The air strike on Gen. Qasem Soleimani has rekindled the debate over targeted killings. There have been many questions and opinions about the legality, wisdom, and morality of the strike since it was carried out on Friday. Some of these questions are easier to answer than others.
By coincidence, I just finished the book, “Surprise, Kill, Vanish,” by Annie Jacobsen. The book details the history of the CIA and America’s covert warriors. Targeted killings are a large part of the story.
The CIA has its origins in the WWII-era Office of Strategic Services. The OSS and its British counterpart, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) were involved in a number of assassination plots against Nazi generals. Late in the war, the Allies even considered a plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
In the 1950s, the focus of American “hidden hand” operations was on destabilizing governments. The CIA was behind successful coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. The Iranian coup overthrew nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and installed the Shah as the country’s monarch. While many Iranians view Mossadegh as an advocate for democracy, his government had just passed a referendum calling for the dissolution of parliament at the time of the coup.
While both coups seemed successful at the time, they set in motion events that would not be fully understood or appreciated until years later. In the case of Guatemala, one result of the coup was the decision of Che’ Guevara to become a Marxist revolutionary. In the case of Iran, the Shah survived two and a half decades until he was overthrown by an Islamic revolution in 1979. The United States is still dealing with the fallout of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution four decades later.
In the 1960s, targeted killing once again became a policy tool of presidents with the Phoenix program in Vietnam. While Executive Orders had banned the use of assassinations by the US, other executive actions provided loopholes for the CIA and the military to target enemy leaders.
Targeted killing once again came into vogue during the War on Terror. Ironically, although drones were first armed during the Bush Administration, it was President Obama who made “drone strike” a household phrase. While Obama bragged of ending the Bush Administration’s torture programs, he did so by engaging in nearly 10 times as many drone strikes as George W. Bush. Where the Bush Administration often tried to capture terrorist leaders, Obama simply killed them with drones, often in third-party countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. President Trump has continued this program of automated death from above.
Both leaders presidents also engaged in targeted killings via “boots on the ground” as well. Obama famously ordered the raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden while Trump green-lighted a raid in Syria to kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019.
With respect to Gen. Soleimani, there can be little doubt that the attack that killed him was legal under the laws of war. David French, a former JAG officer and Iraq veteran, pointed out in Time that Soleimani unwisely entered an area that was active combat theater for the US in which congress had already authorized military operations. The Iranian general did not have diplomatic status* and was apparently in the country to coordinate with Iraqi Shiite militia groups who had attacked the US embassy only days before.
Though the strike was legal, whether it was wise is another question. At this point, it is uncertain whether the Iraqi government, our ally in the War on Terror at least for the time being, was aware of the strike before it happened. Whether it approved or not, the pressure that Soliemani’s death puts on the weak Iraqi government may bring it down.
The attack also increases the possibility of full-scale war with Iran. Although neither side wants to go to war with the other, sometimes a single death can put into motion a chain of events that leads to war. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 is only one example. As I wrote a few days ago, a major war is unlikely but even an unconventional, low-intensity conflict could cost many lives and further destabilize the region.
Currently, the fallout from the killing is still underway. As Resurgent reported today, Iran has announced that it will completely end compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and the Iraqi parliament has voted to call for the withdrawal of US troops. Unintended consequences of the killing may be that the coalition against ISIS unravels and that the showdown over Iran’s nuclear ambitions is accelerated.
While the killing of Soleimani was legal as a part of the War on Terror and moral due to the general’s involvement with terrorist groups and attacks on US soldiers in Iraq, we won’t know whether it was a wise policy choice for quite some time. If the victory costs the US its presence in Iraq or its allies in the War on Terror or if it prompts a major terrorist attack, voters and historians may look back and say that it was not worth the diplomatic price that was paid.
President Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani was a gutsy call. Whether it turns out to have been the right one will be judged in 20/20 hindsight.
*A tweet by an Iraqi report for the Washington Post says that the Iraqi prime minister had a planned meeting with Soleimani.