In early January, the United States took out Iran's top military leader, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as he passed through Iraq. President Donald Trump's decision to order the killing of a foreign government official was controversial both at home and abroad.
Is Trump charting a bold new course in the Middle East or following the failed footsteps of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush? A day before Iran responded to the killing with a bombing campaign against two U.S. military bases in the region, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.
In 1990–93, Preble served as an officer in the U.S. Navy on the USS Ticonderoga. He's the co-author of Fuel to the Fire: How Trump Made America's Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse (and How We Can Recover) and the author of Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy.
Q: How big a deal is the U.S. killing Iranian Gen. Soleimani?
A: It's a really big deal. The best equivalent I've heard is that it would be as if someone killed both the head of U.S. Central Command and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. One of the key differences between Soleimani and Osama bin Laden, for example, is that bin Laden was a terrorist leader, not a representative of a sovereign state.
Q: Is the difference between a terrorist and a state actor mostly legalistic, in that this could be perceived as an act of war? Or is it more moral, in that we treat generals of states we're not at open war with differently than we do mere terrorists?
A: There's a legal aspect of this in terms of U.S. domestic law, which prohibits the assassination of foreign government officials. But I frankly approach this more from a practical perspective. Does this advance American safety and security? Does it make Americans freer and more prosperous? The answer is no.
Q: What are the ways that this makes us less safe?
A: The Iranians don't have a comparable level of capability to the U.S., but they do have a willingness and the ability to carry out cyberattacks against networks. That's a more pressing concern, perhaps, than conventional reprisals here in the U.S.
Q: Is it possible that this was the type of action that makes Iran change its behavior in the Middle East?
A: That's certainly what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and what President Trump himself seem to believe. They expect Iran not to retaliate and to be deterred from retaliation by threats. This is consistent with what the Trump administration calls the "maximum pressure campaign," which also involves sanctions.
The maximum pressure campaign has put real pain on the Iranian people. We have credible evidence of Iranians dying premature deaths from lack of access to medicine, for example. But it has not brought the Iranian government back to the negotiating table to comply with the long list of demands that the Trump administration has made.
Q: It seems like, in terms of Iraq, things are going in the wrong direction. The Iraqi government now wants the American military to get the hell out.
A: As recently as December there was rising Iraqi anger and animosity at foreign influence from both the United States and Iran. What we've seen in the last couple of weeks is a lot of that anger and resentment redirected to the United States.
Now, there was a lot of resentment and anger toward us already, because we're a foreign presence in Iraqi territory. But I think that for the time being, the balance of power inside Iraq now tips toward Iran because of that strike.