For the better part of a decade, America’s main base of operations for its military occupation of Iraq was a cluster of bases and old Saddam Hussein–era palaces surrounding Baghdad International Airport. It was from here, around BIAP, that American and allied generals promulgated orders to their tens of thousands of field troops, and U.S. operators trained Iraq’s budding special operations forces. This is also where, in the early weeks of the 2003 invasion, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith became one of the first American combat deaths of the Iraq War; he was killed manning a machine gun against an Iraqi position while his comrades beat a hasty retreat, an action for which President George W. Bush would later present a Medal of Honor to Smith’s 11-year-old son on his old man’s behalf. When later American soldiers stationed on the Victory Base Complex around BIAP worked out, many of them did so at the Paul R. Smith gym. If the tragic, misshapen American adventure in Iraq were a body, its irregularly beating heart was Baghdad International Airport.
Surely it means something that, in order to telegraph his strength to the rest of the world on the second day of the year 2020, President Trump bombed America’s former supreme military base in Iraq, without offering the world any comment, other than to tweet a low-resolution image of an American flag. Surely, what this means is that meaning is dead.
The apparent target of Trump’s ire was Iranian major general and bona fide “bad dude” Qassem Soleimani—a longtime confidant of the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, the organizer of covert military action across the Middle East, and a main architect of Iranian foreign policy. It’s hard to describe Soleimani and his importance in brief: I recommend that everyone read Dexter Filkins’s masterful 2013 New Yorker profile to get a full flavor of the man who, among other things, brilliantly and ruthlessly exacted a human toll from U.S. fighting forces in Iraq and helped engineer the predictable quagmire there. It is accurate, in some sense, to say Soleimani was in a very small global elite class with Trump himself: bloody-handed fanatics, empowered by devoted followings, whose elite status in their home nations rendered them immune from the sorts of assassinations they doled out with zeal. But, of course, Soleimani and Trump are very different. Trump is stupider, and Soleimani is deader.
Both of those facts are important today. For the past week, Iran–likely through Soleimani’s militia contacts in Iraq–had played on Trump’s stupidity and vanity with a classic strategy torn from the insurgent handbook: exploit popular unrest and hatred of an occupying power to provoke that power into a violent overreaction.
The United States, having withdrawn its forces from Iraq in 2011 under an agreement negotiated by Bush, still maintains the largest embassy complex in human history in Baghdad’s old “Green Zone,” which regularly becomes a focus of popular dissension in Iraq. The people of Iraq have had much to protest: Their post-Saddam government has been shot through with corruption and sectarianism while proving utterly inept at security operations and the provision of basic public services. In 2012, Sunni protests against the government’s Shia orientation aided the rise of the Islamic State; in 2016, Shia groups led by Muqtada al-Sadr protested the government’s inability to protect their religious pilgrims. Last year’s unrest started in September, when educated Iraqis took to the streets to protest unemployment and government impotence. Eager to prove its potency, the Iraqi government quashed the demonstrations violently; by October, national protests were underway, and the government was escalating with internet shutdowns and street curfews.
Much of the protesters’ ire was directed externally, not just at the U.S. but at Iran. Both nations are perceived negatively within Iraq, widely seen as exploiting the nation’s continued weakness and corruption for their own interests. An unprecedented joint investigation by The Intercept and The New York Times in November revealed the extent to which Tehran uses Iraq as a base for covert and intelligence operations, with Iraqi cooperation; Soleimani was the architect of that arrangement and the main character in The Intercept’s coverage. Nevertheless, as the protests and violence continued to worsen, the U.S. and Iran confirmed these suspicions by undertaking their own escalations.
On December 27, a rocket attack against a U.S. installation in Kirkuk, in the Iraqi north, killed an American contractor and wounded four U.S. soldiers; the Americans blamed Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia militia allied to Iran through Soleimani, and on December 29 responded with “precision defensive strikes”—a perverse Pentagonism, if there ever was one—on five Kataib installations in Iraq.
This attack helped to focus Iraqi anger on the U.S., which was now broadly (and correctly) perceived as violating the country’s sovereignty with military attacks. By New Year’s Eve, protesters focused their anger on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, setting up a Lollapalooza of sorts for anti-American militias with Iranian backing. Trump, who for years now has blustered through ham-handed threats against Iran and then backed down from a direct confrontation, took the bait, blaming Tehran directly for the protests, congratulating himself for adding troops to the complex, and repelling the embassy demonstrators with tear gas—all while Iraq’s most revered religious cleric bemoaned the nation’s loss of its sovereignty to outside powers.
In his zeal to execute an anti-Benghazi of sorts for his faithful followers—and, presumably, to distract from his impeachment and shrinking prospects for reelection later this year—Trump did not stop at reinforcing the American embassy and alienating a weak Baghdad government. He then ordered the U.S. military to strike Soleimani’s vehicle in Iraq, the evening before Friday prayers.
Soleimani died as he lived: spoiling American aims in the Middle East. His death, now treated as a national tragedy and an act of war by Iran, makes Americans in the region and across the world less safe. Regional experts are aghast and handicapping the odds of a costly great-power war. Others are pointing out that removing the head of a sophisticated state terror network does little to prevent that network’s operations, and likely radicalizes the survivors.
Even the Trump-supporting Republicans who drink endless war like Olympian nectar concede that Soleimani’s killing was impolitic vengeance with no clear security advantage. “I now urge the Administration to be prepared for possible retaliation, including against U.S. troops stationed in the region,” Senator Cory Gardner said in a statement, just after praising the administration for bringing about that uneasy state with its assassination. Senator Lindsey Graham, a former presidential impeachment prosecutor who has seemed uneasy and clumsy in his defense of Trump against impeachment, was visibly eager to reprise his role as an Iran-hating hawk after the Soleimani operation, bragging about being looped into the plan on a visit to Mar-a-Lago and promising an American martial game-on: “Our people in Iraq and the Middle East are going to be targeted,” he assured reporters. “I think we need to be ready for a big counterpunch.”
Trump and Republicans now have what they love: a tough, if completely self-defeating, internally inconsistent, national security talking point. They are openly boasting today about an act of destabilizing, violent vengeance that will make Americans, Iraqis, and Iranians less safe for the foreseeable future.
There is no logic in it, and there is no telling how bad things may get. But the U.S. State Department gives a pretty good indicator of just how inept, feckless, and stupid its leadership is in this crisis. This morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extolled the Soleimani killing as a masterstroke “to protect American lives.… The U.S. will protect its people and its interests.”
At the same time, his subordinates were advising Americans in Iraq to leave the nation immediately for their own safety and not expect help from their government: “Due to Iranian-backed militia attacks at the U.S. Embassy compound, all public consular operations are suspended until further notice. U.S. citizens should not approach the Embassy.” Those citizens “should depart via airline while possible,” the State department urged. Of course, that’s already a complicated task in Baghdad, where this crisis was precipitated yesterday by the U.S. bombing of the airport base complex it once occupied.
American resolve has reached its logical conclusion in the age of Trump: There is no village on earth that the U.S. government will not destroy in order to save it. There is no violent contradiction that cannot be resolved with more ignorance and more bombs. Half the nation recognizes the hell we have just willingly entered. The other half is likely to put it on a Trump 2020 bumper sticker.