“Do Stupid Shit.”
There’s an old tradition among analysts of American foreign policy: identifying “doctrines” associated with various presidents. These rules of thumb have sometimes been explicit. George Washington, for example, in his 1796 farewell address, concluded his second term with a call to avoid partisanship, and linked that principle to a foreign policy that avoids “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues,” as well as “overgrown military establishments.” James Monroe, in 1823, announced that the United States would no longer permit European colonization in the Western hemisphere. Theodore Roosevelt, in 1904, issued a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that declared that the US reserved to itself an “international police power” to “stabilize” the governments and economies of Latin America.
After the Second World War, foreign policy doctrines reflected the perceived threat and the balance of forces as they evolved. In 1947 Harry Truman promised to contain communism by money or military means to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” John Kennedy emphasized that the US would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the defense of liberty.” Richard Nixon, after Vietnam drove home just home expensive that blank check could be, pulled back to “look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.” Jimmy Carter, concerned with America’s access to oil, announced that “any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region” would be seen as “an assault on the vital interests of the United States” to be “repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Ronald Reagan moved beyond Truman’s containment policy to assist guerrilla forces fighting communist governments. George H.W. Bush agreed with his General Colin Powell that American military force should only be engaged if all other means provided futile, only if the operation had a clear objective, only if there was clear public support, and only if there was a clear commitment of every resource to achieve a quick and decisive victory.
Ignoring his father’s advice, George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism” that recognized no difference between terrorist organizations and the states who harbor them, up to and including the use of preventive war to overthrow those states. Barrack Obama, finding the US trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan, went out of his way to not promulgate “some sort of Obama Doctrine that we’re going to apply in a cookie-cutter fashion across the board,” insisting privately that the primary task of an American president after the over commitments of his predecessor was “don’t do stupid shit.”
Obama was far from perfect. He ignored his own rule, as well as the advice of Vice President Biden, when he announced a red line where American action would be triggered by the use of chemical weapons in Syria, only to back off from that threat when his bluff was called. When he received his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 Obama hadn’t had time to do more than change the tone of American rhetoric. He didn’t immediately withdraw from Iraq or Afghanistan, and he increased the use of drones to target suspected terrorists around the world. He ordered the assassination of an American citizen who had joined Al Qaeda and risen to a leadership position. But in 2009 Obama had one characteristic that justified his award in the eyes of the Nobel committee: he wasn’t George W. Bush.
When Donald Trump became President he was dedicated to overturning the policies, including the successes, of his predecessor. This not only included an attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act and a major reduction in taxes for the wealthiest fraction of the population, it led to a foreign policy that included withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, undermining the relationship between the U.S. and its NATO allies, attempting to reverse the carefully negotiated response to the Russian occupation of Crimea, and leaving the 2015 P5+1 accord that placed sufficient restrictions on Iran to increase the “break-out time” required for the Islamic Republic to produce an atomic bomb from two or three months to a year or more.
No more than Barack Obama has Donald Trump put into words an official “doctrine” that guides his actions. If anything, he prizes his reputation for unpredictability. The closest he has come is to assert the principle of “America First,” which can mean many things, none of them good. If we define America First as America versus the world, America loses. The world is too large and too interconnected for that to work. If we define America First as America withdraws from the world, America loses. Our economy is too interconnected and the world is too interdependent for that to be an option. (If you want to compare the effects of working within the world economy against removing yourself from it, compare South Korea to North Korea.) If America First means America bullies the world, America loses. We lose friends and allies, while giving potential enemies a common target to unite against. So what is the “Trump Doctrine”? Judging from the pattern of American actions, it is simply to reverse whatever Obama has accomplished. If the Obama Doctrine boils down to “don’t do stupid shit,” then the Trump Doctrine is the logical rejection of that: “do stupid shit.”
On Friday, January 3rd, President Donald Trump authorized a drone strike against a convoy in Bagdad, Iraq, to kill Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, the celebrated Commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the unit specializing in military intelligence, unconventional warfare, extraterritorial operations, and support for non-state actors. Quds Force allies include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Shia militias in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the Houthi of Yemen. The Quds Force also has allies in North Korea, China, Russia, Cuba, and the Palestinian Authority. It has fought in the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanon War of 1982, the South Lebanon conflict, and against the Islamic State. Its leader was generally seen as the second most influential role in the Iranian government. A Hellfire missile blew up his convoy at the Baghdad Airport, killing him and nine others.
Without providing details, President Trump said the assassination was intended to “prevent war,” although assassinating a leader of another country is generally considered to be a declaration of war. Although prior notification of Congressional leadership is required by law before making a strike of this kind, there was no notice given, and the now that it has been delivered it remains highly classified. Even if one assumes the US and Iran were already “at war,” this is an escalation that will force the Republic of Iran to respond in a way that matches the level of the American action.
Since this assassination, the following (often predictable) events have occurred:
· The Iraqi Parliament has passed a unanimous resolution calling for the US to leave the country.
· American Secretary of Defense Mike Esper has announced “There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq.”
· American President Donald Trump has replied that the US will not leave Iraq, and if they wish Americans to abandon air bases built in Iraq “we’re not leaving until they pay for it.”
· President Trump announced the deployment of 3000 new American troops to Iraq.
· The American Department of Defense informed the Iraqi military of the complete withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, only to walk back that announcement as “a mistake.”
· The Iranian government has announced that its nuclear program “will have no limits on production, including enrichment capacity.”
· President Trump has tweeted that if Iran “strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites…some at a very high level & important to Iran & Iranian culture”. To target a “cultural site” is not only an act of war. It is a war crime.
· The American Secretary of Defense has contradicted the president: “We will follow the arms of armed conflict.”
· More than sixty Iranian-American citizens were detained for questioning when they attempted to re-enter the US from Canada.
· Tucker Carlson, one of President Trump’s most vocal supporters, has questioned the rationale for the strike, and criticized the “neocons” for looking to open a new war when the country still has more significant problems “here at home.”
· Although there have been weeks of protests against corruption and misrule in Iran, both sides have now come together, united by grief and rage. One reformist politician has said that he has not seen crowds this size since the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a rare appearance at the meeting of his National Security Council, ordering that the response to the assassination must be direct and proportional to Iran’s loss, and it must be carried out openly by Iranian military forces.
Iran must respond. To not respond would undermine the legitimacy of the regime. Traditionally, the Republic of Iran has cloaked its attacks behind the actions of the proxies. Examples include the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks and embassy in Beirut, the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, the 1996 truck bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing project in Saudi Arabia, the use of Houthi forces to attack Saudi oil facilities and oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, underwriting the Hezbollah fighting force in Syria, and the bombing of a busload of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. In 2007 there was an attack on a Polish ambassador, and by 2009 the Iranians and their proxies had infiltrated the Iraqi security forces.
But a direct strike by Iraqi military forces actually remains an option. As hard as it might be to believe, the Iranians acted with relative restraint during the Obama administration. They could do much more. In 2002 the United States conducted one of its largest, most expensive, and technologically elaborate war games. Millennium Challenge was intended to demonstrate the technological and strategic superiority of American forces against a “Red” foe patterned on Iranian forces and asymmetric tactics. The mock Iranians, refusing to play by the U.S. playbook, overloaded American defenses and caught the Blue fleet in the constricted waters of the Persian Gulf. On the first day, the U.S. Navy lost sixteen warships, damaged or sunk in a surprise attack that would have been the worst naval disaster in over fifty years. The Blue force stopped the game, “refloated” its fleet, and resumed play according to a script that artificially constrained the Iranians and allowed the U.S. to prevail. In other words, unless the Americans cheated to “fix” the simulation, they lost.
The Obama Doctrine, as we observed, could be summarized as “don’t do stupid shit.” But if the Trump Doctrine is “do stupid shit” the Suliemani assassination is a whole new level of stupid. A recent database of over 1000 “leadership decapitations” against terrorist groups from 1970 to 2016 shows that this kind of attack tends to *increase* the number of terrorist attacks and the level of civilian casualties inflicted by a group. This increase is most pronounced when the group is (1) hierarchical and bureaucratic in organization, and (2) driven by a religious (especially Islamist) or nationalist ideology. The Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is both. Soleimani was a SOB with the blood of countless innocents on his hands, but killing him — especially in this way, creating a martyr — practically guarantees a lot more Americans are going to die. This is a world-class level of stupid.
If it was anyone but Trump, I’d be tempted to think there was some malice intended towards the US. But I doubt Trump knows enough about the situation to be this dumb on purpose. I do wonder, however, if this kind of move was suggested in one of those deeply classified phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is the sort of thing that could prove to be very beneficial to Russia. It raises the price of oil, Russia’s primary export. It keeps the Americans (and several of their allies) busy all over the world, focusing on protecting their own installations and citizens. Ignoring the constraints of international law undermines the already strained relations between the United States and its allies.
This move puts Iran in a position to respond at a time and place of its own choosing. It has no need to hurry. World public opinion has already mobilized against the United States, and Iranian domestic public opinion has fallen into line to rally around the flag. If an immediate move to attack the U.S. is somehow blocked, Iran can withdraw without comment and strike again elsewhere without notice. And when the Iranian counterattack succeeds — which it will, eventually — it undermines the reputation of the United States as a great power.
It is tempting to see subtle conspiracies rather than stupidity and incompetence. To be sure, there are real conspiracies. Most of them fail. Few of them matter in the long run. If there’s an explanation that doesn’t require a perfect conspiracy or an evil genius to work it’s probably much closer to reality. Evil genius is rare. Stupid humans are everywhere. It makes sense to bet accordingly. And while the level of foreign policy incompetence of the current administration is hard to believe,it does match the foolishness of its domestic policies. Donald Trump is not an evil genius (although he might serve as a useful idiot). He really is that stupid.