President Trump campaigned on pulling the U.S. out of endless wars in the Middle East, which is why his sincerity was rightfully questioned after he ordered a strike killing Iranian military commander Qassim Suleimani last week. Trump defended the strike by describing Suleimani as the “#1 terrorist anywhere in the world” and said he took action to stop a war, not start it. But Trump can’t have it both ways. The assassination, which was an unlawful crime of aggression by an administration which could not prove it was in response to an imminent threat, was not separate from the endless wars; it was part and parcel of the “war on terror.”
Case in point: Republican television host Tomi Lahren tweeted shortly after the attack, “I don’t want another pointless war in the Middle East but one thing has to be clear, you don’t F with the United States of America. That shit flies under Obama but not @realDonaldTrump.” Her comments are hypocritical. On the one hand, she claims to oppose the endless wars, but on the other, she celebrates the military operations which sustain it, with little concern for the extremely serious ramifications of an extrajudicial killing. (Iran indeed took revenge Tuesday evening with over a dozen missile strikes at U.S. bases in Iraq and the launch of a cyberattack against a government website).
Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), who sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security, beat the war drum too, calling it “a great day for the fight against evil in this world.” And Vice President Mike Pence falsely linked Suleimani to 9/11, listing the 2001 attacks among the general’s “worst atrocities.”
This simplistic “good guy vs. bad guy” and “good vs. evil” rhetoric was echoed by news media in the hours following the strike as well. The New York Times published an opinion piece applauding the “long overdue” assassination, while CNBC tweeted, “America just took out the world’s no. 1 bad guy.” When media and politicians reinforce each other with this messaging, is it any surprise that Trump acted as he did? Or that we are still entangled in these endless wars that have cost thousands of lives and completely gutted the U.S.’s credibility in the world?
Not only is this characterization irresponsible, but like the war on terror, it is Islamophobic and Orientalist. It’s not a coincidence that the world’s designated #1 bad guy is always Arab or Muslim, despite there being terrible leaders of all backgrounds across the world. It suggests that Arabs and Muslims are inherently bad or evil, making their blood endlessly free for the spilling (even illegally) and with little consequence. And when the #1 bad Brown guy is killed, another one is immediately selected to take his place as the next target. If anyone protests, well then, they must hate us for our freedoms.
But, one might argue, aren’t people like Qassim Suleimani, Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Anwar al-Awlaki horrible? Didn’t they contribute to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, including Muslims? What could possibly be wrong with killing them?
No one disagrees that all of these people caused death, destruction and suffering for their fellow countrymen as well as Americans at home and abroad. The problem is the way the media portrays these assassinations and how this in turn bolsters the abilities of politicians to carry out these violent actions. Officials make it seem like we are playing an unsophisticated game of Bad Guys vs. Good Guys on the international stage where the side with the gun (or most might) wins.
Going to war is never that simple, and neither are these assassinations. As evidenced by their strikes on U.S. bases, Iran didn’t de-escalate merely because we hoped they would. Trump responded by saying there would be no military escalation, but increased punishing sanctions. Finally, the atrocities committed in Iraq and Syria are not going to end because one of the men responsible for them is gone. Unfortunately, that nuance is missing from the misleading headlines and tweets.
Perhaps the best person to confirm this is former President George W. Bush, who coined the phrase “War on Terror” shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and led the U.S. into many of the wars we are still fighting today. He gave the following statement in 2011 after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden: “The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
Nearly a decade later, Americans should understand that “no matter how long it takes” means potentially forever, with little to show for the fight except a great deal of bloodshed, trauma and dangerous hostility. It’s time that the discourse around high-profile assassinations reflects this and communicates that a reckless killing seldom guarantees lasting “justice.”