Donald Trump on Wednesday addressed the nation following Iran’s counterstrikes against US interests in Iraq.
In keeping with the general narrative emanating from experts and analysts in the hours after more than a dozen rockets struck targets where American troops were stationed, Trump suggested that the IRGC may not have intended to kill anyone.
There were no US casualties and only “minimal” damage. “Iran appears to be standing down”, Trump said.
Predictably, the president delivered a lengthy diatribe documenting the crimes of Qassem Soleimani, whose hands Trump said were “drenched in American blood”.
Although the administration will likely never admit that whatever attacks Soleimani was planning with Kataib Hezbollah were no different in scope or in character than those he’s orchestrated previously, Trump did appear to tacitly acknowledge that the drone strike on the commander was intended primarily as a kind of final “once and for all” warning to Tehran.
It’s worth emphasizing that nobody in the administration has attempted to provide any context for the public with regard to the crucial distinction between on one hand, Soleimani, the Quds, Hezbollah and Iran’s other regional proxies, and, on the other, the Sunni extremist groups responsible for attacks on scores of civilians in Western cities like Paris, London and New York. In short, there is never any mention of the fact that Soleimani was first and foremost a soldier. He was a tactician and a strategist, concerned above all with cementing the Shia crescent and projecting Iranian influence in the region. Butcher? Maybe. Indiscriminate butcher? No.
Does that distinction really matter? Maybe not, in the final analysis, and certainly not for the families of those Americans killed by Iran’s proxies in Iraq in the years since the invasion. But that doesn’t mean the distinction isn’t real.
America has been at war in Iraq for 16 years. Soleimani has been at war with Iraq or in Iraq essentially since childhood. He was “at the vanguard of Iran’s revolutionary generation, joining the IRGC in his early 20s after the 1979 uprising that enshrined the country’s Shiite theocracy”, The New York Times wrote last week, in a lengthy obituary, adding that he “rose quickly during the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s”.
In recent years, he was on the frontlines in theatre. He commanded Hezbollah and other Shia militia under cover of Russian air power in Syria in the fight to retake Aleppo from the Sunni opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Not every faction of the opposition was comprised of extremists, but many (if not most) of them were. Of course, Assad is himself associated with, and directly responsible for, all manner of atrocities. Because he owes his life to Soleimani (without whom Damascus would almost surely have fallen to a Sunni-led coalition comprised at least in part of jihadists), it is impossible not to lay some of the blame for Assad’s war crimes at Soleimani’s feet.
Soleimani also commanded Shia militia in Iraq in 2015 during the assault to retake Tikrit from ISIS. The air power in that battle was provided by the US military.
And yet, his exploits which resulted in the deaths of Americans and his role in Hezbollah’s rise understandably take precedence in the minds of Western observers. He was once implicated in a plan to assassinate the ambassador of Saudi Arabia and as the Times summarizes, Soleimani, along with Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mugniyah, “drove a sophisticated campaign of guerrilla warfare, combining ambushes, roadside bombs, suicide bombers, targeted killings of senior Israeli officers and attacks on Israeli defense posts”, during his earlier years at the head of the Quds.
In war, people are killed. In war, people are maimed. Soleimani died at war last week. He would have had it no other way.
To implicitly put Soleimani in the same category as, for example, Bakr al-Baghdadi (a coward, a psychopath, a serial killer and a rapist) is to diminish the meaning of the word “soldier”. Baghdadi’s Wikipedia page lists him as a “military commander”. That is, frankly, disgraceful to anyone who, like Soleimani or like the scores of US soldiers who have died since 2003 in the Mideast, has ever fought in a war.
To his credit, Trump did, towards the end of his remarks, make clear that ISIS is the “natural enemy of Iran” and he called on the Iranian leadership to join the US in ensuring that Sunni extremism doesn’t resurface.
He left out quite a bit of key information, not least of which is that in Soleimani, the US assassinated the man Sunni extremists like ISIS feared most in the world. To say his demise does not help the anti-ISIS cause would be a good candidate for understatement of the year. That isn’t to say he didn’t back-channel with extremists over the years for the sake of expediency (he was, after all, a legendary intelligence operative), but the simple fact of the matter is that more than any other single man, Soleimani was responsible for the destruction of the ISIS caliphate.
Trump also failed to mention that the ideology espoused by ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups is institutionalized in the Saudi monarchy. The characterization of Iran as the “number-one state sponsor of terror” is more or less accurate depending on who it is that’s applying the label. That is, if you’re Israel, then it is unquestionably accurate to castigate the IRGC and especially the Quds as an intolerable sponsor of a terrorist group which sits right on your doorstep in Lebanon (i.e., Hezbollah). If you’re the US, that label makes less sense. In fact, it would make more sense from the perspective of the West if it were applied to Saudi Arabia or any of the other Sunni powers in the region. Just ask Qatar how hypocritical are the Saudis’ pretensions to being concerned about terrorism.
The US, according to the president’s remarks, will be slapping Iran with new sanctions, but will apparently refrain from military action – for now.
Read our full coverage of the Qassem Soleimani assassination
Trump reserved some of his harshest criticism on Wednesday for Barack Obama, going so far as to say, explicitly, that the previous administration paid for the missiles launched at US positions on Wednesday morning in Iraq. That is unbecoming of a US president.
He also said that following the nuclear deal, Iran “went on a terrorist spree funded by the money and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq”, a ridiculous account of recent Mideast history that can only be described as wholly inaccurate.
During a tangent, the president touted America’s missiles, which he called “big, powerful, lethal and fast”. Hypersonic weapons are “under construction”, he remarked, in a rather transparent allusion to Vladimir Putin.
Trump also lauded America’s energy independence on the way to suggesting that he would be asking NATO to take on a more proactive role in the Mideast because, quote, “we don’t need their oil”.
Finally, the president called on the UK, Germany, France, Russia and China to “deal with reality” and accept that the nuclear deal is no more.
All in all, Trump’s remarks came as a relief to a nervous public and certainly to a jittery market. Stocks surged as he spoke.
The president’s address was far from eloquent, but, like Iran’s counterstrikes, it could have been worse.