Did the US take out Qassem Soleimani over business as usual, or something much more acute? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has begun laying out the case — in somewhat cryptic terms, necessarily — that the decision to kill Iran’s top commander and virtual #2 regime leader came as a necessity to save American lives from “imminent threats.” That assessment was “intelligence based,” Pompeo told CNN this morning, and the danger was specific to the region:
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the airstrike ordered to kill top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani "saved American lives." Pompeo said earlier this morning the decision to eliminate Soleimani was in response to "imminent threats to American lives." https://t.co/S9VYrZNDv9 pic.twitter.com/RL2eEQfGfq
— CNN (@CNN) January 3, 2020
“I can’t talk too much about the nature of the threats. But the American people should know that the President’s decision to remove Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives,” Pompeo said on CNN’s “New Day” Friday.
Pompeo said Soleimani was “actively plotting” in the region to “take big action, as he described it, that would have put hundreds of lives at risk.”
As CNN host John Berman notes, though, Soleimani has been “actively plotting” in the region for decades. What was so different about yesterday, he asked — and would the attack have taken place in the next few days? Pompeo doesn’t want to get specific, but intelligence agencies involved in the analysis said “the risk of doing nothing was enormous.”
It’s a good question, however, which Pompeo never quite addresses. As Berman allows, no one thinks Soleimani was “a good actor,” but why now? One good answer would have been the attack and siege of the US diplomatic facilities in Baghdad, which almost literally had Soleimani’s signature all over it. That itself is an act of war by a hostile power (whose uniform Soleimani wore to his demise), and is as good a pretext as any. One has to wonder whether Pompeo worries that Congress would force him into an episode of Law & Order to prove it as justification if they use that pretext. Instead, Pompeo’s relying on intelligence assessments that sound oddly like Soleimani was conducting business as usual in the region.
“Business as usual,” of course, being the business of killing Americans. Let’s not lose sight of that fact, nor of the fact that Soleimani wasn’t all that particular about the nationality of the thousands of civilians he’s killed over the years for Tehran.
That led to this somewhat lighter moment in the interview with Berman:
BERMAN: We heard from a French official this morning, putting out a statement saying that the world is less safe following the killing of General Soleimani. And the concern there — no one is saying that General Soleimani was a good actor, he was a bad actor. What they’re suggesting is that the destabilization will create a threatening environment. So when you hear from France that the world is a less safe place this morning, how do you respond to that?
POMPEO: Yeah, well, the French are just wrong about that. The world is a much safer place today. [Laughs] And I can assure you that Americans in the region are much safer today after the demise of Qassem Soleimani.
The risk of destabilization is real, of course, but it’s beyond laughable to think that Soleimani was a force for stabilization. He was the tip of the spear for Iranian destabilization in the region. The Iranians just paid a big price for it — and a long overdue one. The question will be whether the risks can be managed in the near term. Oz Katerji put it best last night:
If you genuinely think that the best situation for world peace is keeping a man who butchered as many civilians as Qassem Soleimani did alive then I suggest your definition of the word peace needs some fine tuning.
— Oz Katerji (@OzKaterji) January 3, 2020