The recent assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani shows the dangers of assuming that Washington is exempt from the calculations that make or break sound strategy. Might and self-righteousness do not immunize the United States from consequences. While U.S. President Donald Trump's speech today signaled no further retaliation, it does not guarantee that tensions will cease to escalate.
U.S. aggression against Iran will push Tehran into the arms of U.S. rivals. When a powerful and aggressive foe strikes into a region with designs of expansion, it is logical that other powers will respond to counteract that force. This is essential to understanding how policymakers interpret an unstable geopolitical system and how they go about restoring a balance of power. The conceit of American exceptionalism is that it believes, for unverifiable ideological reasons, that the United States is somehow exempt from the practical realities of statecraft.
When the Spanish were Europe’s dominant power in the 16th Century, Queen Elizabeth I reached out to the Dutch enemies of Spain with financial support and armaments. In this same time period on the other side of the world, Japan launched a massive war of conquest into Korea, an invasion that was repelled with Chinese support in men and material to the beleaguered Koreans.
The United States once used a similar logic to deal with European powers. France had established a client state in Mexico while the United States was preoccupied with suppressing the Southern insurrection. Once the Civil War was over, U.S. support for the Mexican forces fighting France became abundant in the form of weapons, ammunition, and diplomatic pressure, and the French withdrew in 1867.
Soleimani, we are told, was the killer of American troops in Iraq and thus a very bad man. This does not change that he was a general doing his job. His death at American hands comes across to most of the Iranian people as almost equivalent to Jim Mattis being killed by the Iranians at the height of his popularity. I say ‘almost’ because Soleimani is in fact far more popular. His death brings unity to an otherwise fractured government in Tehran. It has also forced the Iraqi parliament to vote for the removal of US forces from their country and it has already led to retaliatory strikes on U.S. forces which originated in Iran.
Iran surely shed no tears over the American removal of their arch-foe Saddam Hussein in 2003, but they suddenly found their most powerful rival occupying Iraq, directly to its west, and Afghanistan to its east. With a history of enmity with the United States and having been included in U.S. President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” along with Iraq, it should have come as no surprise that Tehran worked to make the U.S. occupation as difficult as possible in order to prevent its expansion into their country. Soleimani played a major role in accomplishing these objectives. He later wound up being one of the most effective anti-ISIS fighters in the region. To say that he was simply a murderer is to strip his violence of the political causes that explain it. Even in death, it appears that he thwarts attempts to diminish his influence in Iran and Iraq.
With such an erratic and destabilizing act, the United States has already pushed Iran to roll back any checks on its uranium enrichment program. The 2015 nuclear deal is now entirely dead in the water, and this has dark repercussions for the future of the region. Reinstating any kind of negotiated settlement to this impasse will be much more difficult now that such a decisive break has occurred between Tehran and Washington. Furthermore, with the United States alienating Iraq and many of its allies, the odds of great powers such as Russia and China entering any dispute on Iran’s side have increased dramatically.
It is true that American power outstrips that of any previous superpower in history, but this power rests on solid material and geographic foundations such as location, distance to peer competitors, and the wise calculation of relationships in prior eras. The collapse of strategic sustainability has been the story of American foreign policy in the 21st Century so far. The cost has been high. Only by directly confronting and reversing the strategic rot inflicted on us by the hubris of American exceptionalism can we avoid further embarrassing over-escalations in the future. In order to do this, it is imperative to remove American troops from Iraq, where the now-unfolding tit-for-tat reprisals risk engendering a greater conflict. The first step to this realignment is to re-examine the impunity with which American policymakers believe they can act against sound strategic principles.