Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, died in Iraq on January 3. When U.S. drones bombed the car in which he, his Iraqi field marshal Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and several others drove away from the Baghdad Airport early that morning, a certain vision of the Middle East died as well. This made former Obama officials upset.
The full ramifications of killing Soleimani won’t be known for a while. But its effects on Democrats, noninterventionists, and longtime national-security opponents of Trump were clear and immediate. These people were despondent. Not only did they oppose the Soleimani strike, they saw it as a prelude to a full-scale war.
But it wasn’t Soleimani’s demise that caused them to panic. It was the inevitable collapse of the nuclear deal with Iran.
Former national-security adviser Susan Rice warned in the New York Times, “Americans would be wise to brace for war with Iran.” Ben Rhodes, former deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting, wrote a piece in the Atlantic with the headline “An Extraordinarily Dangerous Moment.” Also in the Atlantic, former deputy secretary of state Bill Burns and former vice presidential aide Jake Sullivan announced that the United States had arrived at “a dangerous juncture.”
Former senior State Department official Wendy Sherman re-tweeted Rhodes’s piece several times, calling it a “must read.” Former State Department aide Ilan Goldenberg wrote, “The president of the United States has potentially triggered a war with a country three times the size of Iraq with no authorization from Congress or discussion with the American people.” Former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor tweeted, “I hope the Dem 2020 candidates come out strong against this assassination.”
He needn’t have worried.
Joe Biden said, “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.” Bernie Sanders said, “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.” Elizabeth Warren said, “This reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict.” Pete Buttigieg said, “As we learn more in the coming days and weeks, one thing is clear: This must not be the start of another endless war.” The other 10 Democrats running at the time played variations on these themes.
All of them hold a view of the region that the Soleimani strike exposed as illusory. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, members of the American foreign-policy establishment have argued for a rapprochement with Iran, whose revolutionary theocratic government has harassed and terrorized the United States and her allies for four decades. These panjandra say that the two keys to stability in the region are peace between Israel and the Palestinians and an Iran that acts, to use the preferred cliché, as a “responsible stakeholder.”
The 2006 report of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, called for a “diplomatic offensive” that would entice Iran to play this constructive role. It recognized that “engaging Iran is problematic, especially given the state of the U.S.-Iran relationship.” Engagement was “problematic” in part because of Soleimani, whose proxies killed more than 600 U.S. troops in Iraq and wounded thousands of others with “explosively formed penetrators” that could pierce armored vehicles. The Iraq Study Group was unfazed. America, it said, should negotiate with Iran and Syria “without preconditions.”
Among the authors of the report was Ben Rhodes. Later, during his eight years in the Obama administration, Rhodes and his boss pursued a strategy that tracked closely with the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission. President Obama established “daylight” between the United States and Israel to signal to Iran his seriousness of purpose. He did not offer support to the Iranian youth who protested against the regime in 2009. He withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. He was reluctant to support the revolt against Bashar al-Assad in Syria the same year.
Obama slow-walked the release of documents captured in the raid against Osama bin Laden that detailed Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda. He must have thought that a military strike against Assad, after he crossed the president’s red line of chemical weapons attacks in 2013, would hamper diplomacy with Iran. Obama appeared grateful when Russia offered to remove Assad’s WMD. The weapons, of course, are still there.
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, was the first step in a regional realignment that would privilege the Islamic Republic over traditional U.S. allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Obama poured a tremendous amount of political capital into the agreement. He said war was the sole alternative to a deal that gave Iran sanctions relief up front in return for freezing its nuclear program for 10 years, and that did nothing about Iran’s support for terrorism, foreign interference, and ballistic missiles. He smeared opponents as loyal to the “money” of “lobbyists” who “are not going to be making sacrifices.” He did not respond when Iranian fast boats harassed U.S. vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz, or when Iran seized two U.S. Navy boats and held 10 sailors captive for 15 hours.
By the time Obama left office, Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen were on the march. Russian intervention had bolstered Iran’s Syrian ally. Half a million Syrians had been killed. Millions more had become refugees. The caliphate of the Islamic State, while not as large as it had been when Obama reluctantly intervened against it in the summer of 2014, was still greater in size than some U.S. states. The major accomplishment—so to speak—of Obama’s second term didn’t avoid conflict with Iran. It allowed Iran to win the conflict.
Obama officials partnered with a journalistic echo chamber to spread the idea that the Iran deal was a success. It was not. The deal was filled with loopholes and had major blind spots. Military sites were exempt from inspection. Iran maintained centrifuges enriched at a level that allowed for nuclear breakout. Iran came out of the deal stronger and more dangerous.
When President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions, Team Obama held out hope that the Europeans could establish a workaround that would allow the Iranian regime to survive until the next Democratic president took office. If the Iran deal came apart, the thinking went, so too would Obama’s legacy.
Hence the frenzied reaction to Soleimani’s death. “Any hope of saving the Iran deal likely died with the killing of Qassim Soleimani,” wrote Rhodes in his Atlantic piece. “There is no hope now to revive, much less strengthen, the Iran nuclear deal, and we must expect Iran will accelerate its efforts to revive its nuclear program without constraint,” wrote Rice. The military strike, said Burns and Sullivan, “appears to be feeding … the death of the Iranian nuclear deal and the whole notion of diplomacy with the Great Satan.”
This was a self-serving fiction. The Iran deal was not the only remaining obstacle to war with Iran. It was an excuse not to grapple with Iran’s malign behavior.
“For whatever reason, President Trump has fixated on President Obama, and I think that he views President Obama as the metric he has to beat,” an Obama holdover who served briefly on Trump’s national-security staff told the Washington Post. The reason is no mystery. Donald Trump was elected president in part because Americans recoiled in horror from the Middle East Barack Obama had made.
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