Qassem Soleimani (Image: YouTube screen grab via CBS News)
Although I don’t think the American people are buying it, it’s worth noting the effort the mainstream media are putting into a surging theme that President Trump “lied” about the justification for striking Qasem Soleimani and the group of henchmen he was meeting with in Iraq on 3 January 2020.
The media are coming up with various suggestions as to why the threat from Soleimani wasn’t really “imminent.” The focus has been on a reported lack of specifics as to when and where attacks would occur; e.g., on the four embassies referenced by Trump in his interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham last week.
Pundits are then running with the media’s “news reports,” which notably are based entirely on the comments of anonymous officials, to depict the Trump administration’s actions as predicated on a lie (according to one opinion writer, Trump’s worst lie ever).
Aside from any other consideration, this theme is senseless because taking the senior planner out in a strike isn’t the main way you would address a threat for which you have very specific information. Striking a Soleimani directly is never the measure of how imminent one of his planned operations was. The premise of the media’s thinking process (to apply that term loosely) is flawed.
It doesn’t work the other way, either. You don’t not strike a Soleimani just because you don’t have a specific date and location for his next attack.
With an actor like Soleimani, as with one like Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you strike when you have the opportunity and operational justification. Notice I didn’t say the “intelligence” justification. Using intelligence on the other guy’s plans for justification implies being impelled by his timeline and his agenda.
An operational justification is about your own strategic priorities. That doesn’t mean that with any specific action, you’re going to a comprehensively offensive posture. It does mean you’re not waiting for the opponent to twitch according to a checklist before you do something that’s strategically necessary.
If you have general intelligence that the individual is ramping up his activities, that may increase the operational urgency of any effort to track him down and take him out. That would be especially the case with Soleimani, who wasn’t just a terror thug but the chief of the Iranian Qods Force, meaning he had the resources and charter of the radical regime in Tehran behind him. Soleimani wasn’t hiding out in a compound with videos somewhere, hoping for another infusion of cash from the poppy fields. He was flying around the Middle East meeting with top terrorist commanders and actively planning new operations.
But what may dispose of the media’s theme boomlet even more decisively is another point. It’s the obvious response to the criticism leveled by Rep. Adam Schiff in this tweet:
I’ve been a member of the Intel Committee for over a decade.
Been briefed hundreds of times on threats — some imminent, some not. When targeting a top gov’t official for killing:
“We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where,” does not constitute “imminent.” https://t.co/1sL8uEVDWI
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) January 10, 2020
The obvious response is that “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where” did indeed constitute imminent, on 9/10/2001.
Before 9/11/2001, U.S. intelligence had information that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were planning something big, presumably against U.S. interests. U.S. military forces were on “terror threat” alert in the Middle East, because the history at that time was of terror attacks like what bin Laden seemed to have in mind being launched (or planned) principally against our armed forces in the region.
Americans learned later that general warning signs had been noted by senior Bush administration officials at several earlier points in 2001.
But before 9/11, “precisely when and precisely where” were exactly the specifics we didn’t have.
In the absence of such specifics, Adam Schiff, other politicians, and the mainstream media of 2020 would apparently have insisted on 9/10/2001 that there was no imminent threat coming from Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
But manifestly, there was an imminent threat. The warning we had of it was non-specific, but it was 100% valid.
The bridge between these two points – about justifying the strike on Soleimani and recognizing imminence even when it’s non-specific – is the element of strategic initiative. We could sit on our hands and let Iran and Soleimani retain the strategic initiative in the Middle East, as we have done for the last 15 years. That would mean endlessly reacting to their strategic agenda. The reaction mode would include taking hits as Soleimani engineered attacks against Americans, like the ones that took the more than 600 American lives whose blood was already on Soleimani’s hands.
Or we could shift our own posture, in at least one dimension, and take the initiative ourselves, according to our agenda and priorities. That’s basically what Trump did with the strike on Soleimani.
Trump’s first-order intent, it appears, was to reset conditions for the Americans in theater so that we wouldn’t always be in a tail-chase behind the Soleimani-fomented threat to our people and interests. That saves American lives. It also gives us latitude in which to retain initiative in all dimensions – diplomatic, economic, whatever is dictated by our interests in the region – effectively, and with less effort.
But in military planning terms, Soleimani was the operational center of gravity for Iran’s proxy campaign throughout the Middle East, from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. That operational center of gravity just received a knockout blow. It’s a development whose strategic import cannot be overstated. It’s a huge blow to the Iranian regime’s aggressive regional plans, for which the regime is way out on a limb.
As the persistent, courageous, determined protesters in Iran demonstrate, the regime has been taking a chainsaw to the limb behind it for years, through mistreating and exploiting the Iranian people to serve those regional plans. The mullahs can’t afford to lose the people and Soleimani. They have no recovery plan for that.
But that’s the situation they now face. That’s the reality of what the Trump administration did with the Soleimani strike. It is irrelevant to discuss it, for purposes of criticizing the justification, in any other terms.