When most Americans think of technology, they think of the internet, and drones are ways to get their online purchases faster. But our technology as applied by the military is staggering in its lethality and its reach.
On Friday, a drone with a 66′ wingspan known as the Reaper hovered over Baghdad. It was being flown by pilots on the ground in either an airbase in Nevada (if this was an Air Force operation) or in an office building in Langley, Virginia (if this was a CIA operation). At President Trump’s command, the Reaper fired two laser-guided Hellfire missiles into the automobile of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, who was reportedly “shredded” in the blast. It also may have ignited another war in the Middle East–this time between the United States and Iran. Or, as I think, it may prove to be the catalyst for our final withdrawal from that region once and for all.
We have been using the Reaper against terrorists, such as leaders of ISIS, with little negative consequence. A terrorist, though, is a lawless individual, a stateless criminal who represents only himself and his twisted cause. It’s another thing to use the Reaper against a military officer in the chain of command of a sovereign nation. This is true even if the terrorist and the military officer have been doing the same things.
Soleimani, head of the elite Quds corps in the Revolutionary Guard–“Quds” being the Islamic term for Jerusalem, which shows the force’s ultimate goal–had been organizing Iranian-backed militias all around the world. These have become a force in Iraq, threatening American and allied forces there and undermining the attempts to build a stable Iraqi government. One of these militias recently killed an American contractor, which led to an American attack on an Iranian installation in Iraq, which led to the pro-Iranian mob that attacked the American embassy, which, under international law, is American sovereign territory. Soleimani was likely behind all of those attacks–as well as recent assaults on ocean vessels and Saudi oil operations–and was planning more. So, in a final level of retaliation, the grim Reaper was called for Soleimani.
The question is not whether or not he deserved it. He surely did. But Soleimani was the representative of an entire nation and was acting on its behalf. Despite our decades-long conflicts with Iran, we are not in a formal state of war with Iran. That may change, if Iran declares war on us, and though commanders-in-chief have a great deal of latitude in what they may do to defend the United States–including sometimes acting against undeclared enemies–to assassinate an important government official has much bigger ramifications than killing an Osama bin Laden.
Mental experiment: Should the United States send a Reaper against other nation’s leaders who cause us trouble, such as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un? He surely deserves the death penalty, but he is the head of state, bad as he is, of a sovereign nation, and there is no higher lawful authority to convict him. How about Vladimir Putin, who has tried to interfere with American elections, no less, and may also have contributed to American deaths in Syria. In fact, Russia is an ally of Iran and a supporter of the Shi’ite radicals of the sort Soleimani was organizing. Most of us would draw back from a drone attack on Putin, not only because of the state sovereignty issue but because the consequences would be so negative for the United States that it would not be worth it, even if he deserved it.
Yes, we should react to the killing of the American contractor. And to the 500 or so Americans reportedly killed due to Soleimani’s actions. But, remind me again, why was that contractor in Iraq? Why were the 500 American troops stationed there? The reason at first was to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Then the reason was nation building, to bring freedom and democracy to the region. Recently, to justify the continuing presence of several thousand troops, the reason is to prevent chaos. Well, chaos is what we have.
Now Iran is flying the red flag above its Mosques and vowing to avenge Soleimani with the blood of Americans. These are Shi’a Muslims, followers of Ali–Muhammed’s son-in-law and, in their mind, his true successor–who was murdered by the Sunni caliphs. Theirs is a religion that revels in martyrdom, suffering, and vengeance. These are people who celebrate their holy day by flagellating themselves with bloody chains. To this day the Shi’ites want to avenge Ali, which is why they are the enemies of mainline Sunni Islam, such as those of Saudi Arabia. Israel has been added to their never-ending hate list, and now the United States is being added to that company.
Iran says that they have identified 35 American sites that they will target. President Trump has responded by saying that he has identified 52 Iran sites–one for each American hostage back in the Carter administration–that he will attack if Iran moves against U.S. assets. Iran says that they have restarted their nuclear weapons program. The U.S. is sending thousands more troops to reinforce and protect the relatively small number already there. This kind of escalation could mean full-scale war with Iran.
Many of us supported Donald Trump precisely because he promised to keep America out of “endless wars.” Trumpian conservatism set itself in opposition to “neo-conservatism,” which pursued the idealistic goals of spreading freedom and democracy and in doing so kept starting those endless wars.
Hardcore Trump fans supported his desire to get us out of Mideast wars, and, now, if he starts one of his own, they will support that. On the other side, there are Democratic members of the “Resistance” who are accusing the president of a “wag the dog” tactic, starting a war in order to help his re-election, riding a wave of patriotic fervor by pro-war Americans. But I see no constituency for another war in the Middle East. Trump’s base of working class populists–the sort who usually fight our wars–and anti-establishment conservatives do not favor another war. This is not 2003, when virtually all Americans were itching to pay back someone, anyone, for 9/11. The nation today is still exhausted from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. We may be politically polarized, but right now conservatives and liberals, the working class and middle class, Americans from every region and race and social level–no one wants another war. The only exception might be the handful of neo-conservatives who still remain, but these are invariably never-Trumpers.
Here is what I think will happen. President Trump will take the occasion of the current deterioration to pull out of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria once and for all. This is his instinct. This is in accord with what he believes. The Reaper attack and maybe some other retaliatory actions will allow us to save face. We will leave claiming victory, feeling a sense of honor, while scornfully leaving these ungrateful regions to solve their own problems.
Already, within days of the Reaper attack, the Iraqi Parliament has passed a resolution demanding that United States forces leave their country. This is reportedly not binding on the Prime Minister, the chief executive of the country who must make that kind of decision. But, facing the high feelings of his population, he surely will. This would remove any legal basis for our being there. If we stay, we would be an occupying power. But why stay? This is the perfect pretext for President Trump to do what he has always promised to do: Bring all of the troops home.
Yes, the chaos will remain. Yes, we will need to worry about a nuclear-armed Iran. We will go from one extreme to another, from interventionism to isolationism, with no sense of how to devise a system that can keep the peace by a measured threat of force and multi-lateral action. And the current Democratic presidential candidates are not offering anything that would be helpful towards this end.
But if we are in another Middle East War, Trump will lose. If he brings Americans home, he will win. Trump will soon realize that and act accordingly.
Otherwise, we will reap the whirlwind.
Illustration: MQ9 Reaper, U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Ridgeway [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons