When Presence Becomes Absence in the Middle East

The US military presence in the Middle East now appears to represent nothing more than an absence of thought.
Qassem Soleimani, Iranian General, Quds Force, Iran news, Iran, Iraq news, Donald Trump, US Iraq withdrawal, US troops leave Iraq, Middle East

© Dilok Klaisataporn

History is constructed out of symbolic moments. As the year 2020 and a new decade begin, US President Donald Trump has provided the iconic gesture destined to ensure that future memories of both the year and the decade will be focused on his towering personality.


How Will Iran Respond to the Assassination of Qassem Soleimani?

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Displaying his ignorance of how the First World War began (or perhaps exploiting everyone else’s ignorance), Trump has taken an initiative that could, by the same unintended logic, lead to the launching of World War III. There are multiple reasons to believe that the instinct or logic of restraint will prevail, but history has rarely accepted to comply with any group of politicians’ intended scenario. And with increasing geopolitical complexity — thanks to everything from climate change to social media — unpredictability has now become the norm.

Some feel reassured that Trump’s actions can be attributed to short-term electoral strategy. His assassination of two symbolic figures in the Middle East may or may not turn out to be the clever trick that both cuts short Trump’s impeachment trial and ensures his reelection in November. After all, Americans historically cheer on “war presidents,” even at a moment of history in which they appear to be sick of wars. 

For Americans and most of the media, the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3 at Baghdad airport was just a surgical operation to eliminate a “bad guy.” They read it as another example of a recently crafted tradition that has paid off handsomely as pure political marketing for both Barack Obama and Trump.

The trick consists of taking out a high-profile leader of America’s enemy forces. But whereas Obama’s trophy (Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda) and Trump’s recent one (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State) were both in some ways obvious enemies of the US, not only was Soleimani not clearly an enemy, but neither is Iran. Most Americans see Iran as an adversary or potential enemy that may be seen as dangerous due to their perception of it as “a sponsor of terrorism,” which simply puts it on a par with Saudi Arabia. But the US corporate media not controlled by the Republican Party have held back from treating Iran as a declared enemy. 

In its analysis, US media have chosen not to notice what may be the most salient effect of the Soleimani assassination. Because of its symbolic importance, this could very well be the straw that has finally broken the backs of multiple metaphorical camels across the Middle East, dispelling the last remnants of the illusion that the US presence in the region serves some positive purpose.

At the very moment when Trump has decided to send 3,500 new troops to Iraq, while at the same time the US State Department has ordered the evacuation of American civilians for their own safety, Euronews reports that Iraq’s first deputy speaker, Hassan al-Kaabi, “says it is time to put an end to ‘U.S. recklessness and arrogance,’ adding that [the emergency parliamentary session on January 4] will be dedicated to taking ‘decisive decisions that put an end to U.S. presence inside Iraq.’”

We also learn that Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi “had called for an emergency session, saying the U.S. presence in Iraq is limited to training forces to fight terrorism. He described the attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the Iraqi officials a ‘violation’ of conditions for the U.S. troop presence.”

On January 5, Iraqi MPs passed a non-binding resolution calling on US forces to leave the country.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Presence:

The act or state of being in a certain location for an extended period of time, which leaves everyone from that location wondering not only why but when it will end

Contextual Note

Ali Akbar Dareini, an expert on Iran-US affairs in Tehran, has pointed out that the effect of Soleimani’s assassination will be “exactly contrary to what the Americans claim.” Yet just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that “the world is [now] a much safer place” without Soleimani, the State Department was ordering American civilians to leave Iraq “for their safety.”

In an article on Fair Observer, former British diplomat Ian McCredie has noted the basic psychological truth that “Soleimani’s death on Iraqi soil will likely strengthen popular support for the Iranian government, which will portray the general as a Shia martyr and US President Donald Trump as a murderer.” The effects on US credibility will extend well beyond the Middle East. Trump has now clearly rebranded the US as a government that rules by assassination, aligning his image, as McCredie reminds us, with those of “Joseph Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi, Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin.”

The world is left speculating about whether Iran’s promised retaliation will resemble a shooting war, a nuclear holocaust, guerrilla warfare or, as Trump seems to hope, the deal of the century. McCredie points out that an immediate apocalypse is unlikely, if only because Iran is a nation of chess players. It’s a game the Russians also happen to be good at. Americans, not so much. Trump’s threat to bomb 52 sites is anything but a chess strategist’s move. 

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Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, makes his prediction for Iran’s retaliation: “This includes assassinations, covert operations, low-intensity warfare and oil and maritime disruptions in the Gulf region. In other words, more of the same – much more.” Bishara even suspects a logic most commentators have shied away from. He posits that Trump’s intention may be to force the US to abandon Iraq altogether.

The power structure that Trump is naturally beholden to has shown itself reluctant to do anything of the kind. But the president has always insisted that the US should get out of the Middle East altogether and be free to take care of business at home (i.e., building a wall and reducing taxes on the rich to boost the economy). In this interpretation, Trump took this radical step to ensure that the US presence would no longer be tolerated by the Iraqis. If that was his goal, he may have achieved it. 

There is a curious symmetry here. The Iranians have warned that Soleimani’s assassination has removed any residual credibility to the claim that the US presence — anywhere in the Middle East — will be considered as anything other than a form of oppressive imperialism by the populations, if not by governments. As Euronews reports: “Iranian state television called Trump’s order to kill Soleimani ‘the biggest miscalculation by the U.S.’ since World War II. ‘The people of the region will no longer allow Americans to stay,’ it said.”

Bishara boldly suggests that in Trump’s own mind, it wasn’t so much a miscalculation as his confirmed intention. Interestingly, an article in The New York Times speculates: “It could well turn out that the killing of Soleimani, intended as a shot against Iran, could accelerate one of Iran’s long-term objectives: pushing the U.S. military out of Iraq.” 

By taking down not only General Soleimani but also Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, Trump may or may not have been aware of the fact that he had produced — in the eyes of both the Iraqis and Iranians — the equivalent of Osama bin Laden’s toppling of New York’s twin towers. The two men had the status of cultural icons, just like the New York Trade Center, simply because the dominant cultural meme for many in the Middle East over the past two decades has been the resistance to the repeated pattern of US invasions and occupations, followed not only by betrayed promises and contracts (e.g., the Iran nuclear deal), but also arbitrary and brutal punishment of the population (sanctions).

Historical Note

Marwan Bishara may be right about Donald Trump’s strategy, even though it makes no strategic sense. According to Peter Bowman writing for The Guardian: “Trump’s decision to kill Suleimani seems to presage only a deeper and more violent entanglement.” Trump is, however, known for indulging his own impulses rather than following rules, listening to experts or reflecting on anything other than short-term consequences. So, he may use this opportunity to manage a retreat from Iraq or make a different impulsive decision on the spur of the moment or in reaction to a downward trend in the polls.

It’s likely that the result of domestic polls on the wisdom of Trump’s move may make the president happy, and if his prospects for reelection look good, he’ll calm down. His stance as a killer of bad guys should increase his chance of being reelected, not just because it appeals to the instincts of his loyal base, but also because many Americans see killing as the highest form of justice and the most efficient form of problem-solving.

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But it goes against the drift of recent US history in which presidents were expected to learn the art of carefully managing the symbolic impact of events for long-term strategic advantage, rather than short-term electoral opportunism. This assassination may already have upset the majority of permanent actors in the US political, economic and military power structure. The New York Times reports that “some officials voiced private skepticism about the rationale for a strike on General Suleimani.” The Times described the reaction of some “top military officials” as “flabbergasted.” Republicans won’t openly admit it, out of solidarity with their leader. Democrats for the moment only hint at it, highlighting procedural violations, because supporting war is considered a fundamental virtue or, at the very least, the default position in US culture.

Trump has once again clearly crossed a line in terms of acceptable Washington geopolitics. He has undermined a tradition of what consisted of playing on fears but never quite doing the fearful. All former presidents — seconded by an adoring or at least complicit media — have carefully promoted the image of any US military presence in a troubled area of the world as representing “a force for good.”

There is a fatal point at which the “good” starts looking irreparably bad. The usual ploy is to admit that the force for good sometimes does inadvertent evil. The officials and the media will then write these incidents off as unfortunate glitches. For generations of Americans, the US military presence in a foreign land signified a dedication to fostering democracy. It entailed America generously committing its resources to help troubled nations join the modern world and the global economy. It didn’t entail rule by assassination.

After 17 years of imposed chaos, Iraqis — even those favorable to US influence — have seen the limits of US problem-solving. Continuing to promote hyperreality, Mike Pompeo insists: “This was a good thing for the entire world, and we are urging everyone in the world to get behind what the United States is trying to do to get the Islamic Republic of Iran to simply behave like a normal nation.” 

Does Secretary Pompeo see the US as an example of a normal nation? If so, then as soon as Iran can manage a drone strike that takes out Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Iran may prove itself to be “a normal nation.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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