There can be little doubt that Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, deserved the fate that befell him when a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad took his life. As the second most powerful leader in the country, Soleimani was a malevolent force who fomented conflict across the region, provoking or supporting aggression in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. U.S. veterans were all too familiar with his name, and many openly cheered his demise.
Other presidents could have ordered Soleimani's death, as President Donald Trump did on Thursday. The U.S. has vastly superior military power and intelligence capabilities. Soleimani traveled openly and would not have been a difficult target. But Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama ultimately declined because, in assessing the threat risk, they concluded the chances of yet another protracted war outweighed whatever advantages might have been gained. So did Israel.
Trump reached a different conclusion, and now Iranian leaders are vowing "forceful revenge." Americans in Iraq have been ordered to evacuate, and the U.S. is sending 3,000 more troops into the region. That is an escalation by any definition.
Trump has taken an immense gamble here, and Americans need reassurance that an administration notorious for impulsivity gave careful consideration to its actions and possible alternatives, and that it has strategically planned for the aftermath.
Patrick Clawson, research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on the Middle East, told an editorial writer that Iran has been provoking the U.S. for months, unwilling to enter into talks. After briefings from administration officials, Clawson said he is confident that "they decided the risk of not acting was greater than the risk of acting. That conversation occurred." It is possible, he said, that the U.S. would have wound up in this place no matter what, so determined was Iran to antagonize.
Despite the severity of the U.S. action, Clawson said it need not necessarily escalate further. "We've been in a twilight war with Iran for 40 years," he said. What must happen now, he said, is action that shows the region American presence will be maintained. "There should be lots of consultation with Iraqi politicians about just how heavy the price will be if more Americans are killed."
But that's not enough.
This administration may have acted unilaterally — others have as well — but now it should be prepared to engage Congress and to tell the American people, with as much detail as possible, what prompted its action and how far it is prepared to go. After all, it is the sons and daughters of this country who will be on the ground in a foreign land carrying out the orders of their commander-in-chief. It is American taxpayers who will fund yet another incursion into the Middle East, after yet another president has promised to end the American presence there.
We must also engage our allies, many of whom Trump has spent his presidency disparaging. Even for a nation as powerful as this one, a go-it-alone approach in the quagmire that is the Middle East would be hard-pressed to succeed where well-coordinated, multilateral efforts have failed.
An entire generation has now grown up locked in seemingly interminable conflict in the Middle East: Iraq. Iran. Afghanistan. Syria. Lebanon. Yemen. After decades of fighting, the U.S. still has tens of thousands of troops spread across more than a dozen countries.
We will not mourn the demise of one such as Soleimani. The world indeed is better off without him. But America should not allow his death to become the flash point for a war that could widen more dramatically than anyone can anticipate.