With the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, people are anxiously debating whether the situation will spin out of control. It already has.
We talk about “spiraling conflict” and “escalation” as though, at a certain point, leaders simply lose their minds and start blindly pushing buttons. But that’s a false view: history offers a pageant of men marching calmly and rationally on to Armageddon. All it takes is the failure to think five, or ten, or fifteen moves ahead. If your decisions are too near-field, you will consider only the options visibly before you. Choosing one — in today’s world, usually the least bad one — will immediately present a new set of options, like the turns of a maze. If you proceed rationally choice-by-choice, or worse, on the belief that you must always turn one direction, you will soon hit a place where your choices narrow to none — the wall that forces you to turn around. And if the maze in question is a corridor down which your enemies are pursuing you, and you have been running with the confidence inspired by a grenade in your pocket, then when you hit that wall you will have no choice but to throw it, even if the shrapnel is likely to kill you too.
The most famous example is World War I. A Serbian radical assassinated an Austrian Archduke, causing Austria to declare war on Serbia. Russia was obliged by treaty to defend Serbia and thus declared war on Austria. This provoked Germany to declare war on Russia and its ally, France. Germany invaded Belgium as part of its attack on France, obliging Britain to enter the war in defense of Belgium. In due course, Bulgaria, Romania, Japan, British colonies as far flung as Australia, and the US entered the war as well. In four years, 19 million people lost their lives, 21 million were wounded, and a worldwide influenza epidemic was killing millions more — results intended, surely, by nobody. Nor were the leaders war-mongering madmen or even, by contemporary accounts, particularly cheesed off. They were mostly just incompetent, bungling their way into global catastrophe.
Fast forward 102 years. After a time of ratcheting tensions, Iranian militia killed an American contractor in Iraq. So we ordered airstrikes against those Iranian militia and killed a bunch of them. Pro-Iranian militants then attacked our embassy in Baghdad. And Trump, according to reporting in today’s New York Times, chose the most extreme menu option his generals presented — and not the one they realistically wanted — assassinating the second most powerful man in Iran.
While everyone ponders what Iran will do next, here’s how this act has already transformed our strategic landscape. Soleimani’s work in fostering alliances with Shiite groups from Afghanistan to Yemen has put American troops and civilians at risk everywhere across the region. Since the killing, there have been major protests in Baghdad, with renewed efforts to approach the embassy. The State Department has ordered civilians to evacuate Iraq as a result of these tensions. Thousands of Shiites also demonstrated today in Islamabad, Pakistan, making an unsuccessful run at the US embassy, putting more American civilians at risk. The Sunni terrorist group al-Shabaab launched an attack on US troops in Kenya, killing three Americans. Although the timing may be coincidental given that Sunnis did not love Soleimani, it’s also possible that the assassination may be creating opportunistic alignments that bridge the most enduring chasm in the Middle East, between Sunni and Shiite, as they unite against a common enemy, the United States.
This is in fact happening in Iraq, its government until last week deeply divided and unpopular, now riding a wave of universal anti-Americanism that has led to a parliamentary vote, supported by both sects, to expel US forces from the country. Recall that we had to rely on our military presence in Iraq to stabilize the situation on the Turkish-Syrian border after Trump’s surprise withdrawal of troops there. Were it not for our Iraqi bases, our military commanders would not have been able to salvage that presidential fiasco. If we are ordered out of Iraq, the Kurds, once betrayed by our withdrawal in Syria, will be fully and finally abandoned. They will have no choice but to ally with Russia and Assad against Turkey. Meanwhile, any efforts to combat the resurgence of ISIS in the region will likewise be abandoned, if they have not been already — the Defense Department announced today that it is “pausing” all operations against ISIS in Iraq and focusing solely on protection of US forces.
If the outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister approves Parliament’s withdrawal request — which he publicly supports — the US will have the choice of allowing all of these short-term consequences to become permanent. Iraq will then likely become a terrorist haven controlled by Iran-backed militias, as well as a haven for a resurgent ISIS in the north. Or, the US can defy Iraq’s expulsion, in which case we become an occupier in violation of international law. Did I mention that there are US battlefield nuclear weapons stationed just 50 miles from the Turkish-Syrian border, where ISIS fighters were allowed to escape from their prisons following the US Syrian pullout?
All of this is the best-case scenario, involving only a few known, self-inflicted consequences of our actions thus far, with Iran taking no retaliatory steps at all. If, as is virtually inevitable, Iran and/or its proxies retaliate and react through their interlocking series of alliances and rivalries, each following long-and short-term objectives that align and collide like little cluster bombs, then any policy-making decision-tree exercise explodes into a horrifying fireworks display.
And in charge of it all is Donald Trump. Not only is he incapable of the kind of long-range thinking required for survival in these times — he’s actively hostile to it. He tweets, and perhaps even believes, that no matter what blind alley he drags us down, we’ll be fine because he’s got nukes in his pocket.
I wrote after the Syria debacle that he needed to go. It is more urgently true today.