The Suleimani assassination: Not a retaliation but an act of war

The Suleimani assassination: Not a retaliation but an act of war

By Chas Freeman

January 4, 2020

This was not a retaliation, as claimed, but the pre-planned exploitation of a pretext to assassinate a foreign official designated as an enemy as well as the commander of an Iraqi militia hostile to the United States.

It was an act of war that will inevitably evoke reprisal. Iran has already promised that it will exact “savage” retribution for the murder of a senior official of its government by the United States.

Major General Qasim Suleimani was the equivalent of the U.S. national security adviser or the commanders of CENTCOM, SOCOM, and SOCCENT. All are now potential Iranian targets.

In Iraq itself, the followers of Abu Mahdi (Al Muhandis) in Kataeb Hezbollah will seek their own revenge. The fact that they are part of the Iraqi national security establishment and armed forces is not irrelevant.

The Iraqi government, already under pressure to expel U.S. forces from their country, may now find it politically impossible not to do so. Kataeb Hezbollah is likely to be joined in its campaign against U.S. forces and officials in Iraq by other patriotic militias, including some historically hostile to both it and Iran.

The Iranian government seldom makes decisions in haste. It is the heir to one of the world’s longest and greatest traditions of politico-military statecraft. It will make considered judgments as it calculates the appropriate asymmetric responses. If Tehran miscalculates, which is a very real possibility, the now open but low-intensity warfare between the United States and Iran will escalate.

Those who, like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and former U.S..national security adviser John Bolton, have long sought a war with Iran will get one. So will everyone else.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the timing of the attack was dictated by the turmoil in American domestic politics.

It was preceded by three air strikes on elements of Kataeb Hezbollah for the death of a civilian contractor in Kirkuk. None of these air strikes was anywhere near Kirkuk. They bore the marks of a pre-planned operation looking for a pretext to launch.

Just so with the assassination of General Suleimani and Commander Abu Mahdi (whose sobriquet is “Al Muhandis / the Engineer”). The charge that these two were planning attacks on American soldiers and officials could equally well be leveled at U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House officials, and U.S. military commanders at all echelons.

At what time have such officials on both the Iranian and American sides not been planning such attacks?

No concrete evidence has been put forward to justify preemptive defense againt an imminent attack on the United States.

The assassinations seem intended to appease neoconservative critics of President Trump as vacillating and weak in his response to Iranian ripostes to his policy of maximum pressure on Iran. They provide a welcome distraction from the pending impeachment proceedings and appeal to the bloodthirsty instincts of the president’s most ardent supporters. They prepare the way for Mike Pompeo to offset his lack of diplomatic accomplishments with a demonstration of his ruthlessness to the “conservative” voters of Kansas, where he intends to run for the Senate.

In the new constitutional order in the United States, in which the separation of powers has been replaced by the separation of parties, the attack was politically expedient despite its blatant violation of the clear language of the U.S. Constitution.

The attack thus represents an extrajudicial execution that marks a further departure from constitutional government and the rule of law in the United States.

In foreign policy terms, this attack makes no sense at all. It is not a deterrent to Iran so much as a provocation. It pushes Iraq further into the arms of Iran and invites the humiliating expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq.

It makes every American in Iraq a target for murder or hostage taking. It demonstrates to the world the overt amorality of U.S. policy and the indifference of the United States to the constraints of international law and comity, especially when the object of American hostility is Muslim.

It is a strategy-free move, equivalent to beginning a game of chess with only an opening move in mind. It is thus a reminder to the word of the witless hubris and violence with which the United States now conducts its international relations.

Americans, once the most prominent proponents of international law as the regulator of relations between nations, have now fully validated the law of the jungle. We are now likely to experience it.”

Chas W. Freeman

The author

Chas W. Freeman has a very long and varied career as U.S. diplomat. Here is who he is and here is his blog. The above article has been reproduced from the blog of another brilliant U.S. diplomat, James Matlock.

4 Responses to "The Suleimani assassination: Not a retaliation but an act of war"

  1. alibey   January 7, 2020 at 1:30 am

    The US has been obsessed with the ME since at least Truman. The claim is that it has to do with oil. Not really; the US can always buy oil on spot and futures markets, without having to maintain massive military bases in the ME — just like most everyone else. Another claim is that this obsession is a noble endeavor to ensure the safety of Israel, which is invariably portrayed as the only Democracy in the ME. The depth of cynicism of Americans who make this statement with a straight face is beyond totally awesome. cheers

  2. Marc Herbermann   January 5, 2020 at 10:01 am

    Thank you for posting this thoughtful article here. I have the impression that the author really knows what he’s talking about in contrast to the higher echelons of the current US administration.

    When governments plan to go to war or to use military force, they usually lie. Particularly since operation “Desert Storm” in 1991, it seems that facts do matter less and less to justify “military strikes”. More important than facts and evidence are impression management and media manipulation.

    Somebody who brags in public that, as CIA director, “we lied, we cheated, we stole,” is the current secretary of state of the United States. How can anybody trust such a person or such a government?

    The assassinations “provide a welcome distraction from the pending impeachment proceedings and appeal to the bloodthirsty instincts of the president’s most ardent supporters.” This is very plausible. Ironically Donald Trump tweeted on November 30, 2011, “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.”

    There are good reasons to be of the opinion that the extrajudicial killings not only violated the US Constitution, but also international law. The author is a little bit vague at the end, however. I would like to know the period of time when Americans were “the most prominent proponents of international law”.

    • JO   January 5, 2020 at 11:07 am

      Dear Marc Herbermann – many thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you that it is, indeed, no longer possible to trust what the people in US government circles tell us – the President setting the standards as low as can be when it comes to truth. As for your question about when the US was a prominent proponent of international law, I was also a bit surprised – because Chasman is so experienced over so long a time. But he does use the word proponent and doesn’t say that the US actually adhered to international law. I would like to believe that the US had greater respect for the UN Charter and other international law earlier. Today – that is, particularly after 1989 – it simply doesn’t bother about it and violates it any time it needs, believing it is an exceptional(ist) state. The same applies to human rights. Strangely – but very welcome – Xi Jinping of China and the Chinese foreign policy establishment mention international law and the UN in about every speech. So does Russia, albeit to a lesser extent. – Kind regards, Jan Oberg

  3. Robert J,   January 4, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    In the course of the centuries, various ethnic groups that had been the enemies of the Roman Empire gradually became mercenaries on its payroll, then associates, to finally ended up occupying positions of power in different parts of the Empire. This, in my view, is common knowledge, but my understanding of those times does not stretch to the vocabulary applied to such a reality, and to whether words might specifically have been manipulated in order to satisfy the needs of the rulings classes.

    In the modern version of the Roman Empire, which most people tend to identify with the USA, words are purposefully thrown about to mean everything and their opposite. That the author of this article should not be immune is quite understandable, as he seems to be one that regrets that “his” Empire has taken one wrong turn too many.

    I, personally, am sick and tired (to use a worn-out clichéd expression) of seeing, all over the net, MERCENARIES being called “contractors” — in other words, KILLERS being morphed into benign capitalistic entrepreneurs.


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