and an unnecessary war with Iran. The fundamental facts on the ground have not changed, and in the kind of robust interagency, national security decision-making process that the National Security Council staff is supposed to supervise, such concerns would have been systematically raised, dissected and discussed, and a consensus reached to inform presidential action. No such process seems to have occurred here.
The Pentagon has claimed, facilely, that General Suleimani was hit because the Revolutionary Guard was planning attacks on American targets in the region. But in a proper interagency review, the intelligence community could have pointed out that “decapitation” is a patently unreliable means of pre-emption — particularly when the organization in question is the Revolutionary Guard, an integral part of a well-honed security state with considerable depth of command talent.
In addition, the State Department might have noted that next to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, General Suleimani was arguably the country’s most powerful and venerated figure, and that when the target was such a senior and esteemed official, his countrymen were likely to perceive his killing as outright assassination. The State Department would also have emphasized that assassination was a flagrant casus belli, or provocation for war.
Had the Justice Department argued that targeted killing is distinct from assassination, which has long been proscribed by executive order, a raft of other government agencies might have noted that perceptions matter, perhaps anticipating Mr. Khamenei’s response to the deadly strike: “His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”
The National Security Council would have undoubtedly asked the intelligence community for a detailed assessment of Iran’s possible responses to the strike. Analysts would have underscored the inevitability of lethal attacks on Americans and American interests: terrorist attacks on embassies or other civilian or military facilities in the Middle East and farther afield, military escalation on the ground in Syria or Iraq, cyberattacks, the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, Hezbollah attacks on Israel, further operations targeting Gulf States’ oil infrastructure, and accelerating movement toward nuclear breakout.
Drilling deeper, intelligence analysts could have stressed the possibility that the strike on General Suleimani might encourage a new strain of transnational terrorism. While acknowledging that the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in the Middle East, has largely resisted venturing outside the Middle East for the past 25 years, they would have stressed that it is considered the most capable nonstate armed group in the world, the A Team to Al Qaeda’s B Team — a force that was shaped and nurtured by General Suleimani himself.
What’s more, such an official would have warned, Hezbollah has fiercely demonstrated its willingness to prosecute Iranian interests, against Israel and in Syria. If Iran so asked, the assessment might have continued, Hezbollah would turn outward, as it did in 1992, when it bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and killed 29, and in 1994, when it bombed a Jewish community center there and killed 85.
An appropriately functioning National Security Council would have asked: How does this fit in the administration’s overall foreign policy?
The State Department would have underlined that a chief objective of the administration’s Iran policy, including its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, was to roll back Iran’s nefarious regional activities — in particular, intervention in the Syrian civil war, political intrigue in Iraq and support for the Houthis in Yemen — and that General Suleimani oversaw them.
In response, the C.I.A. would have observed that taking out the general would deprive Iranian moderates, like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, of any leeway for compromise, enabling hard-liners to co-opt them. Thus, the agency would have reasoned, the killing of a hard-line national hero would most likely dissolve any hope — dim even beforehand — that Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach would move the Iranians to renegotiate the nuclear deal; it might instead stir vengeance in the Iranian leadership, which would intensify rather than subdue those activities in his name.
Had there been a distinguished senior career State Department officer on hand — there used to be many, but their numbers have dwindled in this administration — he or she might even have provided the big strategic picture: that the Trump administration’s one major contribution to American foreign policy has been to refocus attention on great-power competition. And while Russia and China are great powers, Iran really isn’t one. Pick your fights, they’d have said.
A discreet official, of course, would have elided the fact that Mr. Obama’s rebalance to Asia and diplomatic approach to Iran appreciated this reality, cutting straight to Mr. Trump’s own antipathy to committing military resources to the Middle East. But that official might well have commented, for emphasis, that the former national security adviser, John Bolton, was dismissed in part over his hawkish insistence on coercive regime change in Tehran.
That adviser could have argued that for an administration looking to manage great-power competition, it is patently illogical to elevate a regional spoiler to great-power status, antagonistically martyr one of its leaders, gratuitously invigorate nonstate militants, and set the United States on a path toward war in a region it had hoped to calm.
And a really enterprising confidant might have intimated that a sensational military operation could scan as a cynical effort to divert attention from impeachment, as well as an example of the same brand of self-interested autocracy with which the House’s articles of impeachment charge the president.
It seems like none of these points were carefully considered, revealing the abject dysfunction and deterioration of the national security process under Mr. Trump. The killing of General Suleimani arose outside of any coherent policy context, and without adequate contemplation of near- or long-term strategic consequences. Mr. Trump’s move looks like either an impetuous act of self-indulgence or, somewhat more probable, a calculated attempt to bury his domestic political troubles. Whatever the precise reason, the act itself is irreversible, and will have serious consequences — precisely why it merited the systematic deliberation that it clearly did not receive.
Jonathan Stevenson is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the managing editor of Survival. He was the director for political-military affairs, Middle East and North Africa, on the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.