Could Israel, which did not help carry out Qasem Soleimani’s assassination, nonetheless pay a price for his death? I spoke with foreign-policy columnist Heather Hurlburt about that possibility and other recent developments in the aftermath of the general’s death.
Ben: Nobody knows how Iran will respond to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, but I’ve seen many people opine that the country cannot and will not actually drag itself into a war with the United States. One big problem is that President Trump seems to have a newly itchy trigger finger, so it’s more difficult than ever to determine what will actually provoke his ire in a catastrophic way. What is your current thinking on how Iran will balance the need to lash back in some way and provoking (perhaps only semi-intentionally) a massive conflict?
Heather: It appears to me that Iran thinks it can leverage this moment to push the U.S. military out of the region. So its actions will be aimed at inflicting enough pain to do that without the U.S. hitting back at Iran itself. Lots of room for miscalculation there. Also, some around Trump do seek to defeat Iran head-on and believe they can change its government that way. They think that a different Iranian regime wouldn’t pursue an agenda opposed to U.S. and Israeli interests. That’s not entirely clear.
The prospect of Iran or its proxies targeting Israel is the second big escalation risk.
Ben: I haven’t heard too much about that. Trump has said that targeting Americans would cause him to hit back hard, but what would attacking Israel do? And would such an indirect response from Iran really qualify as revenge for an operation that was carried out entirely by the United States?
Heather: An attack that killed Israelis would set off huge alarm bells in Israel and demand not just an Israeli response but demonstrations of intense U.S. support and partnership. That would come as Netanyahu is in the fight of his life, indicted and leading a caretaker government until yet another set of elections produce a government, after two failed efforts. He and his U.S. allies would try to have the U.S. involved in any response. It would be very interesting to see what Trump would do. And I’m using interesting in the sense that the plague is an interesting phenomenon and Cats is an interesting film. (I’m resolved to make 2020 better by inserting Cats jokes everywhere.)
Ben: We do need a little levity at the moment, and feline-based humor is always preferable.
Reports on how Trump came to order the strike on Soleimani say that hard-liners at the Pentagon offered him that extreme option, not thinking he’d take it. Is there any hope that, seeing that he’s willing to initiate such a risky maneuver, those same voices would dial down the option list if Iran did, say, kill an American service member? In other words, if Iran did kill someone, would hitting Iran back directly, and thus ushering in a whole new disaster, definitely be on the menu?
Heather: I have noticed two stories about how this happened, one the one you reference and the other saying that Pompeo and perhaps others had been pushing this idea for months. So that makes me pessimistic about the ability of more cautious insiders to dial down options.
Ben: Do you think that means this would have happened even if the Pentagon hadn’t broached it?
Heather: Not right then, necessarily. And Pompeo (unlike John Bolton and H.R. McMaster before him) doesn’t seem to have been using direct channels to go around the org chart into the Pentagon. But I think you also have a subset of Pentagon officers who’ve spent more than a decade watching Soleimani-led operations kill their colleagues. So the option would have kept coming up because they saw it as the appropriate response. And when you don’t have senior leadership that is able or willing to push back on that with strategic calculations, you get … this.
Meanwhile I see that the military’s Iraq comms people are tweeting out pictures of themselves with Iraqis, to let everyone know we’re still there.
Ben: Really confidence-inspiring stuff all around.
Heather: An active-duty officer commented to me this week that we have the “B-minus team.”
Ben: The Trump administration is doing a typically slipshod job of selling the idea that Soleimani was about to attack vital American interests, more so than he had been for the last decade-plus. That assertion has already been undercut by good reporting, and of course the White House has precisely zero credibility on such matters in the first place. To what extent do you think their unconvincing case matters in terms of what happens next?
Heather: It mattered immediately to our European allies. They haven’t forgotten Powell at the U.N. and the misinformation in the run-up to Iraq. Their reception of the attack was tepid, at best. I am still flabbergasted that even allies with troops on the ground in Iraq with us don’t seem to have had advance notice. It obviously hasn’t mattered to the GOP, however. The question there is what level of catastrophe would matter to the GOP — what level Trump polls would have to fall to. I was just reading a political-science analysis suggesting the public responds to uses of force less than we think, so Trump might be able to survive quite a lot of violence. That’s my cheerful end note.
Ben: Insert Cats joke here.