Trump Chooses War

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S1: Hey, everyone, it’s Mary. Today’s show is about what’s unfolding between the U.S. and Iran. What’s happening there? It is moving fast. So I just wanted to flag that. We recorded this conversation on Sunday, late afternoon. OK, here’s the show.

S2: When was the first time you heard about Kassim Suleimani? Oh.

S3: Well, it would have been during the during the Iraq war, I forget exactly when.

S1: Fred Kaplan is Slate’s war stories correspondent.

S4: You know, Generals Petraeus and Mattis, they talked about Suleimani quite a bit. He was sort of the big bugaboo, I think. Mattis was once reported to, you know, they’ve been kind of picturing Suleimani in his dreams and imagining that Suleimani picture to him in his dreams.

S1: I mean, he was he was the bad guy, the bad guy, the leader of Iran’s Cuds Force. He’s dead now. President Trump decided to kill Suleimani outside of the Baghdad airport with a drone strike after a week in which tension between the U.S. and Iran suddenly ratcheted up.

S5: We begin with a high alert at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after protesters launch a dramatic attempt to storm the compound.

S6: The president holding Iran directly responsible for the embassy attack, threatening payback. The assassination marked a significant escalation between Iran and the United States. Tehran’s leadership has threatened severe revenge.

S7: President Trump, there’s all this reporting that Suleimani was killed because his killing was presented on a list of options, a menu of things that the president could do after the U.S. embassy was attacked in Baghdad. And it was put there as kind of like a throw away, like this is the wild card and it makes the other things look more reasonable. Is that even a usual thing for someone to do, for a Pentagon official to do?

S8: It’s been going on for a long time. They call it the Goldilocks option. You present the president with three options. And like one option is war. Another option is surrender. And the third option is what you want the president to do. Right. So, you know, they showed a picture of Soleimani.

S9: Yeah, let’s do that. Unfortunately, what happened here is that the president took war. They took it.

S10: Fred saying the president chose war because that’s exactly what he thinks Trump’s done here, start a war by assassinating a military leader of another country.

S9: As I say that there is a reason why two previous presidents, one of whom was not named Barack Obama, decided not to do this.

S3: It’s not a coincidence that the only other time we have ever done this was when U.S. pilots shot down Admiral Yamamoto, when he was up in his plane during World War Two. And we had been at war with Japan for over a year at that point. It’s the kind of thing that’s a completely legitimate thing to do when you are at war, when you’re not at war. It is not so. We are at war by definition.

S7: Well, you and you’ve written that the fig leaf here is that the United States has declared the Quds Force, which Suleimani was in charge of as a terrorist organization.

S3: But it was also an organization of the Iranian government, no matter what we call it. You might recall that after Trump declared the Quds force to be an international terrorist organization, Iran said, OK, we declare U.S. Central Command to be an international terrorist organization, which is the command that is in charge of U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East. So this means that they could go off and, you know, pop the the commander of central commander, this intelligence chief or anybody.

S9: You’re basically giving license to any country anywhere to assassinate a foreign government head or a high official for whatever reason.

S10: Today on the show, the friends, right? How do we get into this war in the first place? And what could this war look like? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: This war Fred’s talking about. You could say got started a little more than a week ago when Iranian backed militias attacked American forces in Iraq, killing a U.S. civilian contractor. The president retaliated by bombing militia sites and then militia members attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, damaging the property.

S4: Now, that was an opportunity to maybe push forth some diplomacy. But no, in response to that, which, by the way, didn’t kill a single American inside the embassy, didn’t even injuring. And it was that which incited Trump to to kill Suleimani.

S1: Over the years, cussin Suleimani has been described by American officials as truly evil. His Quds Force trained and resourced Iranian fighters all over the Middle East. But Americans have also described Suleimani as pragmatic. While he undoubtedly killed scores of U.S. troops, he would partner with those who shared his interests. Americans relied on his Iranian backed forces to drive ISIS out of Iraq. And even before that, after 9/11. Fred says Suleimani helped the American military target their response to Osama bin Laden to lay money, shared intelligence, because they had a lot of intelligence on Taliban and al-Qaida.

S4: And this relationship continued until George W. Bush in his State of the Union address, pronounced that Iran, Iraq and North Korea were part of an axis of evil.

S11: North Korea has a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.

S12: And then once the United States became engaged in Iraq, the Iran U.S. relationship, of course, it evolved again. And I wonder if you can explain how Suleimani got involved with Iraq as the conflict evolved and how that plays into what happened over the last few days.

S3: Right. Well, you know, when we overthrew Saddam Hussein, a lot of the we should say Saddam Hussein was Sunni and he ran Iraq as a Sunni country.

S12: Iran has a Shia majority country.

S4: Yeah. I mean, Saddam Hussein was a Sunni dictator who is making deals and oppressing the Shiite majority. When he was overthrown, you know, Iran saw a vacuum to move in. There had been an eight year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, which killed more than a million people. The idea of having an opportunity to co-opt or take over Iraq was very much in Iran’s interest. It’s often said that the biggest winner of the Iraq war was, in fact, Iran. And Suleimani was the guy who led up the militias that helped solidify Shia control of Iraq through Shia leaders, prime ministers, ambassadors. And, you know, for example, the the Iranian ambassador to Iraq is a member of Coots force when he is replaced. He just replacement will be a member of Coots for us. They’re all over the region.

S12: You mentioned the militias, these Iranian backed militias in Iraq. And it wasn’t just that they came to power politically in Iraq. It’s that when ISIS began to blossom in Iraq, it was really these Iranian backed militias that helped put that force down.

S4: That’s right. For a few years, both in Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi government, Suleimani and the United States were on the same side. We were all fighting ISIS and Suleimani. Pressure, especially in Iraq, was a very potent force in that fight. And and, of course, listen, when the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015. From that moment until Trump pulled out of it in 2018, there was not one single Iranian strike on an oil tanker on a U.S. military base, really on much of anything. So, you know, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, well, we have with this killing of Suleimani, we have reestablished deterrence of Iran. Well, not really.

S1: Fred says that part of what worries him about suleimani’s killing is that it obliterates a shared history built on diplomacy. Policy is the only way out of a war like this. But the Trump White House isn’t especially diplomatic.

S4: And in fact, we probably have the least experienced, least educated. Most inattentive and indifferent national security team that we have ever seen in United States government for for ages. I can’t even think of a precedent. Hold it. Those are strong where they are strong words. How do you know? How do you know that? Well, look, look around Pompeo. At least in this situation, Pompeo has essentially publicly endorsed regime change in Iran. So he has no credibility in going to Iran with a diplomatic overture. The secretary of defense, Mike Esper, came to the job not long ago, having been a lobbyist for Raytheon. He has no background in policy whatsoever. Defense contractor? Yeah, defense contractor. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brian. He was a hostage negotiator. He has no background or any of this. Meanwhile, over the past couple of years, specialists inside the policy shops of the Pentagon, the State Department, White House staff, they’ve left in droves, either fired or resigned because they’re upset that they have no influence on anymore. So we have nobody in charge of what’s going on, who has dealt with these kinds of issues before. Who has a deep knowledge of the region. And so if you had a different kind of government right now, they would be making overtures through third parties to get the Iran nuclear deal back on the table. But you’re saying he doesn’t have the people to do doesn’t have the people. And I don’t think he has the inclination. What we are in now is a really dangerous moment because. One reason Trump did this. Killed Suleimani was said he was upset that some people viewed his failure or his refusal to take military action in retaliation to other things Iran had done as weak. So he didn’t want to look weak anymore. So this was going to make him look strong. And now if he backs off, he’s afraid he looks weak. If the Iran they’ve just had the second most important man in their country murdered, assassinated. Assassination is not an illegitimate term to use here, assassinated by the United States, people out in the streets. They’re not going to back down because that’ll make them look weak. So we have a situation where escalation is something very hard to avoid and where both sides fear of appearing weak is driving us both in that direction.

S7: I mean, the Trump administration has said that they killed Suleimani because there was an imminent attack plan. This was a preventative measure. What evidence do we have of that?

S3: Well, none is yet. But, you know, let’s let’s let’s say there is evidence. Let’s say it’s true. It was going to happen. How does killing, stealing money wreck that Sillett money? It’s not. You know, when when Osama bin Laden was killed for at least a little while, al-Qaida fell apart. The whole thing was hinging on bin Laden. Coulds has he had listened? Silliman, his deputy, took over the organization three hours after he was pronounced dead. There was a bureaucracy. Yeah, there there’s a there’s a command. He wasn’t going to personally carry out all these attacks. He has guys. He has other generals and colonels, lieutenants in all of these places that we’re going to carry out the mission. If it really was a planned deal, if it was planned, then it’s still planned.

S4: But the second is there have been reports that, you know, there was just the thinnest evidence for this, that there was I mean, that there’s always something vaguely about about Quds Force planning operations. That’s what they do. That’s what they do. And according to what I’ve read anyway, people on the inside are saying that there wasn’t really anything so different about that day. Then there was the day before or the week before or the month before.

S1: Over the weekend, Iraqi prime minister said that Customs Suleimani had come to Baghdad to discuss ways to de-escalate tensions in the region. Instead, he was killed, which leaves Fred with this question Who do you believe this is where Trump has gotten himself into another problem?

S4: One thing that happens when you lie to everybody all the time is that let’s say that this is true.

S3: Now, if you need people to believe you when it’s really true, there might not believe you. Good guy, I think. Pompeo said in an interview that he’s he’s not getting as much support from the Europeans as he’d hoped. Well, when you diss the Europeans every other day, when you decry NATO, when you impose sanctions on them for continuing to trade with Iran, which was part of a condition of an international treaty that they had signed, and that is now codified as a U.N. Security Council resolution.

S4: Well, you shouldn’t be too surprised if they’re are going to be a little hesitant about continuing an operation that was required, that that was launched by a president’s whim of something that he wanted to do, that we now know all of his advisors were a little skittish about.

S7: One such as that with this history. Right. I mean, they also remember Colin Powell saying that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

S4: And Powell was kind of hoodwinked himself. You know, there’s the story during the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know, we had these U-2 photographs of the Russians setting up missiles, medium range missiles in Cuba. And Kennedy had his ambassadors showing copies of these tapes so that they know what we were doing. And when the French ambassador went to President de Gaulle, who was not that wild about the United States, in fact, there was a more enormous amount of distrust on a lot of issues between Kennedy and de Gaulle. You start showing them the pictures. And de Gaulle says the president of France has no reason to distrust the president of the United States. It’s just it. Of course, if you say this, we’re with you. We believe you. Something this important. We’re not in that position any longer.

S1: We recorded this interview on Sunday. At the time, President Trump was continuing to threaten Iran on Twitter. And then we got news that Iran was planning to take one more step to back away from the nuclear deal that negotiated under President Obama. Fred says that announcement, in a way, it makes sense.

S4: If I were a. Government leader of Iran right now. I would want to get a nuclear weapon as fast as possible. And if I were Kim Jong un head of North Korea, I would say, see how smart I am for not giving up my nuclear weapons? Because, look, they all look around the world. You know, Libya. Gadhafi gets rid of his nuclear weapons. Next thing he knows, he’s dead. Iran. You know, they were abiding by the nuclear deal. They were dismantling their nuclear infrastructure. Trump pulls out of the deal anyway. If you have nuclear weapons, Kim Jong un is your best friend, your your your lovers. You know, you write beautiful letters to each other. You know, one thing that that you have when you have nuclear weapons is a little deterrent against another country doing something bad against you. Okay. And yeah. No, not this. Anybody who has a problem with the United States is is thinking about getting a pocket full of nukes right now.

S12: The other thing that happened today on Sunday is that, you know, we’ve been talking about ISIS and how they are one of our clearest enemies in the region. And in the wake of this attack, the United States has said they’re suspending our fight against ISIS in order to simply protect ourselves. Yeah, because, you know, of course, Iran has spoken about countermeasures.

S4: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, you know, it’s it’s kind of interesting. Pompeo says, oh, yes, we’ve reestablished deterrence. Well, no, not if you have to bring in 4000 extra people to defend your own people. And you also have to kill every American in Iraq to get out as quickly as possible. And the embassy is also evacuating all nonessential personnel. That’s not reestablishing deterrence.

S7: Right. And we should talk about Iraq because, of course, this attack happened in Iraq. Iraq has been caught between the United States and Iran for years now. And they just announced they want to kick all of the United States military forces out of the country.

S4: Parliament voted to do that Sunday morning. It still has to be signed by the prime minister. And then there will be some, you know, the treaty that we have with them right now, allowing forces. It says that they can be kicked out with I think it’s six months notice or something like that. But no, they are not welcome in Iraq right now. Iraq has been in this awkward position of having to patrons United States and Iran depending on both of them, for their own stability in a way against ISIS and against other possible enemies of aid, military training, all kinds of things. But Iran is right next door. And, you know, the the really tragic thing about this is that Iraqis were starting to protest against excessive Iranian influence. There were marches in the streets of Baghdad and all over southern Iraq against Iran. There were also protests going on in Iran, massive street protests with the first that we’ve seen of this sort in years against economic policies of the Iranian government with this one move. Trump has solidified the Iranian people behind their own government. I mean, you know, in 1953, which sounds like a long time ago, but in the Iranian consciousness, it’s yesterday, their last freely elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, was overthrown in a coup by the CIA and British intelligence because he was about to nationalize oil companies in Iran. And ever since then, Iran has had Iranians have had a serious allergy against any kind of foreign interference. They many Iranian people despise the regime. But if their regime is threatened by an outside force, they will rally behind the regime.

S12: You said that the Trump administration just doesn’t have anyone in House who could calm the current situation down. Someone from a diplomatic corps who could maybe say, OK, well, let’s open up another nuclear agreement now. But what would that be? What would that look like? What would it take to de-escalate at this point?

S4: Well, no American has ever spoken with Ayatollah Khomeini. Never. So it’s always through intermediaries, Zarif, you know, drudgery. The foreign minister. Yes. Rouhani, the president. Yes. Somebody some kind of trusted intermediary, because the Americans right now are completely untrusted, would have to go to them and say, okay, look, we need to settle this thing down. We need. Commonness down. You know, you’ve done some things that went too far, we’ve done something we need to de-escalate. You know, there used to be before there were decisions made like this big National Security Council meetings where everybody comes from, the different agencies, they go into the implications. You know, people made fun of Obama for having like nine NSC meetings on what to do about Afghanistan. Well, now we know why people are careful about this kind of thing. You don’t make a decision like this on impulse. And I think especially with Trump, if past this precedent, he did so without any strategic notion.

S13: He has this idea that a big show of force makes people buckle. And, you know, there’s there’s very little evidence for that.

S14: Fred Kaplan, thank you so much for joining me. Sharp.

S15: Fred Kaplan is Slate’s war stories correspondent. He’s got a book coming out this month. It’s called The Bomb Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War. One more note before we go. After we recorded this interview, we got some clarification about Iran’s announcement in regards to its nuclear deal. In a statement, Iran’s government actually said they would continue to cooperate with International Atomic Agency and return to the nuclear deal itself. If sanctions against Iran were lifted. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson. Daniel Hewitt and today, especially over the weekend by Jason De Leon and Maurice Silvers. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.