The president often exaggerates his threats. But not always. From New Year’s Eve:

They paid a very big price. The most dangerous man in the world is dead, or so says Iraqi state TV:

Iraqi state television reported Friday that the powerful commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, was killed in a strike on the Baghdad International Airport early Friday.

Iranian and American officials have not confirmed the death of General Suleimani.

The strike killed five people, including the pro-Iranian chief of an umbrella group for Iraqi militias, Iraqi television reported and militia officials confirmed. The militia chief, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was a strongly pro-Iranian figure.

That’s not all:

Hezbollah’s media is now confirming Soleimani’s death as well. If the name sounds unfamiliar, this New Yorker profile from 2013 covers all the bases. As head of the Quds Force, he was the most influential Shiite terrorist commander in the world, the person responsible for managing Iran’s proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. He was the tip of the spear of Shiite fundamentalism, the mastermind for exporting Iran’s revolution through military and paramilitary means, be it conventional warfare, assassinations, terrorist bombings, or what have you. He was also almost certainly the second most powerful figure in Iran behind only Khamenei. I’m tempted to compare his death to the death of Yamamoto in World War II but I think maybe that sells Soleimani short. Not even Yamamoto was as singular a figure in the Japanese military command as Soleimani was in Iran.

He died with the blood of many, including many American soldiers, on his hands. He got what he deserved.

But.

This is a baffling escalation by a president in Trump who’s bent over backwards to signal to Iran that he wants diplomacy, not war. He declined to retaliate when they knocked down an American drone, claiming that it wouldn’t be right to kill Iranian troops for an act in which no American died. When he bombed Iran’s boy Assad early in his presidency, he restricted himself to token airstrikes just to send a message about U.S. red lines. He’s met with Kim Jong Un personally three times in the interest of avoiding war with Korea, and he’s been itching to withdraw American troops from Syria and Afghanistan to end American casualties there once and for all. To turn around and liquidate Soleimani is so mind-bendingly extreme an escalation that I half-wonder if it was an accident — that is, if al-Muhandis was the target of the airstrike and the U.S. didn’t realize until later that Soleimani had been with him.

But that’s hard to believe. Surely U.S. intel would have been mindful of the risk that Soleimani and al-Muhandis were traveling together. And the details in this AP story make it sound like the U.S. knew exactly what it was doing:

A senior Iraqi politician and a high-level security official confirmed to the Associated Press that Soleimani and al-Muhandis were among those killed in the attack. Two militia leaders loyal to Iran also confirmed the deaths, including an official with the Kataeb Hezbollah, which was involved in the attack on the U.S. Embassy this week.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Muhandis had arrived to the airport in a convoy to receive Soleimani whose plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria. The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all.

Soleimani surely never imagined that he’d be targeted personally. Bush wouldn’t do it. Neither would Obama, knowing the potential consequences. What Trump did here really does risk war in more than one theater, the very thing he’s spent three years trying to avoid. Experts are fretting about possible retaliatory strikes on Israel as soon as this evening. The Saudis will likely be targeted too. American troops in Iraq may get the worst of it. If there are Iranian terror cells operating in the west, which seems likely, some of them may be activated for reprisal strikes closer to home. Trump, the least militarily aggressive president of the past 20 years, surely was briefed on all of this. And now, by targeting Soleimani, he’s risked the most dangerous and unpredictable confrontation in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq. I don’t understand it. If the idea was to show strength and emphasize that the U.S. won’t be pushed around by militia thugs in its own embassies, he made that point in the boldest conceivable way — but now he’s likely to spend the rest of his term managing the fallout. What is he prepared to do if American troops start getting hit all over Baghdad? What is he prepared to do if the Iraqi government, under intense pressure from its Shiite population to respond, demands complete withdrawal of U.S. forces and the embassy is overrun?

I don’t think Yashar Ali is being alarmist about this:

https://twitter.com/yashar/status/1212913373005807616

At the barest minimum, Trump’s hopes for diplomacy with Tehran are as dead as Soleimani is, possibly for the duration of his presidency even if he wins a second term. I would have guessed that he’d be even more reluctant than usual to escalate with Iran at a moment when North Korea is turning more aggressive again. If a crisis in the Far East is looming, better to avoid a crisis in the Middle East if possible. The embassy situation last week complicated that, but it didn’t complicate it so much that anyone expected him to decapitate the head of Iran’s terrorist apparatus. I hope he and U.S. intelligence have thought five moves ahead, because a lot of moves are about to be made. Hoo boy.

Update: A picture says a thousand words.

Update: The president’s first comment after the strike is straightforward.

Update: Iran is gathering itself.