Suleimani and the Surly Wolverine
So the Iranian general Suleimani was taken out by an American missile a few days ago, and this has resulted in a good deal of agitated discussion. And there is a pressing temptation, whenever things like this are done, for all the participants in our public life to default to their factory settings. Conservatives like to support our military and so their suspicion of the deep state vanishes, and liberals like to display their anti-Americanism from time to time, and so they do that.
But there are layers to this thing, and we cannot simply support or oppose. We need to learn how to combine an odd mix of both. We need to learn how to say it depends. What aspect of this are we talking about? In what follows, I offer just a short punch list of issues related to all of it.
The Iranian general was a bad actor, and he was in Iraq because—as a military analyst might say—he was “up to no good.” Our embassy had just been attacked, and an attack on an embassy is tantamount to an attack on the United States itself. Whether you believe U.S. troops should be in Iraq or not, there is certainly no objection to an embassy being there. So this was not an assassination of an Iranian general in Iran—rather it was a strategic strike against an enemy combatant in the field of battle. And so, as a general matter, his demise, coming in this way, was richly deserved. So whatever else we say about it, we shed no tears for Suleimani.
Declarations of War
The Constitution is very clear about two things with regard to war.
First is that the president is the commander-in-chief, and he certainly does have the authority to take direct military action in the face of an imminent threat. This action would appear to fall in that category—although the evidence for it has not yet been made public. Let us wait and see. But when we fought back at Pearl Harbor, we were doing so without congressional authorization, and that was fine.
But because the death of Suleimani was such a high-profile killing, the prospect of Iranian retaliation was certain (which happened yesterday in an ineffectual missile attack on American bases in Iraq). The Iranian response was a tepid face-saving thing, but what if the whole thing still spirals into a war that is both big and hot?
If that happened, there is no way to justify a shooting war with Iran apart from a declaration of war from Congress. This is the second thing the Constitution is clear about. Congress declares war, and the president is the executive of it. Makeshift substitutes (like the war powers jiggery-pokery) are fine if you are dealing with failed states like Somalia, or renegade pirates, or something like that. But when you have a sovereign nation state that is toppled by our military (as happened in Iraq when Saddam was removed), and replaced with another government, there is nothing about this kind of action (even if the war were justified on the merits) that is not covered by the delegation of responsibilities assigned in the Constitution. Congress is supposed to declare war, and nobody else.
As a practical matter, this helps to keep politics to a minimum when a war is under way. Without a declaration from Congress, every congressman and senator is set free to kibbitz about everything. With a declaration of war, this couldn’t happen nearly as much.
This matters to those Christians (at least those who are not pacifists) because one of the historic criteria for a just war is that it has to be declared by a competent authority. And the president has no authority to conduct overt military operations that result in the toppling of another nation’s government. No authority. Zilch. Zip. Nada.
Just so everybody knows. I don’t think this applies just this minute, but it does apply. Everybody needs to remember. Congress declares war, not the president.
At the Same Time . . .
There are gradations of policy in between colonial empire-building on the one hand, and an abject crawling appeasement on the other. Trump really is in the Jacksonian mold, which means that I believe him when he says that he is not interested in nation-building, adventurism, colonial empire, globalism, and all that stuff. To be more specific, Jacksonian foreign policy is something like a surly wolverine wandering through the woods. He is not interested in becoming the emperor of the woods, but if you mess with him you will find he is not exactly a pacifist either.
So as an amateur student of sociology, I do not believe that this action is hurtling us toward war in the Middle East. I actually believe the opposite. We were immediately told by a bunch of hyped-up analysts about all the things that Iran would do in response to this, but pretty much all of them were things they were already doing. The warning doesn’t really have any force if you say something like “in response to this killing of Suleimani, Iran is likely to become a state-sponsor of terrorism.”
So constitutional issues aside, as a matter of looking at how power politics in the Middle East function, I think we are farther away from a hot war than we were before. The mere fact that Trump defined his red line as the killing of an American, and then responded energetically when that line was crossed means that deterrence is no longer meaningless in that part of the world. Think twice before you do anything, people. The Iranian response killed no Americans, which means that Trump doesn’t need to do anything further, and likely won’t. As a practical matter, he can just call it a victory, which it is—as a practical matter.
And as a political campaign issue in the Democratic primaries, it turns out that WW3 has been cancelled, much to the disappointment of all.
A Brief Reminder
The Iranian regime is wicked, and they really do oppress their people. But we can at least say this in their favor. They are not as wicked as they could be. They could have abortion on demand, for example. And they could have the farce of same sex mirage going on. At least they are not that far gone, which is a good thing.
A Second at the Same Time . . .
Look. Here’s another layer. I alluded to this above, but it bears mentioning again. Intelligence agencies are not apolitical. The intelligence agencies are staffed by people, some of whom are dedicated and informed, and that’s all to the good. We can give out some yays to the dedicated and informed ones. But more than a few of them are muddled and confused, and some of those have gotten their confusions all tangled up with their pretense of objectivity and professionalism.
The first casualty of war is the truth, and thoughtful believers will always take anything that any belligerent government says cum grano salis, with a grain of salt. Sometimes the lies are justified disinformation. Sometimes the lies are the result of CYA maneuvers on the part of some official or other. Sometimes the lies are unjustified and unnecessary, and then there are the occasional lies that would make the prince of darkness blush. But anybody who simply accepts the official line as though they were getting it straight from the archangel Gabriel’s surveillance camera is what thoughtful observers would call a “babe in the woods.”
When you couple this with the demonstrated politicization and corruption of our intelligence agencies, such that American democracy has far more to fear from our mendacious corruptocracy than it has to fear from the likes of Suleimani, we have even more grounds for caution. I am more worried about the governor of Virginia trying to seize guns, the fact that perjurers from the upper echelons of our intelligence agencies are still running around loose, and the FBI reading my mail than about anything the Iranians might do to me. Prove me wrong. The Constitution has enemies both foreign and domestic, and we have a much more pressing need to clean house domestically than we do on the international stage.
You can stipulate that this operation was not intended to be a “wag the dog” operation, taking all eyes of the impeachment fiasco. I don’t think it was intended by the president to do this, because all eyes on the impeachment fiasco was bad for Democrats, not for the president.
But whether or not it was intended that way, it has had the effect of changing the subject—in ways that it shouldn’t.