Trump’s Impulsive Soleimani Strike Harms U.S. Interests, and Benefits Iran

Qassem Soleimani had the blood of many thousands on his hands: American troops killed in Iraq, Israelis murdered in terrorist attacks, and untold thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese and others dispatched by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force and its network of proxies. After years of lurking in the shadows, in more recent times he was given to smug, smiling selfies with terrorists across the region.

That a man this evil deserved his fate, a fate he authored for so many others, is not in question. The ability to carry it out was also an impressive American intelligence and operational achievement.

It was not, however, part of any strategy.

That much became clear in the aftermath of the attack when it was reported, first by David Cloud in the Los Angeles Times, that President Trump’s most senior national security advisers were shocked by his decision to authorize the operation. It had been included as an option on his briefing slides as a "throwaway," an extreme step designed to make other options seem more reasonable.

Subsequently, Trump and his advisers have offered a range of conflicting explanations for the strike: It was in response to the violent assault on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. Or it was to disrupt imminently planned large-scale attacks against American targets. Or it was to establish deterrence against additional Iranian attacks.

Shiite Muslims demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in the posters, in front of Imam Abbas in Karbala, Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020Khalid Mohammed,AP

The last explanation may, in a way, prove accurate. A president whose decision making is impulsive and wholly unpredictable, even to his closest advisers, may well achieve a measure of deterrence against adversaries who do not seek a full-scale conflict.

Iran has undoubtedly been rocked back on its heels by this sudden blow. Soleimani occupied a unique place in Iran’s leadership, at once a strategist and tactician, the builder of a network of Shia allies in half a dozen countries, a confidant of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and an ideological inspiration.