18 January 2020 — Moon of Alabama
The Trump administration sees the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani as a form of deterrence not only with regards to Iran but also towards Russia, China and others. That view is wrong.
The claim that the murder of Soleimani was necessary because of an ‘imminent threat’ has been debunked by Trump himself when he tweeted that ‘it doesn’t really matter’ if there was such a threat or not.
In a speech at the Hoover Institute Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the assassination was part of a new deterrence strategy. As Reuters reported:
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said Qassem Soleimani was killed as part of a broader strategy of deterring challenges by U.S. foes that also applies to China and Russia, further diluting the assertion that the top Iranian general was struck because he was plotting imminent attacks on U.S. targets.
In his speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, Pompeo made no mention of the threat of imminent attacks planned by Soleimani.
The speech itself, headlined The Restoration of Deterrence: The Iranian Example, makes that less explicit as Reuters lets it appear:
On the 3rd of this month, we took one of the world’s deadliest terrorists off the battlefield for good.
But I want to lay this out in context of what we’ve been trying to do. There is a bigger strategy to this.
President Trump and those of us in his national security team are re-establishing deterrence – real deterrence ‒ against the Islamic Republic. In strategic terms, deterrence simply means persuading the other party that the costs of a specific behavior exceed its benefits. It requires credibility; indeed, it depends on it. Your adversary must understand not only do you have the capacity to impose costs but that you are, in fact, willing to do so.
And let’s be honest. For decades, U.S. administrations of both political parties never did enough against Iran to get the deterrence that is necessary to keep us all safe.
So what did we do? We put together a campaign of diplomatic isolation, economic pressure, and military deterrence.
Qasem Soleimani discovered our resolve to defend American lives.
We have re-established deterrence, but we know it’s not everlasting, that risk remains. We are determined not to lose that deterrence. In all cases, we have to do this.
We saw, not just in Iran, but in other places, too, where American deterrence was weak. We watched Russia’s 2014 occupation of the Crimea and support for aggression against Ukraine because deterrence had been undermined. We have resumed lethal support to the Ukrainian military.
China’s island building, too, in the South China Sea, and its brazen attempts to coerce American allies undermined deterrence. The Trump administration has ramped up naval exercises in the South China Sea, alongside our allies and friends and partners throughout the region.
You saw, too, Russia ignored a treaty. We withdrew from the INF with the unanimous support of our NATO allies because there was only one party complying with a two-party agreement. We think this, again, restores credibility and deterrence to protect America.
This understanding of ‘deterrence’ seems to be vague and incomplete. A longer piece I am working on will further delve deeper into that issue. But an important point is that deterrence works in both directions.
Iran responded with a missile strike on U.S. bases in Iraq. The missiles hit the targets they were aimed at. This was a warning that any further U.S. action would cause serious U.S. casualties. That strike, which was only the first part of Iran’s response to the murdering of Soleimani, deterred the U.S. from further action. Iran also declared that it will expel the U.S. from the Middle East. How is Iran deterred when it openly declares that it will take on such a project?
Reuters makes it seem that the U.S. would not even shy away from killing a Russian or Chinese high officer on a visit in a third country. That is, for now, still out of bounds as China and Russia deter the U.S. from such acts with their own might.
Russia and China already had no doubts that the U.S. is immoral and willing to commit war crimes. And while ‘western’ media avoid that characterization for the assassination of Soleimani there is no doubt that it was one.
In a letter to the New York Times the now 100 years old chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials, Benjamin B. Ferencz, warned of the larger effects of such deeds when he writes:
The administration recently announced that, on orders of the president, the United States had “taken out” (which really means “murdered”) an important military leader of a country with which we were not at war. As a Harvard Law School graduate who has written extensively on the subject, I view such immoral action as a clear violation of national and international law.
The public is entitled to know the truth. The United Nations Charter, the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice in The Hague are all being bypassed. In this cyberspace world, young people everywhere are in mortal danger unless we change the hearts and minds of those who seem to prefer war to law.
The killing of a Soleimani will also only have a short term effect when it comes to general deterrence. It was a onetime shot to which others will react. Groups and people who work against ‘U.S. interests’ will now do so less publicly. Countries will seek asymmetric advantages to prevent such U.S. action against themselves. By committing the crime the U.S. and Trump made the global situation for themselves more complicated.