The Iran crisis is what happens when people believe in 'Great Men'

The election of Trump didn't change America's foreign policy. The killing of Soleimani won't change Iran's.

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It's too soon to know just what consequences will flow from killing Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. But it isn't too soon to think about what that killing says about how and why we continue to prosecute our undeclared war with Iran.

How did the decision to assassinate Soleimani get made in the first place? If reports are to be believed, military officials presented the idea to President Trump as an option to be rejected — such an obviously bad move that it would make the other options look reasonable. But officials also claimed that Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been preparing the ground for such a strike for some time, and urged the president to act after America's embassy in Iraq was invaded by protesters.

Reports like these should always be taken with a grain of salt; the leakers always have their own motivations for how they spin the story. But assuming they are accurate, what can we learn from them? The most obvious lesson — that the military should know by now that this president isn't the guy who always picks the middle option — isn't the most important one.

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For members of the antiwar right like my old colleagues at The American Conservative, many of whom found something hopeful in Trump's 2016 victory, the strike on Soleimani should be the final nail in the coffin of the "Great Disruptor" theory of Trump's leadership. Even in the Trump administration, personnel is policy.

A president's options are always constrained by institutional forces, like the views of the military brass and the civil service. To get around those constraints (for better or worse), the president needs to rely on political appointees. Trump has increasingly chosen hawkish or extremely hawkish people for those roles. It's no surprise, then, that his policymaking has been punctuated by aggressive spasms like the Soleimani strike, and that when Trump has veered from the consensus in the opposite direction — initiating personal diplomacy with North Korea, or declaring his intention to leave Syria or Afghanistan — there has been little or no institutional follow-through. The lesson is not only that Trump is not who right-wing doves hoped he would be. It's that it takes far more than one man, even a president, to change foreign policy.

That lesson applies to the hawks as well, though, and severely undercuts their argument that killing Soleimani would accrue any meaningful benefit to America or its allies. There are plenty of reasons to think that the assassination will backfire, which is why the military had long opposed such an action (and why both Presidents Obama and Bush declined to take their shots when they had their opportunities to do so). There is the prospect of Iranian retaliation, both in the region and around the world; the already evident strain it's putting on America's relationship with Iraq; and the awful precedent set by assassinating a high official of a foreign power. But what's most striking is the virtually empty column on the other side of the ledger.

How does killing Soleimani benefit America? Did Soleimani have American blood on his hands? For sure — but he was hardly a lone wolf in perpetrating his attacks. Was Soleimani a powerful man and a formidable adversary? Certainly. But the cemeteries are full of indispensable men. Maybe his replacement will prove less adept at wielding power, but the power is still there to be wielded, and the interests of the Iranian state and the Iranian regime haven't changed. At the most basic level, the assassination was stupid because it takes such a personal view of who the enemy is: get rid of a powerful bad guy and you've scored a point.

But that's also a lesson that applies to Trump's domestic opponents. If Trump were removed from office tomorrow, Mike Pence would be president. And Mike Pence was not only one of the key advocates of assassinating Soleimani, he is eager to justify that action with entirely spurious claims that he was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Nor is Pence distinctive in this regard. Trump's strongest opponent in the 2016 contest bitterly opposed President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran and joked about using nuclear weapons against ISIS. The late sainted John McCain joked about bombing Iran in his 2007 campaign. And the last Democratic presidential nominee, a nearly across-the-board hawk, crowed about the killing of Moammar Gadhafi — which wasn't even a declared war aim, and which presaged the destruction of Libyan society — as if it were the conquest of Gaul. Trump made the call to kill Soleimani, but Trump is not the most important reason why Soleimani was killed. Just as electing the president didn't mean an end to America's fruitless wars in the Middle East, neither will getting rid of him.

Nor can we lay all the blame at the feet of America's political and military leadership. True, the United States has very little reason for our escalating confrontation with Iran, and the main ally for whom we are undertaking that confrontation is wildly unpopular among the American people. Moreover, there is very real resistance in the institutional military and in the country at large to sending large numbers of ground troops into harm's way. But using violence from a distance to kill people we don't like, in whatever numbers we deem necessary, has a substantial constituency in America. Trump is bad at most things, but he's not bad at figuring out what will earn him cheers, and the assassination of Soleimani is likely to be a killer applause line at Trump rallies for the rest of the campaign.

And that's the most sobering lesson Trump's opponents should learn from Soleimani's death.

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Noah Millman

Noah Millman is a screenwriter and filmmaker, a political columnist and a critic. From 2012 through 2017 he was a senior editor and featured blogger at The American Conservative. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Politico, USA Today, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, Modern Age, First Things, and the Jewish Review of Books, among other publications. Noah lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.