Trump Is Playing Chess One Turn at a Time
An impulsive president tries to look tough without being prepared to follow through.
Few who served in Iraq, or who had a loved one serving there, can avoid a spasm of gratification at learning that an American drone blew up Qassem Soleimani and half a dozen of his henchmen. The Iranian general’s hands were covered with the blood of thousands—Americans, Iraqis, Iranians, Israelis, and their allies. As Carl von Clausewitz wrote, because war involves violence, the emotions cannot help but be involved, and so a ruthless satisfaction at the elimination of an implacable foe is natural and fair. But that sentiment will pass, as it soon should, leaving behind the need for sober consideration of the deed and its consequences. In particular, we must ask what the strategic implications are, and how prepared the United States is to handle what follows.
The loss to Iran here is considerable. Soleimani was an exceptionally talented and skillful leader who inspired his subordinates and a larger Shia public. He masterminded forms of warfare that were not without precedent—after all, Frenchmen and Englishmen waged proxy war in 17th-century North America—but to which he brought rare skill and subtlety. Iran is a negligible conventional power, but through its mastery of sympathetic and controlled regional militias; clever use of technology (including explosively formed projectiles for roadside bombs, but also drones, speedboats, and missiles); and deployment of propaganda, it has become the most formidable Middle Eastern power after Israel. Soleimani was very, very good at 21st-century war.
Because organizations like the Quds Force, which he led, are not conventional military bureaucracies, their leaders’ charisma and talents matter even more than in, say, the U.S. armed forces. Soleimani’s demise is not only infuriating but demoralizing for his subordinates. A web of contacts and relationships cultivated over nearly 40 years of chronic warfare will vanish with him. Like one of his Hezbollah protégés, Imad Mughniyeh (assassinated by Israel in 2008, possibly with American help), he will prove impossible to replace for some period of time, perhaps forever.
Iran’s reaction to Soleimani’s assassination is unpredictable. It could be an explosion of violence, or long-term revenge plotted and executed over years, or attacks on exposed American outposts in Iraq and Syria, or terrorism in other countries, or mass-casualty events, or the proportionate killing of a senior American general. Or the Iranians could simply curl up in the fetal position. There are precedents for that, too, the most spectacular of which followed the shooting-down of an Iranian commercial aircraft in 1988 by an American warship, which killed all 290 passengers and crew members. It was a dreadful mistake, and in the immediate aftermath the U.S. government braced itself for a wave of terrorism in response. Instead, the Iranian government seemed to conclude that the Americans were willing to go to any lengths to bring them down, and moved quickly to terminate the Iran-Iraq War on terms disadvantageous to themselves.
In the present case, the Iranians are more likely to retaliate, at times and places of their choosing. Unlike in 1988, the Iranians have foreign friends who will not stand with the United States. Indeed, in the past few weeks, the Iranians pointedly held naval exercises with China and Russia, neither of which would be averse to seeing the United States get a bloody nose in the Middle East, and both of which might provide various forms of tacit support.
But the larger questions are about the United States: What is its strategy, and what can it handle?
The Trump administration has taken a hard line with Iran, walking out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the flawed nuclear agreement signed by the Obama administration in 2015, and ramping up sanctions. The theory of victory, however, was never clear. The goal, presumably, was to make Iran see the error of its ways, and sign a far more restrictive agreement covering the development of long-range missiles and pulling it back from its subversive activities throughout the Middle East. But economic pressure alone has been unable to bring Tehran to heel. Indeed, in one of those clever strokes of theatrical violence at which Iran excels, in September 2019 a sophisticated attack on Saudi oil facilities showed just how much damage the Iranians can do. It sent a message to the Gulf countries that the Islamic Republic was not going away, and could do a lot of damage that the Americans could not prevent. The ambiguity of the attack—credit was claimed, implausibly, by Houthi tribesmen in Yemen, but no one doubts that it was Iranian-directed—may be a hint of what lies ahead.
The alternative, then, is the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. But the regime has shown its willingness to slaughter hundreds and even thousands in order to stay in power, most recently in its brutal suppression of price riots. Such brutality works, at least for a time. And since the United States has, for now, gone out of the business of invading Persian Gulf countries, an external power is unlikely to facilitate regime collapse. Thus, even before recent events, Washington’s tactics seemed to have had no discernible way of getting to a strategic outcome.
Which brings to the fore the largest problem: the Trump administration’s national-security team. There is no such thing as a Platonic ideal of strategy. There is, rather, only strategy as can be executed by a particular group of people at any time. Any war—and if you are in the business of blowing people up, you are at war—involves improvisation and reaction. As Winston Churchill somberly observed, “Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.” Iran cannot beat the United States in the field, but it can win the war politically, and may very well do so.
The dominant tone in the American government is military assertiveness. The American military has in its theater commander, General Frank Mackenzie Jr., and its chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, two tough, experienced, aggressive commanders, with lots of time downrange in Iraq, where they personally felt the sting of Soleimani’s tactics. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is forward-leaning, while Defense Secretary Mark Esper, promoted unexpectedly from being secretary of the Army, has been a capable organizer but has not articulated a distinctive strategic point of view. Neither has the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. None has shown a substantial inclination to buck the president’s wishes or even his inclinations.
As the United States has learned to its cost, good decision making requires a forceful brake, or at least a counterpoise, to a tempting decision like the one to eliminate Soleimani. There seems to have been no one playing that role, and thereby ensuring that second- and third-order considerations had been identified and explored. Beneath the Cabinet officials is an uneven crew, many of its members filling acting positions. And above them all is a mercurial, impulsive, and ignorant president who has no desire to be pulled into a Middle Eastern war in an election year, and who wants to look tough without being prepared to follow through. This is a recipe for strategic ineptitude, and possibly failure.
The novelist James Gould Cozzens observed higher headquarters at close range during World War II. He drew on that for his masterly World War II novel, Guard of Honor. In one passage, his protagonist admits to himself that some of his seniors “were not complete fools.” However, he noted,
it was the habit of all of them to look straight, and not very far, ahead. They saw their immediate duties and did those, not vaguely or stupidly, but in an experienced firm way. Then they waited until whatever was going to happen, happened. Then they sized this up, noted whatever new duties there were, and did those. Their position was that of a chess player who had in his head no moves beyond the one it was now his turn to make. He would be dumbfounded when, after he had made four or five such moves (each sensible enough in itself) sudden catastrophe, from an unexpected direction by an unexpected means, fell on him, and he was mated.
Minus the compliments, that may be where the United States government is headed.