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Former US policy officials divided on impact of US airstrike

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration Friday over the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in Tehran,
Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration Friday over the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in Tehran,Vahid Salemi/Associated Press

Former US diplomats and policy specialists said Friday that the US airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad eliminated a major sponsor of fatal attacks on Americans but also raised the prospect of a wider war in the region.

Among those commenting publicly was former US Ambassador Nicholas Burns, a current faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who tweeted late Thursday that the the strike will provoke “inevitable counter attacks” against American personnel, and that President Trump must publicly explain his strategy for containing Iran going forward.

In a follow-up e-mail, Burns, a career diplomat and former under secretary of state, wrote that the Iranians “and their Iraqi shia militant allies have been targeting the U.S. for months now. As you know, they killed an American contractor last week. Soleimani himself is responsible for hundreds of American deaths over the last three decades. They launched a violent attack on our embassy in Baghdad just a few days ago.”

Burns added that if the Trump Administration “believed further attacks on our embassies in Iraq and the region were imminent, it had a legitimate reason to attack Soliemani. We should have no sympathy for him. He was the major force for terrorism in the Middle East.”

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Iran threatens ‘harsh retaliation’ after US kills powerful Iranian general
The attack in Baghdad also claimed the life of a veteran Iraqi militant.

But Trump, Burns said, faces many challenges in the aftermath of the strike.

“He needs to protect our diplomats and military personnel from Iranian counter attacks,” Burns wrote. “He needs to line up allied support. He needs to reveal publicly specific information that will support the U.S. claim that further attacks were imminent. Did he think of all this before launching the drone strike? Finally, the US has a clear interest in containing Iran in the Middle East but avoiding a full war. That will be a difficult balancing act. But such is the challenge before Trump.”

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Soleimani’s killing followed New Year’s Eve protests orchestrated by Iran-backed militias at the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The two-day embassy attack, which ended Wednesday, prompted Trump to order about 750 US troops deployed to the Middle East. No one was killed or wounded in the protests, which breached the compound but appeared to be mainly a show of force.

The breach at the embassy followed US airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia operating in Iraq and Syria. The US military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the US blamed on the militia.

Another Harvard Kennedy School professor, former US Ambassador Samantha Power, who served as the representative to the United Nations during the Obama administration, suggested Friday via Twitter that Trump will have difficulty justifying the killing of Soleimani on the world stage.

Power, highlighting a tweet from a CNN reporter quoting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as saying the airstrike “saved American lives," replied via Twitter, “This is where having credibility — and having a president who didn’t lie about everything — would be really, really helpful.”

Power also chided Trump for tweeting out an image of the US flag following the airstrike.

“A flag is not a strategy,” she tweeted. “Trump is surrounded by sycophants (having fired those who’ve dissented). He has purged Iran specialists. He has abolished NSC processes to review contingencies. He is seen as a liar around the world. This is likely to get very ugly very quickly.”

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But other analysts praised the administration’s strike on Soleimani, including Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who served on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

“Qassem Soleimani’s hands are drenched in American blood, and in the blood of Middle Easterners,” Doran tweeted Friday. “The disproportionate response was what he got under previous administrations: a free pass to kill. What he got last night was justice.”

And Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served previously as an adviser on Iran at the State Department, wrote Friday on CFR’s website that he doubted the killing of Soleimani would further destabilize Iraq and other nations where the general was active, such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

“Iran’s position in all those countries was already precarious," Takeyh wrote. “The regime could ill afford the vast imperial project that it undertook since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is struggling to meet its domestic budgetary needs and has been reducing its subsidies to its militias. The assassination of Soleimani is unlikely to reverse any of those trends.”

Takeyh added that the Trump administration now must “further weaken Iran.”

“Its successes on that front are noteworthy: It has already cratered Iran’s economy and now it has removed from the scene one of its famed commanders. Iran is an adversary of the United States and a judicious policy would be to continuously erode the Iranian regime’s power,” he wrote. “The Islamic Republic will either return to the negotiating table at some point in a weakened position or collapse altogether.”

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But National Security Action, a policy group co-chaired by former Obama administration officials Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan, was far less sanguine Friday.

In a statement, National Security Action called the airstrike that killed Soleimani a “dangerous escalation” of hostilities between the US and Iran.

“No American should shed any tears for Qasem Soleimani, but the question isn’t whether he deserved to be targeted,” the statement said.The real question is whether eliminating him leaves America safer in the aftermath and whether the Trump administration considered the serious consequences of such an operation.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.