For all the righteous uproar it produced and the consequences still unfolding, in a way the killing of Iranian Major General Qassim Suleimani this month was business as usual. A longtime foe of America, Suleimani was killed by a Hellfire missile from a Reaper drone, like countless Al Qaeda terrorists, Taliban leaders, and other militants. Traveling to Iraq from Syria, Suleimani probably didn’t even require the full exertions of America’s vast intelligence and special operations manhunting machine. His death by drone was far more mundane than the Hollywood raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Only the Iranian response—a casualty-free retaliatory missile strike—was new.
Suleimani’s killing, in its operational impact and its potential ramifications, will almost certainly be “bigger than bin Laden.” But the best-case scenario is that it will be equally meaningless. Bin Laden’s death was not part of any realistic strategy to “defeat terrorism”—it was simply a high-profile tactical success. Suleimani’s death is part of the same problem: An American “strategy” that, despite decades of effort, thousands of American lives, and trillions of dollars, has achieved next to nothing of worth in the Middle East.
The White House’s justification, that Suleimani was an imminent threat to Americans in Iraq, sounds dubious. No real evidence has yet been put forward to support this claim. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whilst doing the “full Ginsburg” of all five major talk shows, quickly shifted to rote denunciations of Suleimani, Iran, and even the Obama Administration. No one has made a realistic case for how killing Suleimani will moderate Iranian behavior.
Instead of having an adult conversation about ways, ends, and means, the Trump administration gave Americans hollow moralizing and adolescent chest-beating about “taking a bad guy off the battlefield.” But revenge, as others have noted, is not a strategy. Neither is attriting enemy leaders.