What was the strategic goal of Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani? This is, on its face, a silly question. Trump’s initial public comment was a low-resolution image of an American flag tweeted from his personal account—cloaking himself in cheap patriotism, as if he were cosplaying George W. Bush. Reporting from The Washington Post and others revealed that the strike on Soleimani was never seriously considered by the military until Trump ordered it—it had been put on a menu of retaliatory options to make more effective, less incendiary options seem more palatable.
The drone strike at Baghdad airport was selected, in other words, because Trump, a jumble of contradictory impulses and a man with no head for strategy, will almost always pick the most bombastic option, particularly when he’s in need of a quick distraction from domestic troubles.
And yet there has been plenty of speculation about the strategic significance of Soleimani’s killing. The administration quickly offered its own rationale. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested, without evidence, that the Iranian general, who was responsible for Iran’s proxy wars throughout the Middle East and had helped spearhead the country’s strategy to keep war-torn Iraq as a vassal state, was taken out because he was planning “imminent attacks” against Americans. Trump, echoing this line, said that he ordered the assassination to “stop a war,” adding, “We did not take action to start a war.”
These lines were repeated uncritically by a number of news outlets. Others added their own “analysis” of the president’s rash decision, which was perceived by Iran to be a naked act of war. “The calculus was straightforward,” David Sanger wrote in The New York Times over the weekend. “Washington had to re-establish deterrence, and show the Iranian leadership that missiles fired at ships in the Persian Gulf and at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, along with attacks inside Iraq that cost the life of an American contractor, would not go without a response.”
But the idea that Trump was guided by some geopolitical rationale is plainly absurd. Yes, Soleimani can be tied to the deaths of American soldiers, but the suggestion that he was plotting some sinister escalation—that he had to be removed immediately to save lives, 24-style—simply doesn’t track. As the Times later reported, citing a U.S. official, the evidence that Soleimaini was planning some new attack was “thin.”
Indeed, none of the White House’s stated or presumed foreign policy goals make any sense, giving the distinct impression there weren’t any in the first place. Instead of stopping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, the Trump administration has accelerated that possibility. Instead of securing greater influence in the Middle East, it has likely lost it, particularly in Iraq, which voted to expel U.S. troops on Monday. Instead of reestablishing deterrence, it has invited more attacks, if not outright war. And instead of shaking the Iranian regime, it has seemingly united Iran, which only weeks ago was wracked by popular protests, in mourning and anger. Trump’s likely actual rationales—uniting the Republican Party, distracting from impeachment, winning reelection—are all domestic in nature.
What the Iran coverage shows is that the mainstream media’s biggest liability remains its credulous approach to an administration with zero credibility. Given Trump’s track record—and his thousands of lies as president—there is simply no reason to take anything that he says at face value. The Bush administration at least dressed up its lies with theater, with Colin Powell at the United Nations; the Trump administration has offered nothing to support its claim that “imminent” attacks against Americans were being planned, or that killing Soleimani was the only way to prevent these attacks, or that hitting Iran’s top general with a missile was meant to forestall a war with Iran.
The media’s lackluster coverage of Soleimani’s death has been abetted by the Democratic Party’s response to it. Rather than forcefully calling out his targeted assassination as a violation of international law that puts the country at risk of another war in the Middle East, most Democrats have issued gutless, mealy-mouthed statements that bolster the administration’s central claim: that Soleimani was a baddie who had it coming. The Democrats—still petrified of being seen as soft on national security, still beholden to D.C.’s foreign policy blob—are adding undeserved credibility to his assassination.
They’re also robbing the media of its principal fuel, partisan conflict. Because outlets like the Times are uncomfortable calling out lies, they rely on political figures to do so for them. But Democrats, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, have largely offered condemnations of Trump that have been weakened by being couched in condemnations of Soleimani. As a result, the administration’s manipulations are given center stage.
There is always a temptation to ascribe a deep, unspoken strategy to Trump’s improvised approach to politics—to find order in the chaos, a signal in the noise. But all of the available evidence suggests that there is no plan at all, that Trump is a deeply incompetent liar who has no idea what he is doing and no respect for the few people around him who do. If there is war with Iran, it will be because of Trump’s incompetence and lies; if there is not, it will be in spite of these things. Coverage that attempts to find the hidden meaning behind his actions only obscures what’s really happening.