Suleimani’s Extrajudicial Killing Legitimizes Assassination as a Foreign Policy Tool

Suleimani’s Extrajudicial Killing Legitimizes Assassination as a Foreign Policy Tool

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.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)


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