Starting a War

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S1: The following recording may contain explicit language I can’t get more explicit than May with literal say it may.

S2: It’s Friday, January 3rd from Slate, it’s the gist. I’m Mike PESCA. The U.S. took out the leader of the Quds Force, which could force the US into war. They might think that a racing the head of a group that spreads violence and mayhem throughout the world is a blow for good. Well, yesterday it was maybe. Today it is.

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S1: But what about tomorrow? The president reflecting on this, I suppose, as best he can, said this. We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war. Well, that’s not a unilateral decision. If the Japanese set off their Pearl Harbor, but don’t consider that an act of war, I do not think we’d have taken their suggestion. Donald Trump, who, by the way, I really do think he wants to avoid war and who has been consistent in his intention, if not his execution of that goal, did commit what has to be considered an act of war. And the people who get to make that determination are not the people who commit the act of war. Let us realize that the United States designated the Iranian National Guard as terrorists, meaning that the U.S. has to itself. The legal framework to claim that this was anti-terrorist policing, that it wasn’t war. But again, the ones who strike at the terrorists are not the ones who get to determine how the affected party sees or perceives that strike. The mantra of the administration, this administration has always been whatever Obama did. Let’s do the opposite. Came to pass here. Obama did not assassinate Suleimani. Nor did Bush, nor did Clinton. You know, he’s been in charge of the Cuds forces for 20 years. Donald Trump did not even know what the Cuds forces were four years ago. Recall this 2015 interview with Hugh Hewitt. Are you familiar with General Suleimani?

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S3: Yes, I. Go ahead. Give me a little. Go ahead. Tell me.

S4: Well, he runs the Quds Forces. Yes. OK. Right.

S3: Do you expect to be you, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by us?

S4: No, not the courage that the coulds forces. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, kujo forces, the bad guys. Do you expect his behavior to change? You heard Scurr. No, I’m telling you, I thought you said goatherds.

S1: Oh, the Kurds, not the Kurds. No, no. The Kurds are gradually sold out to help the leader of Turkey, who Donald Trump is doing business with the coulds. That’s the Iranian National Guard who, by the way, Donald Trump probably did a little business with in a deal in Baku. That’s actually true on the record. Little remembered, little remembered or little realize.. translated into Latin. Actually try to translate it wrong and steal it from some redit channel. That should be the motto of this administration. It is fair to wonder if this huge, provocative, dangerous action on the international stage is just another personal fit of pique. However, it’s one that could end in bodies, not in tweets that will all be covered in my spiel. We will in fact spend the entire show talking about this strike on Sulaimani. The possible reactions of the Iranians and what comes next.

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S5: So first off, I called foreign affairs and military reporter Fred Kaplan, the great Fred Kaplan, who has been covering the Middle East since before Donald Trump knew a could from a Kurd.

S6: No one better to talk about these issues than our own Fred Kaplan, who writes the War Stories column for Slate. Hello, Fred. Hi, Mike. Let’s just I’ll ask you this. I’ll start by asking you this. What would a war with Iran look like?

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S7: Oh, man. Well, I mean, it would be a disaster. You know, Iraq. Remember, Iraq was going to be a cakewalk, right? I think in November, for four months before six months before the war began, Donald Rumsfeld, secretary defense, said, well, it might take five days, five weeks, five months, certainly no more than that. And, you know, it took nine years. Iran is three times the size of Iraq with three times the population and a much more urban, educated, well-armed population to boot. And, you know, I think we’re probably about to get kicked out of Iraq. So we won’t have very many land bases. We could fire missiles and shells from nearby aircraft carriers. But, you know, that doesn’t really win a war at some point. I can’t think of very many wars where you don’t have to go in on the ground at some point. And I just you know, I mean, we’re talking about a disaster beyond beyond measure, I’d say, especially since, you know, even with Vietnam at the beginning, there was wide support for that war among the American people because, you know, we all bought the line that these were communists and agents of Moscow or Peking and we’d won every other war. So how could we lose this one? I don’t think we we’d suffer those kinds of illusions going into a war.

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S6: Pier Yeah. And the Islamic Iranian ground forces have 350000 active troops. That is a top five army. But what if the United States wants to avoid a full long conflict? What sort of counter strikes at minimum should the United States or its allies anticipate?

S8: Well, I mean, I hope they don’t anticipate anything. I mean, it would be insane. I think, you know, one question that I asked in my column is, where did Donald Trump think this was going? What did he have it as an endgame or was this just an impulsive move? My guess and this is a charitable guess is that he didn’t understand. And it’s appalling that nobody told him that the simple act of assassinating this guy who, you know, is not a freelance terrorist, he was, you know, the most important high ranking officer in the Iranian army, probably the second most important person in Iranian politics and culture and society. You don’t kill a guy like this unless you’re at war with the country that he’s from. So the act of killing him is, in fact, an act of war, whether he intended it as such. And I have no reason I would be shocked if the Iranians behaved in a way that, you know, suggests they were just willing to let it coast and not do anything about. It seems extremely unlikely. And so I think that Trump might have gotten into something that he didn’t realize she was getting into. I noticed today that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in his conversation with a Russian official that that, you know, the strategy is now de-escalation. Well, it’s a little late for that, Mike. You know, you’ve already escalated this thing beyond anything that I can even think of in recent history. I cannot think of any instance when the United States or very many other countries had killed, deliberately killed a senior officer of an actual country that we weren’t officially at war with. I mean, this you know, it goes beyond a disproportionate counterstrike to what the Iranians had done to just massive escalation of what was already a tense situation.

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S6: So that’s interesting to me. And it makes me think that when the United States designated the Kurds forces as a terrorist organization, it may have given the United States a legal justification for this killing as they define it. But it also I think what you’re saying is it also perhaps in the minds of decision makers, misidentified them because we can call them a terrorist organization. But if the Iranians think of themselves and they think of him as the proper military commander, we have done just what you said. The United States has just killed a proper military commander. They’re not going by our definition, that it’s not a proper military commander.

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S8: That’s right. And you might recall that after we designated QJ force as a terrorist outfit, terrorist organization, the Iranians declared U.S. Central Command to be a terrorist organization. So I know from their point of view that the corridor is now open for them to go around assassinating, you know, the commander of CENTCOM or, you know, the CIA station chief, or I mean, if you look at a guy like SEAL, the thing to emphasize about stealing money, he really has no counterpart in any Western establishment that I can think of. He would if killing Suleimani would be sort of like, you know, in the early stages of the Iraq war if the Iranians had assassinated General Petraeus, General Mattis, the commander of Special Operations Command and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And even that kind of understates it because Suleimani also had this sort of religious status. You know, this is an iconic figure among Shiites, not just in Iran, but really throughout the Shiite Muslim world in that part of the world. I mean, you know, he he basically is the architect of Iran’s expansionist foreign policy. He created and still controlled ran Iranian backed militias in Iraq, Libya, Gaza, Afghanistan. The Iranian ambassador to Baghdad is a member of the Quds Force and whoever is his successor will be. He was also a member of the Quds Force. So, you know, we were kind of kidding ourselves in saying, well, this this organization is just like al-Qaeda or something like that. It’s you know, it’s. I mean, look, they did he. He’s an evil guy. He was monsters. He. There are many people in the Middle East right now who are relieved that this guy’s dead.

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S9: But there are also many who are very angry and will be incited to to take counter measures. And, you know, the ayatollah himself, the supreme leader, said that we will. That he will be engaging in swift and brutal retaliation.

S6: Well, they may be relieved that he’s dead, but that’s not the same as saying there were relieved because the malevolence of the coulds, forces or indeed the Iranian military, Hezbollah, all their ancillary terrorist organizations they fund, they won’t be going away. I mean, earlier in the interview, you said it’s not like assassinating the a terrorist, a freelancing head of a terrorist organization. But of course, if a freelance head of a terrorist organization is assassinated, that terrorist organization is often brought to its knees. I wonder if that’s the case. He might have been a malevolent guy, but this is a military. There are. Yeah. Next, people in line to take his role more so than the second or third in charge of al-Qaida would have been able to have Osama bin Laden’s shoes.

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S10: Absolutely. His deputy was appointed to be a successor within a few hours of his killing. All of the militias that he. Of which he was the commander have their own commanders, very hard core, capable, dedicated soldiers.

S8: You see, that’s as well. I’m wondering, what did Trump think would happen? It’s not like the regime will be brought down to it will be brought to its knees or that all of a sudden all the the anti-regime forces in Iran, there are many, you know, look at the demonstrations that that have just been occurring in the last month or so.

S10: They’re not going to say, OK. Now is our time to to take over the government or if they do, they’re going to they’re not going to have a very good day. You know, there there are these theories about decapitation. You know, get rid of the leader in the whole structure falls apart. And as you say, you know, for for a little while, when when bin Laden was killed, al-Qaida was was kind of like a chicken running around with IEDs. But that is not the case. These are highly structured organizations. And while he was a very Sooliman, he was a very charismatic leader. He was a leader of a very taut organization.

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S6: So you have many contacts who are generals and you wrote a book about and with large cooperation from David Petraeus. You know, Suleimani has been on the scene for years. What was up waiting past leaders from taking this action?

S8: Exactly what is likely to happen now? You know, he. Yeah, he is. Suleimani has been had been travelling around the Middle East openly. He wasn’t surround. He wasn’t armed. He walked the streets and we had him in his sight, in our sights. We knew what he was doing. We knew where he was going. This isn’t some new intelligence source where, oh, he’s at Baghdad Airport. We have an opening weekend, an opening for a long time. And it was considered because, you know, he during the Iraq war, he he and his guys probably were responsible for a couple of hundred American deaths. And you know, the commanders. I mean, Petraeus, Mattis. I mean, these people I mean, they hated Suleimani. He was he was evil incarnate. He was the personification of the enemy. But, you know, they all, when consulted about it, said, no, probably not a good idea to assassinate him for for the obvious reasons that, A, we are not at war with Iran and he is an Iranian top official and that doing something like this can lead to serious blowback.

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S6: What do you think this means for Iraq?

S8: Well, I mean, Iraq, we put them in a horrible situation like Iraq is right next door to Iran.

S9: Ever since Saddam Hussein was overthrown, Iraq has been subject to enormous Iranian influence. The Shiites and the Shiites have been in charge of the government and Iranian agents are within the Iraqi government. And that’s just the way it is. At the same time, they’re also eager to please the United States. They have two patrons.

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S8: And on, you know, on some issues, for example, in fighting ISIS, the United States, Iraq, Iran, including the Quds Force, had identical interests. And the Quds Force were very effective in driving. And that’s kind of the main force in driving ISIS out of Iraq. But you know that we have conflicting interests as well. And killing a guy like Suleimani on Iraqi soil and by the way, also killing the head of the local Hezbollah organization who is an Iraqi.

S9: So doing that on Iraqi soil without Iraq’s consent or notification right after the storming of the U.S. embassy, which where then the siege was lifted only after the Iraqi prime minister promised they Hezbollah unit that that he would push parliament to consider a motion to kick United States forces out of the country. That is almost certainly going to happen now. I don’t see how any Iraqi politician who wants to hang on to power can ignore this, can so alienate the Iranians, or it can even keep respecting the United States that the chief of the armed forces of the Iraqi military not not crude’s or not not Hezbollah, but the Iraqi military called this act stabbed in the back. And, you know, from the most purely logistical standpoint, we want to do military operations against Iran and we don’t have any bases in Iraq. It’s going to be hard. And also Iraq. You know, Iraq had just become slightly stabilized. There were massive protests in Iraq against excessive Iranian influence in Iraq. There were also protests going on in Iran among mainly city dwellers, you know, protesting horrible economic policy and repression of Iran. Iran was kind of on the run and now we have actually bolstered the regime’s strength. One thing about Iran. Iranians, they don’t they detest the regime. Many of them to test the regime, but they detest even more foreign interference. You know, dating back to 1953 when the CIA and British intelligence serving U.S. and British oil interests overthrew Mohammad Mossadeq, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran who wanted to nationalize the oil industries. Ever since that happened, the Iranians have been allergic to any kind of foreign interference. And we’ve sort of screwed this up. We we had we had been, you know, among the Iranian people, among especially younger people in Tehran. Very pro-American. The people that this is almost certain to to rebound against our benefit in loads of ways politically, militarily, socially. And, you know, the other thing is, you know, Trump has alienated all of our allies. We’re not going to be able to draw on any allies in a conflict of this sort. They they they don’t they they distrust Trump to begin with. And this was an action that was not motivated by anything. This was instigated by the United States. And the other thing is, especially the European countries and Russia and China are still upset with Trump’s backing out of the Iran nuclear deal. Re-imposing sanctions on Iran and imposing sanctions on any other country that does business with Iran, even those who had signed the Iran nuclear deal, which obligated them to open up business with Iran. None of this would have happened if Trump hadn’t. Withdrawn from the Iran nuclear treaty, so all the countries that we usually rely on to at least pay us lip service of support for conflicts in the Middle East are not going to be on our side with this one.

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S6: Fred Kaplan is the author of the War Stories column on Slate and is the author of the forthcoming book The Bomb Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War.

S11: Thank you, Fred. Thanks.

S1: And now the schpiel a U.S. drone killed the most malevolent man in Iran last night. And before you say good. There goes a bad, bad actor. Consider this. Is it worth a war? George W. Bush didn’t think so. Obama didn’t think so. Apparently, Trump thinks so. Or this is the troubling thing. Maybe he doesn’t think maybe he just gave in to a violent spasm in the moment. I will make this vow when I courage you to do something similar to not to come to conclusions before there are facts. It is. I know this intellectually. It is possible. It is plausible that this will be seen as an effective strike at a deserving target. That’s true. That’ll be worth the blowback. That’s possible. I will not conclude it’s impossible. But I, like you, I think cannot separate the act even if smart and careful generals planned it. I cannot separate the act from the man who ultimately approved it. This isn’t an ad hominem critique. This isn’t saying, oh, it’s wrong because Trump did it. This isn’t saying if Obama had done it, I’d support it, because you have to realize Obama didn’t do it and could have done it, but didn’t do it for a reason. He thought that the upside of taking out KSM Suleimani wasn’t worth the downside. That is literally what we call a calculation. Given Donald Trump’s history, I don’t think we could confidently say that what was going on should be seen as a calculation, which is you do planning, you take into account consequences. That is not the Donald Trump way. The Donald Trump way is to create chaos and figure it out later and usually mock those who fret over details. That is his stock in trade. As much as that doesn’t work and has terrible consequences on domestic policy, not just consequences for the rest of us, consequences for him too, which is shown in unwinnable trade wars and broken promises to bring back coal mining jobs on the international stage with military actions, the consequences can be staggering. Think of it this way all those substance less and ultimately ignored infrastructure weeks when they pile up. It’s like an embarrassing stack of cordwood. Bullough piles up after a military strike is not embarrassment or items on the ledger of failure. What piles up is bodies and not only theirs, but potentially ours. The big reason that the what if Obama did it rubric doesn’t apply is that it is not for a second fare to consider this thought to have considered this thought. Huh? I wonder if Barack Obama chose to strike a foreign leader because Barack Obama’s one time aide could testify in an impeachment trial against Barack Obama? No reasonable person would have thought that. No reasonable person would say, well, maybe Barack Obama is attacking Iran, because Barack Obama clearly has demonstrated that he has personal business dealings with the Saudis, who are Iran’s biggest rival. No reasonable person could possibly say that Barack Obama only did this to win an election. Remember, no reasonable person.

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S12: Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate, to start a war in order to get elected. And I believe that’s going to happen would be an outrage.

S1: Again, my point in listening these explanations for Trump’s actions, other than just to say, well, he forthrightly believed that this was the best course of action for the country. It’s not to suggest that, oh, these might be his motivations. It’s not exactly to try to convince you that these were his motivations. What he’s trying to do is to explain why it’s not an apt comparison that there’s so much more going on with Trump and also so much less in terms of due diligence and care with Trump. It is actually irrational to ever give him the benefit of the doubt. You should give him the debit of the doubt, the detriment of the doubt. So I will wait. I will see how this all plays out. I will not overreact to theories explaining why Donald Trump did this series that rest entirely on the president’s nefarious motivations or distractibility, nefarious and distractable, though he may be. And I would hope that not just the Democrats, but a lot of Republicans in Congress who value their constitutional role will hold the president to account. This is not about checking the president to thwart his agenda or to send a message or to win politically. It’s about assessing some modicum of oversight with a dangerous self dealer or if you just want to say it this way. It’s about expressing a modicum of oversight with any president. And maybe, maybe that’s the phrasing that will rouse Senators Graham or Romney or Grassley to do their jobs. One last thing. The president gave a speech reading from a teleprompter. This followed on his pixellated flag message. But soon he’ll begin freelancing some from the gut explanations and those will be filled, imbued with his trademark ignorance and bellicosity, and it will provoke potential escalation. But what I’m going to do is properly contextualize those inevitable, embarrassing statements as strange and unhelpful and sadly typical. But I will not obsess over them that Trump’s poor habits of mind and management are definitely going to do more effort. It is a delicate time. It is fair to have less than total faith in the decisions our government is making. But it doesn’t help if we, as the citizens are quick to judge, are quick to anger, and are quick to lash out. I guess leave that to the leaders who got us here.

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S13: And that’s it for today’s show. The Gist was produced by Daniel Shrader, who when he was a boy, his father, like many other farmers, took out an agricultural loan from the government of the Shah. He owed nine hundred toman about one hundred dollars at the time, and Tanya’s father couldn’t pay back the gist.

S1: Oh, Cuds, not Kurds. The Kurds. I want to strike out decisively and wipe from the earth. The Kurds. I’m happy with passively emboldening their enemies in a more gradual wiping from the earth.

S13: Huge difference. Were desperate to Peru. And thanks for listening.