“Qassem Soleimani is causing trouble throughout Iraq and Syria and we need to raise the cost for him – for his organization and for him personally”, Mike Pompeo told The National, in an exclusive 2018 interview, around the time the Saudis temporarily suspended oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, following attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis.
Naturally, the Trump administration dispatched Pompeo on Friday to explain to the public what just happened. Most Americans woke up not knowing who Qassem Soleimani was and therefore in the dark about why every media outlet on the planet is running wall-to-wall coverage of his assassination in Baghdad.
Pompeo, a notorious Iran hawk who has argued time and again for the adoption of a hardline approach, showed up on CNN to elaborate.
“The American people should know that President Trump’s decision to remove Qassem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives”, Pompeo said, after declining to elaborate on the specifics of the purported threats to American personnel.
Pompeo also called the assassination “wholly lawful” and claimed the risk of doing nothing was “enormous”.
Let’s be clear about a few things. First, there is no reason to question Pompeo’s assessment that Soleimani was planning to target US troops and personnel. Soleimani has been doing that since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, although, as we reiterated and otherwise explained at length on Thursday evening, Soleimani was a strategist, a general and a tactician. He was not a jihadist.
The question isn’t so much whether Soleimani was a threat to US assets in the region. He was. Rather, the question is whether there was real intelligence that suggested Iran’s proxies in Iraq were in the process of planning something unusual – something that would have made the American presence in the country demonstrably more precarious than it is by its very nature.
It would appear, in the absence of further information, that the answer to that is no. Donald Trump wanted to send a message to Iran and, likely in conjunction with Israeli intelligence tracking Soleimani’s flight from Syria (or Lebanon), the Pentagon told the White House there was a window to kill him with a drone strike. Trump pulled the trigger.
Pompeo’s contention that the risk of doing nothing was “enormous” can be thought of two ways. He’s correct that, sooner or later, another American contractor or soldier would have been killed by the Quds’ proxy armies in Iraq. In that sense, Trump saved lives.
On the other hand, it is almost impossible to argue that killing Soleimani won’t result in more US deaths than had he been left alive. The net loss of life will thus be larger. In that sense, Pompeo is almost assuredly lying. In short, as the former Director of the CIA, Pompeo doubtlessly realizes that this decision will cost more lives than it saves.
That is not to downplay the importance of any lives which are, in fact, saved. It’s simply to say that from a cold, utilitarian perspective, this was a poor calculation.
The Secretary of State went on to tell CNN that the US “got the strike right legally and strategically” and that it “disrupted an imminent attack”. The first part of that is wholly dubious and the public will likely never be in a position to assess the veracity of the second part.
The problem for Pompeo is that the administration’s credibility deficit is so large that nothing he says will be accepted as the whole truth by educated voters. This is, after all, a man who just months ago lied about his involvement in the Ukraine call and worked to stonewall Congress in a cover-up. Additionally, Pompeo’s long history of hawkishness vis-à-vis Iran makes him the opposite of an impartial judge.
“The world is a much safer place after Soleimani’s demise”, Pompeo told the public Friday.
That’s a true statement in the narrow context of, for example, Israel and some US personnel operating in Iraq. But, again, in a broader, “on net” context, it is almost surely false.
In the interest of fairness and journalistic integrity, it’s important to note that there is no credible argument for painting Soleimani as an unequivocal force for good in the world – none. He could be, depending on the context, the Devil incarnate, and he was directly responsible for countless deaths.
But, what’s absolutely crucial for Americans to understand on Friday, is that Soleimani was no jihadist. “Terrorist” is a profoundly misleading characterization of the General – especially coming from an administration that stonewalled a Magnitsky Act request in the course of assisting the Saudi government in covering up the role of Crown Prince Mohammed in the extrajudicial killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.