Nearly five days after the world was jolted by America’s death-by-drone assassination of Iran’s leading general, Qassem Soleimani, on the road to Baghdad International Airport, here is one thing the average U.S. citizen can say with certainty:
We don’t know enough about it...not with the nation and the region seemingly on the brink of an unwanted war.
We don’t know enough about the small stuff...such as, even the name of the American contractor whose death on Dec. 27 triggered an escalating cycle of violence. We don’t know enough about the big stuff...such as whether the U.S. really had intelligence that Soleimani and Iran were planning attacks on Americans. And we sure as hell don’t know what happens next, with a regional military power hellbent on revenge against the United States.
Here’s just a sample of many unanswered questions. Ask yourself: Is this any way for a democratic republic to trigger a war?
1. Who was the U.S. contractor killed in Iraq? Of course, the start of the downward spiral of U.S.-Iranian relations can be traced back to 2017, or 1979, or 1953, depending on who is asked. But the immediate events were triggered on Dec. 27 when a rocket attack on a base near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk killed an American civilian contractor and wounded several troops. The U.S. blamed Iranian-sponsored militias and struck back with a round of air strikes that killed 25 people, which caused protesters tied to those militia groups to storm and partially overrun the American embassy in Baghdad, which caused President Trump to order the Pentagon to follow through on a plan to kill Soleimani.
Oddly, considering the central role his death played in sparking what’s become a huge international incident, the name of the U.S. contractor is still a secret some 11 days later. Perhaps his mission was classified, or tied to the CIA. But the mystery is yet another reminder of how American citizens are still kept in the dark— more than $1 trillion of our tax dollars later — about so much of what our troops and contractors are doing in the region.
UPDATE: Shortly after the story was posted online Tuesday, news accounts began to appear identifying the dead contractor as 33-year-old Nawres Hamid, an Iraqi-born Arabic interpreter who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2017. A husband and father of two, Hamid had moved to Sacramento and was quietly buried there on Saturday.
2. Was the assassination legal? Once upon a time in America, there was a bipartisan and arguably universal agreement that killing foreign leaders was something bad the United States had supported or actually did (in the Dominican Republic, the Congo, and elsewhere) during the 1950s and ’60s but should now ban forever. President Gerald Ford’s landmark 1975 executive order was updated by Ronald Reagan in 1981 with the current Executive Order 12333, which states: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
Pretty clear-cut, no? Well, as Bill Clinton, who changed the interpretation in 1998, might say, that all depends on what your definition of the word “assassination” is. The rise of al-Qaeda led to an exemption in the case of what the government defines as “terrorism," and subsequent presidents — including Barack Obama, who stepped up drone strikes — have only expanded the power of commanders-in-chief to kill people. Experts also note that targeted killings can be considered legal under international law — but only if it prevents an imminent attack and is a proportional response. Which raises another unanswered question, which is...
3. Was an Iranian attack directed by Soleimani actually imminent? Given the fact that thwarting an imminent terrorist attack on Americans, our interests, or our allies is a) the only semi-valid legal justification for the U.S. drone strike and b) the one explanation that all Americans — even those least inclined to support our currently impeached president — would rally behind, you’d expect Team Trump would offer a compelling case for this.
No such thing has happened. On Tuesday morning, while I wrote this column, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted during a news conference “it was the right decision” but declined to offer specifics about any alleged plot that was foiled by killing the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force. Privately, Pentagon officials told the New York Times “the intelligence did not indicate an imminent attack,” and the paper’s well-sourced Middle East correspondent Rukmini Callimachi tweeted that any evidence was “razor thin.” One version is that Soleimani did want to step up attacks on America as part of the current spiral of violence, but this was rejected by his boss, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A rejected plan isn’t “imminent.”
4. Why are so many top Pentagon officials quitting? In the middle of a heavy news day, word dropped on Monday that yet another high-ranking Pentagon official — Eric Chewning, chief of staff to Defense Secretary Mark Esper — is quitting. It’s not clear exactly why Chewning, who turned up in Pentagon memos expressing concerns about the holds on Ukraine security aid that led to Trump’s impeachment, is leaving now.
But Chewning joins recent departures that include the director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, the principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence, and the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs. It’s also unclear how much of that is tied to messy relations between an increasingly erratic Trump White House and the Pentagon over the treatment of war criminals, as well as Ukraine and now Iran. What is clear is that the tense situation between Washington and Tehran is a terrible time for a U.S. brain drain.
5. Why was Pompeo advocating for aggressive action on Iran long before the events of the last couple of weeks? Last March, Trump’s secretary of state traveled to Israel and gave an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Corp. in which he seemed to agree with the interviewer’s premise that Trump may have been sent to Earth to protect Israel from Iran. “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible,” Pompeo said, adding: “I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”
That certainly dovetails with reports that Pompeo — aided at times by Pompeo’s friend and West Point classmate, the Pentagon chief Esper — prodded the president for months toward a more aggressive posture on Iran, which would also please right-wing Israeli leaders with whom Pompeo has supposedly grown close, as well as his Christian fundamentalist constituency here at home. All of which raises legitimate questions about whether Soleimani’s killing was really to ward off an attack — or to advance a much broader agenda.
6. Is the U.S. government overzealously stopping people of Iranian descent — including U.S. citizens — at the border? The initial report seems shocking — scores of people, including both Iranian passport holders and Iranian-Americans born on U.S. soil, detained for hours and aggressively questioned about political views and other matters by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at a busy crossing point in Washington state. Indeed, the federal agency adamantly denied it ever happened.
But reporters for the New York Times confirmed the government — as has been the case throughout the current Iran crisis — has been lying and that, in fact, about 200 people had been detained for longer than normal at the Blaine, Washington, crossing. One of them was Negah Hekmati and her family, including her traumatized 5-year-old son who wanted to know if he was being sent to jail. “My kids shouldn’t experience such things,” she told the newspaper. “They are U.S. citizens. This is not O.K.” Asking citizens and permanent U.S. citizens about things such as their political views — as has been alleged in this case — is indeed unlawful.
These six questions, of course, are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Americans still don’t know if the politics of impeachment and the looming presidential election weighed on Trump’s mind when he ordered the killing.
Or what will happen to America’s longstanding operations in Iraq, including the 5,000 troops still stationed there? Or whether that 17-year-long mission, and the deaths of nearly 4,500 Americans, has any meaning, with Iran poised to wield even more unwanted influence over the country and the ISIS terrorists poised for a comeback? Or the big question of not whether but where, how, and when Iran might seek revenge for the assassination?
Americans wouldn’t have nearly so many questions if we had a government we could trust. Instead, we’ve been battered by a trail of dishonesty that began in Vietnam and grew wider with the blatant deceptions of the 2000s and 2010s over Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than honest government, the 2016 election produced a deceitful demagogue who has poured gasoline on that fire with literally thousands of lies.