Imagine a prominent public figure-- a general or a political leader-- flying into a commercial, public airport of another country to attend a funeral, perhaps negotiate a peace initiative. After being greeted by a top leader of that country’s militia, national guard, or military reserve, the two proceed to leave the airport in a motorcade, taking no particularly remarkable security arrangements.
A drone from a third country intercepts the motorcade, firing missiles and killing everyone involved.
Understandably, such an event would provoke world outrage and calls for bringing the perpetrator to justice. If the visiting public figure were a NATO general visiting Greece, a cabinet member landing in Colombia, or an ambassadorial assignee in Japan, denouncements would ensue, moral indignation would explode, and legal consequences would follow. An angry UN would respond to calls for sanctions. Terrorism alerts would reach a high level.
Of course the ‘imaginary’ scenario described above is not imaginary, but real, chronicling the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force. And instead of moral indignation and legal recourse, US political and media elites and their Western allies vacillate between fear and threats.
Former CIA director Porter Goss believes that Soleimani belatedly got what was coming to him. His counterpart in the Obama administration, Leon Panetta, bizarrely states that Soleimani was never on the CIA assassination list since the agency could not decide between several evil Iranian generals. NPR summarizes Democratic Party leadership thinking (expressed clearly by Pelosi and Schumer): indignation, not over the morality or legality of the assassination, but over the fact that Congress was not consulted (would they have turned Trump down?)!
To their credit, Bernie Sanders and some young Democratic progressives-- at least—characterized the killing as an assassination, most others did not. Some might be surprised that Joe Biden spoke of the assassination as “a stick of dynamite.” But that was completely consistent with his performance in the Obama administration, where he was a pragmatic counterforce in opposition to the administration’s war hawks-- Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Ben Rhodes. As attested in Jeffrey Goldberg’s informative exit interview in The Atlantic, Obama regretted listening to the hawks and, therefore, found the spine to defy them on intervention in Syria. Yet it is important to recognize that he did it for practical reasons and not for moral considerations-- military action at that time was perceived as counter-productive.
How is it that US officials, the media, and the think tanks can be so morally deaf to Soleimani’s assassination?
The reason is simple: they all fail to recognize Iran’s and Iraq’s sovereignty. They believe that the US has freedom of action in both countries since they both are or have been “illegitimate.” That thinking is the basis for the reigning doctrine of regime change, wholly embraced since the demise of the Soviet Union and its place as a counterforce to US imperialist intervention around the world.
In the case of Iraq, the US treats the country as a colony, a neo-colony. The brilliant exponent of Pan-African unity and African socialism, Kwame Nkrumah, created the theory of formal independence and actual neo-colonial dependence to describe how today’s imperialists wrap their tentacles around the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And there is no better example of that neo-colonialism than contemporary Iraq.
From the illegal no-fly zones maintained from 1991 until 2003, the US and its allies exercised de facto control over Iraq. Before the actual invasion, the bombing campaign to enforce the No-Fly Zone costs as many as 1400 civilian lives.
The concomitant sanctions regimen-- a new US model for warfare: minimizing aggressor casualties and maximizing victim casualties-- may have cost as many as half a million Iraqi children. While the numbers are disputed, what is not disputed is that the Iraqi population’s median age went from 16.8 in 1990 to 18.7 in 2005 and 20 today, a radical shift away from youth to elderly in a short time. The deniers must offer a theory of what happened to the young people who are today missing from Iraq’s population. It seems likely that they were, in one way or another, the victims of imperial violence.
Of course untold numbers of young people died in the US invasion and occupation beginning in 2003-- a slaughter too frequently shown on the cable military channels in gory detail. Cities were bombed, Fallujah totally destroyed. Iraqi infrastructure-- roads, buildings, water supplies, electrical generation, etc.-- was destroyed or diminished. The dominant political party was outlawed, existing politicians were bribed and exiles were established as puppets. Iraq was not a neo-colony then, but a classic colony.
Today, with 20 years of US occupation or dominance and with a median age of 20, most Iraqis have no conscious experience of authentic national independence. Consequently, young people rebelled in 2019 against corruption, inferior services, degraded living standards, and poverty. The assassination of Soleimani is perceived as a brazen affront to national sovereignty and dignity, possibly a last straw in US-Iraqi relations.
Obviously, Trump and his minions pulled the trigger-- made the final decision to assassinate the Iranian general. But it was the decades of neo-colonial arrogance, of patronizing “humanitarian” interventionism, of oil politics, of political scapegoating that made the West see the assassination as morally “justifiable,” though, perhaps, unwise. It is important to recall that the rabid anti-Trump opposition mostly objected to the fact that they were not consulted, that Trump stepped out of line, rather than that they deplored the act of murder.
So why did Trump pull the trigger?
No doubt his advisors did not hesitate to tell him that wars are the great distraction, especially in election years. Certainly, elements in the military and CIA have long sought regime change in Iran. And Trump’s bluster and self-centeredness provides a handy excuse for them, should matters go awry (The Department of Defense was quick to point out that the assassination was Trump’s decision!). A war would draw attention away from the seriously bleak economic signs that are emerging and could affect Trump’s election prospects: the worst manufacturing data since 2009, falling automobile sales in 2019, the profit retreat of the US energy sector, etc. And, of course, there is the impeachment fiasco.
Israel’s internal politics play a large role in Trump’s decisions. No one has been more of a friend to beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, than Donald Trump. Unable to form a government and caught in a web of corruption charges, Netanyahu needs a distraction even more than Trump. Jefferson Morley documents how Israel has lusted after Soleimani’s assassination for some time. Threats, tensions, conflict in the Middle East would likely rally Israeli support behind the über-belligerent war hawk, Netanyahu, at a moment of his greatest need.
Oil politics likely also factor in Trump’s decisions, though not in the way that most commentators present it. With the US now more than capable of self-sufficiency in oil and gas, the US industry is actively competing for markets. Crippling or blockading rivals is becoming US policy. Rather than snatching foreign sources, the Trump administration shows more interest in disrupting, foiling, and threatening energy suppliers. This is a particularly difficult moment for US energy suppliers with natural gas overproduction generating extremely low prices and Wall Street investors calling in massive loans on frackers. Financial pundits are warning of serious losses, well closings, and bankruptcies. US producers benefit from chaos among their competitors, chaos that seems to be more and more the goal of US foreign policy. With Iran (and Qatar) owning the world’s largest gas field, US suppliers would be grateful for disruption of its exploitation, allowing for greater exportation of US Liquified Natural Gas. Oil prices rose 4% on the announcement of Soleimani’s assassination.
With joint naval exercises between Iran, Russia, and PRC wound up on December 31, 2019, the US military and security agencies no doubt want the assassination of Soleimani to be seen as a not-too-subtle message that they will not tolerate further unity.
While the threat to world peace has risen dramatically, the assassination is yet another sign of the weakness and desperation of US imperialism. The 80,000 US troops scattered throughout the Middle East have no discernable justification-- they have lost in Syria, are unwanted in Iraq, have failed to bolster Saudi Arabia. Even the returned and returning military personnel cannot explain why they have served.
The deliberate stirring of ethnic and religious differences by the US is proving less effective than anticipated. And the long-suppressed economic and political grievances of the people of the Middle East are bubbling to the surface, threatening some of the region’s corrupt, US-supported client governments. A better world is in sight.
However, a wounded, weakened US empire is proving even more dangerous in its desperation.