You might ask what it takes to remember When you know that you've seen it before Where a government lies to a people And a country is drifting to war
Jackson Browne, "Lives in the Balance"
In the waning days of the 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon deliberately tried to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks by keeping his intermediaries “working on” South Vietnamese leaders to make sure an agreement was never reached. By doing so he hoped to keep the Democrats from taking credit for ending the war. The tactic was only one indication of how far a dishonest candidate would go to ensure his election. It worked: Nixon won the presidency in 1968 as the unpopular war raged on. Tens of thousands of Americans died as a result of this campaign "strategy."
Now, half a century later in another part of the world, a world leader is "removed" by United States forces, purportedly to make the world safer for America and its allies. There are those who will claim that the recent assassination of Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport was a strategically motivated plan to prevent more Mideast bloodshed and not just an ill-conceived scheme to take the pressure off an impeached president. They are welcome to that opinion: I don’t share it.
Admittedly very few in the West or in Israel will mourn the death of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's elite Quds military force. He has engineered campaigns that have resulted in countless thousands of deaths in several Mideastern countries for two decades. But that "two decades" forms the issue: Soleimani was no more dangerous last week than he has been for the past twenty years.
Now I understand the death of the American contractor and the rioting at the embassy in Baghdad—I know they can be viewed as rationale for the murder, but the reasoning fails in two major areas. First off, Qassem Soleimani was not the tactical military genius we have made him out to be. He murdered lots of people, but the thinking and logic behind his actions were not so much brilliant maneuvers as they were brutal actions, primitive acts that might just as easily have been carried out by subordinates—and no doubt will be. Besides, throughout our history we have lost presidents to assassination and generals to political whim, yet we have continued to live in a democracy and continued to field a competent military. (Not to sound flip, but if you’re sports-minded, remember all the “crucial” players the Yankees lost last year? It never seemed to hurt them.) I doubt if the loss of Soleimani will cripple Iran.
Second, further destabilizing the Middle East and putting Israel and our European allies at risk is worse than stupid, as is tying our retaliation to the detainment of 52 hostages 40 years ago. Most Iranians alive today weren’t even around for that. On purely geographical grounds (if we're thinking of security) the distance from Tehran to Paris is about the same as New York to L.A. Not that far. From Tehran to Israel is about the same as New York to Chicago. But from Tehran to New York City is over 6,000 miles. Perhaps the American people are supposed to console themselves with the fact that Iran is far enough away never to bother us, but I remember 9/11 more clearly than I do the Iranian hostage crisis. There's no consolation there. not in a world of dirty bombs and hypersonic missiles.
Richard Nixon had, among his many negative sobriquets, "Tricky Dick." He was seldom trusted to tell the truth, and back when people were more easily duped and all politicians were considered more expedient than honest, he was winked at more than condemned. Toward the end of his term in office, as the Watergate investigation grew more damning, Nixon began to show signs of a breakdown, wandering about the White House conversing with the paintings. The stress destroyed him.
But he was always a liar, an attribute he shares with the current president. In fact, although comparisons are always odious, I would say that Trump has taken lying to a higher level—an inveterate or maybe pathological level that Nixon could only have dreamed of. And yet we are expected to believe that the murder of a world leader in a foreign country (not his or ours) is a perfectly logical approach to furthering world peace and security. When we add to the equation the president's pig-headed rejection of the Iran nuclear deal and his willingness to isolate our allies in their attempts to maintain it, we gain a clearer picture of where the assassination of Soleimani lands on the Trumpian scale of foreign policy.
With a rogue president in charge and all the guardrails removed, lives are indeed in the balance. And nobody is safer this week—not here, not in Paris, not in Israel, not in Iraq.