Suleimani’s assassination and the muddled moralism behind it

By Robert Wright, Jan 04 2020

Here’s this week’s news quiz:

Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military leader who was assassinated by the US,
(a) has blood on his hands.
(b) doesn’t have blood on his hands.

If you chose “b” you really should spend more time online. Just look at these Google search numbers: 

Or, instead of going online, you could watch cable news. Anderson Cooper’s Thursday night show on CNN featured, if I recall correctly, at least three references to the blood on Suleimani’s hands, including two references to the specifically American blood on his hands. 

What’s interesting is how often these references are followed by a “but”—how often people who note the blood on Suleimani’s hands go on to raise doubts about the wisdom of assassinating him. Condemning Suleimani seems to be a ritual that commentators and politicians must perform before condemning, or even questioning, the killing of Suleimani. 

Thus: “Suleimani was responsible for unthinkable violence and the world is better off without him. But…” (Rep. Adam Schiff). Or “Suleimani was a terrible man who caused terrible violence in the world. But…” (Rep. Jerry Nadler). Or “There is no doubt that he was a force of evil. At the same time…” (Sen Angus King). Or this doozy of a first-paragraph disclaimer in a generally excellent New York Times op-ed by Barbara Slavin: “Few tears will be shed in many parts of the world for Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, whose Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ruthlessly spread Iranian influence and contributed to the deaths of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians, as well as hundreds of American servicemen in Iraq, over the past decade and a half. But…”

There’s no denying that Suleimani does (or did) have a lot of blood on his hands. He is responsible for many deaths, including the deaths of innocent civilians. But… 

But I think the compulsory recitation of his crimes has a big downside. Even when it precedes a critique of heedless American militarism, it can wind up reinforcing the narrative that sustains that militarism. 

To see what I mean, let’s step back from the big question—whether Suleimani’s killing can be justified in moral or political terms—and look at the chain of events that led to it.

There are different ways of viewing that chain, depending on how wide an angle you want to use. Let’s start with the closeup, and then step back to take a more encompassing view, before getting back to the question of how the moral framing of foreign policy can corrupt it. 

I. The one-week chain of events: 

1) Last week a civilian US military contractor was killed by a missile that presumably came from an Iraqi militia supported by Iran;
2) The US avenged this death by killing 25 members of the militia via five air strikes.
3) In response to these killings, Iraqi protesters, many of them backers of the militia, assembled at the US embassy in Baghdad, breached its outer perimeter, and set its reception area on fire, but dispersed without causing any deaths.
4) In response to these protests (and purportedly to head off an attack on Americans that US officials claim was imminent, though they get pretty testy if you ask for details, and there is reason to think the claim is basically a lie), the US killed Suleimani, as well as a high-ranking Iraqi military figure. 

II. The two-year chain of events: 

1. In the spring of 2018, the Trump administration abandoned the Iran nuclear deal that had kept Iran from enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. Trump then imposed a series of increasingly severe economic sanctions on Iran (ironically, since it was America, not Iran, that had reneged on the deal).
2. As the ensuing economic hardship deepened, Iran started to send signals that it had the power to cause trouble—by, for example, disabling oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and attacking a Saudi oil refinery.
3. This week’s rocket attack on an American military facility in Iraq, the attack that killed the US contractor, can perhaps be seen as the spillover into Iraq of this Iranian pushback, though there are other explanations for it, having to do with internal Iraqi politics. In any event, expelling US troops from Iraq is a longstanding Iranian goal, and has at times been pursued violently. Which brings us to: 

III. The 40-year chain of events: 

1. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, initiating an eight-year war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians. The US gave various kinds of support to Iraq even though it knew Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons. Suleimani fought in that war and rose rapidly through the ranks. The war is said to have filled him—and other Iranian leaders—with a determination to keep Iran from ever being vulnerable to invasion again.
2. In 2003 the US invaded and occupied Iraq (a clear violation of international law, justified in terms of a professed fear of Iraqi WMDs even though Saddam Hussein allowed UN weapons inspectors into the country and let them inspect every site they asked to see). Iranian leaders found the prospect of a permanent US occupation of Iraq deeply threatening—not surprisingly, in light of Iran’s treatment at the hands of Iraq and the US in the 1980s (not to mention America’s treatment of Iran in 1953, when a US-backed coup replaced a democratically elected prime-minister with a dictator who ruled brutally until the 1979 revolution—which helps explain the hostility of Iran’s post-revolutionary regime toward America). So Iran set about trying to evict American troops from Iraq, which meant supporting Iraqi insurgents in their fight against the US. Suleimani ran this operation, and this is when he got the now-famous “blood of hundreds of Americans” on his hands.
3. Since then, Suleimani has implicitly collaborated with the US—most notably in fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Still, Iran never quit wanting Americans out of Iraq, and this was the context in which a single US fatality in Iraq last week brought us rapidly to the brink of war.

Note one thing about these three accounts, at different levels of resolution, of the interaction between the US and Iran: It’s far from obvious that Iran bears more responsibility than the US does for getting us to the point we’re at. 

And note one other thing: some of the most objectionable things Iran has done are strikingly comparable to things the US has done. For example, 40 years ago the US was so freaked out by the prospect of El Salvador falling to communism that it trained and armed proxy forces (aka “death squads”) that committed various massacres. And unless I’m confused about the size and location of El Salvador, its being run by Soviet proxies would have posed less of a threat to American security than an Iraq occupied by American soldiers in 2003 posed to Iran (which, remember, George W. Bush had recently called part of the “axis of evil”).

And, by the way, Iran might also feel threatened by the prospect of a friendly Syrian regime falling to rebels backed by outside powers, especially given that most of those outside powers (the US among them) consider Iran an adversary. (“If we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran,” said one Iranian cleric in 2013, as Suleimani was building his network of Iranian proxies in Syria—proxies that weren’t, so far as I know, any more vicious than some of the jihadist rebels we and our allies backed in Syria.) Indeed, Iran had a stronger national security rationale for supporting brutal Syrian authoritarian Bashar al-Assad than the US has had for supporting any number of the brutal authoritarians it has supported. 

To name just two current examples of authoritarians whose viciousness America lavishly abets for strategic reasons that aren’t entirely clear: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, who gunned down nearly a thousand peaceful protesters who had the audacity to complain about his having deposed a democratically elected president via coup in 2013; and Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Salman, who isn’t nicknamed “bonesaw” for nothing and who, gruesome dismemberments aside, is also responsible for the death of countless Yemenis.

I realize I haven’t exhausted the list of brutality and atrocity that was in one sense or another supported by Iran. But I submit that, if pressed, I could match the items on a more complete list with comparably incriminating items on America’s resume. (Remember, I’ve barely touched on the Kissinger years!)

If you agree with the gist of what I’ve said, and are thinking about repeating it in public, I have two things to say to you:  

1) To do so is to risk being accused of “moral equivalence” or “whataboutism” by upstanding members of the US foreign policy establishment (aka the Blob). 

2) Do it anyway! It is precisely the hollow moralism they’re evincing with those accusations that has gotten us into the mess we’re in. Questioning the premise that we’re on a different moral plane than our adversaries is the first step toward building a more peaceful world.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a piece for the Intercept called, “How the New York Times is making war with Iran more likely.” I dissected a single front-page article by the Times that depicted Iran as a menacing, expansionist regime. I argued that the article made no serious effort to explore non-sinister motivations for Iran’s drive to expand regional influence—such as the possibility that what looks like offense to America or Israel may feel like defense to Iran.

My larger argument was that the authors of the Times piece suffered from a failure of “cognitive empathy”—a failure to put themselves in the shoes of the world’s various actors and see how the world looks to them. It apparently hadn’t occurred to these reporters that maybe American troops in Iraq, or American proxies fighting in Syria, look to Iran the way Soviet troops occupying Mexico, or Soviet proxies in El Salvador, would have looked to the US during the Cold War.

One of the surest ways to shut down cognitive empathy is to depict someone as an evil, implacable enemy. So, from the point of view of warmongers, depicting a country’s leaders that way is a twofer: it makes violence against them seem justified, and it makes exploring their perspective—an exercise that might undermine that justification—unlikely.

American elites—politicians, commentators, think tankers—have been remarkably cooperative in sustaining the image of Iran as almost uniquely evil. Iran is “the most destabilizing country in the Middle East”—even though, by any objective reckoning, the United States is in the running for that title. Iran is the world’s “leading sponsor of terrorism,” even though settling on a single winner of that trophy, too, can get complicated, especially once you acknowledge that, as the old saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

The various kinds of moral disclaimers that critics of Trump’s killing of Suleimani engage in—he has blood on his hands, but; the world is better off without him, but; the killing was morally justified, but—also, in some small way, help sustain the image of Iran that has brought us to the brink of war. I realize that as a matter of rhetorical strategy, these kinds of disclaimers sometimes make sense. I’ve used them myself. I guess I’m just saying that, even though such tactics may sometimes be necessary, we should deploy them discerningly, mindful that they bring collateral damage. 

There are many ways to answer the question of why the US killed Suleimani and ushered in whatever blowback the killing eventually brings. One is to describe the various chains of events that led to the killing. Another is to describe the mindset that encouraged those chains to unfold the way they did. Until we change the mindset—change the way we Americans look at ourselves and at the world—the chains will keep unfolding the way they did this time.

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