A Tactical Success Does Not a Strategy Make
“So he was murdered. I have no problem with that; the man was a pig. But it was a decision we should have all made together.” – Viktor Slavin, as portrayed by Boris Lee Krutonog, The Hunt for Red October
The United States sent a message to the Middle East with the attack on Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani last night – but it’s not the message the president thinks is being sent. Instead of projecting strength and resolve, he has projected callousness and self-absorption. Only Donald Trump could make the death of the Iranian Quds Force boss a buzzkill, but here we are.
To understand why this tactical strike is far removed from an actual strategy – let alone a successful one – we have to remember what has been happening recently (and is still happening) in Iraq right now. Iraqis in Shiite-majority cities and in Baghdad have been protesting October, with two objectives: end corruption and end Iran’s heavy hand in their nation’s politics. This was reflective of the parliamentary election last year, when Shia Iraqis gave their votes to the most anti-Iranian leader they could find (bizarrely enough, that was Muqtada al-Sadr). Much like in 2010, however (when a broad-based anti-Tehran coalition initially won the election), Iran-allied parties used political machinations to maintain Tehran’s influence. Shia Iraq, watching their leaders fleece the country and lean on foreigners for strength, had enough.
For the mullahcracy in Tehran, this was a true crisis – the regime’s sole source of legitimacy is its supposed leadership of all Shia Islam – and after attempting to quell the protests with violence (Reuters), they tried changing the subject, sending one of their Iraqi-allied militia after American personnel (Politico). That worked, and American retaliation led to said militia violently harassing the US Embassy this week. That didn’t stop the Shia protests against Tehran (Al Jazeera), but it did get Trump’s attention – thus the attack on Soleimani.
In other words, the Trump Administration cares more about some embassy walls in the Green Zone than over 400 dead Iraqis. Iran-backed militias did both, but only the former roused the president. When the shock and euphoria of Soleimani’s death wears off, that will be noticed. Maddeningly, the Administration is broadcasting it even today, with Secretary of State Pompeo insisting America “remains committed to de-escalation” (WaPo).
That’s not the only thing that takes the bloom off the rose here. The continued emphasis on killing enemy leaders instead of defeating enemy forces has further distorted American policy. Al Qaeda has now survived Osama bin Laden by nearly a decade; al-Baghdadi’s death did not kill Daesh; and Soleimani’s death, while a welcome development per se, doesn’t mean Tehran is defeated.
A broader strategy would have recognized and reached out to the Iraqi protestors (and their counterparts in Iran) and challenged the mullahcracy across all fronts – including Syria and Lebanon. It would go beyond the ridiculous yet stubborn false choice of nothing or full military force. It would work with regional and global allies to press the case for true democracy and the stability that comes with it. It would make clear that the Tehran regime itself is the problem, and that we recognize its behavior is but a feature of its tyranny and the anxiety that always comes from a lack of popular legitimacy.
Much of this was present when George W. Bush announced the change in policy toward Iraq in 2007 (known as “the surge”). He made it clear he recognized the mullahcracy was an enemy of the American and Iraqi peoples. The latter certainly noticed, and helped turn the tide against both the Quds Force and al Qaeda in Iraq as a result (that realization was forgotten in the Obama Administration, but that’s for another day).
None of it has been on display this week, or we would have seen greater coordination with our allies and with the Iraqi people, and would be in a far better position to take advantage of this. Instead, we got a reaction to an embarrassing incident at our embassy and nothing more.
Trump and his Administration have no strategy. They have no real goal besides finding an excuse to pull out of the region. They have no real concern for the peoples of the Middle East. As these realizations dawn, our enemies will exploit them for their own gain. They may have lost the battle, but thanks to Trump’s ignorance and myopia, I fear they will win the war.