The U.S. stands on the brink of an unpredictable war in the Middle East.
The president, fairly untutored in foreign affairs, ran for office promising to pull back from American commitments overseas. But the vice president and a powerful Cabinet secretary, seeing a chance to follow through on their deep-rooted ideological commitments, have pushed him to take military action in a moment of opportunity, ramifications be damned.
Even as civilian leaders march toward war, military officers seem unprepared or at least startled by the administration’s belligerence. The government justifies its actions with vague statements about intelligence information and by claiming spurious links to the September 11 attacks, and top officials insist that American actions will lead to dancing in the streets of Iraq. But it becomes quickly clear that the administration hasn’t done much advance planning or thought out its future steps.
It’s 2002–03, as the George W. Bush administration heads toward the war in Iraq, but it’s also the current crisis with Iran. Each new piece of information about President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani produces sobering parallels with the situation 17 years ago. That should give the nation pause, and raise some pointed questions for the Trump administration.
The public still doesn’t have good clarity on how, why, and when the president made the call to kill Soleimani in an air strike on January 3, but a picture is gradually emerging. The Washington Post reports that “Trump’s decision to approve the killing of Iran’s top military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, [came] at the urging of [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and Vice President [Mike] Pence.” Pompeo in particular had been pushing for a more violent response to Iran for months, and was deeply disappointed when Trump abruptly called off a punitive air strike last summer.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports, top Pentagon officials were “stunned” by Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani, the most extreme of several options. In the favored patois of the military, initialisms, this smacks of CYA: Having offered the president this option, commanders now seem to be backing away from it. Nonetheless, it also indicates differences of judgment between Cabinet secretaries and the military.
This sounds a lot like the run-up to the Iraq War. We now know that Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and others in the Bush White House had been seeking regime change in Iraq from the start of the administration. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld began seeking a pretext to begin a war with Iraq. But some military commanders were wary. By 2002, the U.S. was already engaged in a war in Afghanistan, attempting to root out Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which had perpetrated the attacks. Some generals questioned the wisdom of launching another major war, or argued that the U.S. would need a much larger armed force than the administration intended to send. Dissenters, including Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, were forced out.
In the Trump administration, there’s already been an exodus of defense officials who challenge the president. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned roughly a year ago after a disagreement about Syria policy. Brett McGurk, the top envoy for fighting the Islamic State, also quit. On Monday, Pentagon Chief of Staff Eric Chewning, a Shanahan hire, resigned, though no reason was immediately offered for his departure.*
To bring the public around to support the war in Iraq, the Bush administration offered a range of justifications. By misconstruing, twisting, or concocting intelligence, the White House overstated the Iraqi weapons-of-mass destruction program and warned that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. Bush and Cheney claimed that Hussein was closely tied to al-Qaeda, creating a putative link between the 9/11 attacks and a war in Iraq. The vice president said an American invasion would inspire celebrations in the streets of Iraq, similar to those after the Allied re-conquest of France: “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” he said on Meet the Press.
But after the invasion, no weapons of mass destruction were found. Cheney, who had scolded the press for not reporting the Saddam–al-Qaeda connection, later admitted there wasn’t one. And while many Iraqis were pleased to be rid of Saddam, there was not the widespread jubilation Cheney expected—and conditions have gone downhill since then. Following the successful toppling of Saddam, Iraq saw looting, widespread violence, sectarian strife, and the rise of ISIS (to offer a drastically summarized version). As many as 200,000 civilians have died in Iraq. Nostalgia for Saddam is common. Over the weekend, in the wake of the Soleimani strike, the Iraqi Parliament voted to expel U.S. forces, in anger over what it viewed as a violation of sovereignty.
Compare that effort to sell the war with this moment. The administration has claimed that it killed Soleimani because of intelligence about an impending strike that would kill Americans, but there are already questions about how convincing or urgent that intelligence really was. Vice President Pence, echoing Cheney and Bush, falsely tried to claim a link between Soleimani and the 9/11 attacks. Pompeo, echoing Cheney, claimed that Iraqis were “dancing in the street for freedom” after the Soleimani strike, and while he tweeted a video that showed a small celebration, it was misleading, especially in light of the parliamentary vote.
Aside from the false justifications behind it, one reason the Iraq invasion turned into a disaster was a lack of planning for what would happen after the initial military phase of the war. Similarly, it appears that Trump acted impulsively and without much thought for what would happen after Soleimani’s death.
The White House still hasn’t offered a persuasive explanation for the authority under which it assassinated Soleimani, citing the 1943 killing of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the planner of the Pearl Harbor attacks—but Japan and the U.S. were in a declared war at the time, while the U.S. is not at war with Iran. Other than a vague suggestion that Iran will come to the bargaining table, and threats of severe responses (including potential war crimes) if Iran retaliates, Trump hasn’t articulated what steps he expects next in the confrontation. And the U.S. appears to have been caught flat-footed by the Iraqi parliamentary vote, and, according to Axios, tried unsuccessfully to stop it.
It doesn’t even require much squinting to see the ways the Iran crisis resembles the lead-up to the Iraq War. Practically the only thing that’s left is for Trump to claim that he was against killing Soleimani all along.
Just because the parallels are striking doesn’t mean this moment will turn out just like the Iraq War did. It’s very difficult to forecast next steps, but it also would be difficult to replicate the greatest foreign-policy blunder in America’s history. The scope of hostilities right now is much narrower, encompassing only one military commander, and while there is a risk of Iranian retaliation, the U.S. and Iran have been engaged in a hot-and-cold proxy conflict for decades. The current flare-up is really just the latest episode in the extended Iraq disaster.
Yet the factors that made the Iraq War a disaster are present here: false and dubious claims; hubristic thinking; lack of foresight and planning; civilian-military divides; ideology eclipsing practical strategy. All of this means that while the Iran crisis may not be a disaster on the scale of the Iraq War, it could easily be a disaster. Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” There’s no reason it can’t repeat itself as just another tragedy, though.
*This article previously misstated the name of the Pentagon Chief of Staff.