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You can’t just drone strike the bad guys

| Wednesday, January 15, 2020

One of President Trump’s major campaign promises was an end to prolonged conflicts in the Middle East. “I’m the guy that didn’t want to go to war,” he said in 2016, and his anti-deployment stance likely won him the votes of those living in counties with high military casualty rates.

For a while the president seemed to be making good on that promise in his own, sloppy way. He pulled U.S. troops out of Syria, citing his desire to end involvement in “intense fighting along the Turkish border,” and to ignore “those who mistakenly got us into the Middle East wars.” Ignoring the fact that the Syria pullout was one of the most poorly thought out and dangerous security decisions in Trump’s presidency, it did appear as though the president was making an honest effort to reduce American involvement in active conflicts.

That all changed when Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassim Soleimani two weeks ago.

In news that should shock absolutely no one who has been following this presidency, Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani stunned Pentagon officials, who had included such an extreme option to make their other strategies for Iran more palatable. The option to kill Soleimani was available to both Presidents Bush and Obama, yet neither one of them seriously considered doing so, as it was clear the costs would outweigh the benefits.

Don’t get me wrong, Soleimani was a bad guy. But we don’t just drone strike all the bad guys around the world. Doing so would lead to intense retaliation, and the fear is that this could lead to another war, the very thing Trump claimed he wanted to avoid.

While Twitter’s fears of World War III are likely overblown, there is real danger here. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani puts Americans abroad at risk, particularly those in embassies, and Iran has already launched missiles at American troops stationed in Iraq. Fortunately, no one was killed, as it was simply meant to be a show of force. Symbolic gestures, however, can have huge implications for national security.

Iran has abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal and now recognizes no limitations on uranium enrichment, Iraqi lawmakers have voted to expel American troops from the country and the Iranian Foreign Minister has declared the strike an act of war that requires a response.

All of these gestures are dangerous. They put American lives and international security at risk, and will greatly impact how the U.S. is able to operate in the Middle East in the future. Already, the U.S.-led coalition in Syria responsible for fighting ISIS has halted its activities out of fear of an Iranian attack. The worry is not another world war, but that these escalating symbolic gestures will force the U.S. to respond.

Perhaps Trump can avoid another endless war in the Middle East, but he may not be able to avoid endless, competing shows of strength.

Faced with this reality, one would assume that President Trump would attempt to de-escalate the situation. Instead, he has threatened to bomb 52 sites in Iran, some of which he claimed were “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” implying that some of them may be cultural sites. He then told reporters, “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people, and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

Fortunately, it does work that way. Purposely attacking cultural sites is, of course, a war crime. It’s unlikely that Trump would ever be able to get away with bombing cultural sites, but the fact that he threatened to do so goes a long way towards increasing tension in an already dangerously tense situation.

With the killing of Soleimani, Trump has displayed a staggering level of ignorance when it comes to foreign policy. He has put the lives of American troops at risk, jeopardized the fight against terrorism abroad, and has threatened international nuclear security in one fell swoop. Perhaps worst of all, he has been unable to offer a good reason for doing so.

The first explanation the administration was able to come up with was the vague notion of an “imminent attack” orchestrated by Soleimani. After it became clear that such an ambiguous justification wasn’t going to appease his critics, Trump claimed that Soleimani was planning to blow up an American embassy. Later, he claimed it was actually multiple embassies in other countries. He then claimed it was exactly four embassies.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper then revealed on CBS that he had not reviewed any evidence pointing to the idea that Soleimani was planning to attack an embassy, and several lawmakers have stated that there was no mention of an imminent attack on an American embassy in the briefing they received last Wednesday.

Reacting to the criticism over his vague justifications, Trump tweeted that his reasoning for the strike “doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”

This sentiment, of course, is representative of the heart and soul of the Trump presidency. Trump has endangered the lives of many, jeopardized national and international security and has been completely unable to communicate to the public in clear terms why he has done so. But, he says, it doesn’t matter why he did it because we got the bad guy.

Unfortunately for the president, foreign policy isn’t always about getting the bad guy. Sometimes, we let the bad guys live so that we can pursue greater, more important goals other than vengeance. Unsurprisingly, this political nuance appears to have gone over Trump’s head.

It doesn’t really matter,” he said. And for once, I hope he’s right.

Mary Szromba is a senior majoring in philosophy and political science, and she’s never been wrong about anything in her entire life. Questions, comments and anonymous love letters can be directed to [email protected] or @_murrrrrr on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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