As we watched Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist groups attack our embassy in Baghdad, many were in favor of a robust retaliation for the attack. What the U.S. military under the orders of President Trump delivered last night was even more than retaliation for the attack on the embassy: It was retaliation for decades’ worth of unanswered American blood spilt by Iran’s external paramilitary forces, led by Qassem Soleimani.
We have clearly intervened in numerous Middle Eastern theaters over the years that we should never have been involved in. But at every stage, Iran has been attacking and killing hundreds of our soldiers: Sacking the embassy in Tehran in 1979, the 241 Marines killed in the 1983 Beirut bombing, the killing of 19 airmen at the Khobar Towers in 1996, or the over 600 U.S soldiers estimated to have been killed directly or indirectly by Soleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during the Iraq war. More recently, Iran captured our naval ships in 2016 and humiliated our sailors in what should have been viewed as an act of war, yet Obama did nothing. Well, actually, he transferred $150 billion to Iran, so it was worse than nothing.
Trump has laid down a new set of parameters. Soleimani was reportedly disembarking from a plane at the Baghdad airport and being greeted by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Kata'ib Hezbollah, when an airstrike killed them both. Kata'ib Hezbollah was the primary militia responsible for the attacks on our base near Kirkuk last Thursday and the Baghdad embassy this week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out al-Muhandis by name earlier this week, tweeting out a picture of him leading the attack with the militiamen.
Going forward, the best outcome is a coherent strategy in the Middle East, but the next best outcome is justice against Iran’s most potent external force that has threatened us for decades. The killing of Soleimani is justice for the blood of American soldiers on his hands, but it will hopefully also serve as a turning point in reorienting our focus in the Middle East to one of “strike and maneuver” against enemies that affect our interests, rather than holding and building ground on behalf of Islamic tribal factions in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
The death of Soleimani is a bigger deal than the death of ISIS leader Abu al-Baghdadi in October. As I’ve noted before, Sunni terrorists, lacking a nation-state, do not fundamentally threaten our interests except through immigration when we let their operatives or adherents into our country. Iran, on the other hand, had the ability to attack us for years, threaten shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden, and take the fight closer to our homeland through Hezbollah’s global network in Latin America. Soleimani was the most trusted and tenacious general of the ruling mullahs, whose goal was solely focused on external hegemony, not just in the Middle East, but even in our hemisphere.
Moreover, the elimination of Soleimani finally confirms to the mullahs that Trump is not a paper tiger and that we are willing to use our air assets anywhere, any time, if they continue attacking our strategic interests. But the key going forward is to identity those strategic interests.
The focus in the long run should not be saving the incorrigible Iraqi nation from either Iran or the Sunni terrorists. The Iraqi prime minister already condemned our airstrike. His government is not worth our time and money, much less the blood of our soldiers. Rather, our objective should be drawing a clear line around our limited interests and assets and ensuring that anything that threatens them is met with painful repercussions. We should not conflate the need to deter Iran and project power in the face of its belligerence with the false notion that keeping our soldiers flung out precariously throughout Iraq on an interminable nation-building mission is somehow in our country’s interests in the first place.