Can Europe Make It?

Trump is outrageous – but US foreign policy is the killer

Trump’s assassination of Qessim Soleimani follows a policy of international lawlessness that has been supported by all US parties and presidents since 9/11. Any European response must address this fundamental fact.

Markha Valenta
10 January 2020
Anti-war activists join Iranian-Americans, Muslims, and communities of color in a rally at Foley Square, New York, January 9, 2020.
Anti-war activists join Iranian-Americans, Muslims, and communities of color in a rally at Foley Square, New York, January 9, 2020.
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Erik McGregor/PA. All rights reserved.

European politicians, policy-makers and advisors have been feverishly strategizing about how best to respond to the crisis created by Trump’s murder of Qessim Soleimani. Nathalie Tocci, among others, has strongly argued that Europe’s attempts at de-escalating tensions in the Middle East must be combined with weaning the EU from military and economic dependence on America.

Tocci’s arguments align with incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s drive to increase the EU’s geopolitical footprint by “learning the language of power.”

That entire project, however, risks failure if it does not address one fundamental challenge confronting it: US international criminality. Europe’s highest political class, however, dares not publicly name it as such. There are no words for it in the public lexicon of European political leaders.

There are no words for [US international criminality] in the public lexicon of European political leaders.

This reflects Europe’s material dependence on the US; its ideological capture by the US War on Terror; and its profound ambivalence about the equality of Muslim and Middle Eastern lives.

At the same time, within Europe, human rights, international law and the rule of law have been under sustained assault from campaigns of delegitimation by right-wing populists and pundits. This has pushed them from being preeminent components of Europe’s international vision, to the very margins.

Turning a blind eye

So, Von der Leyen’s political program speaks of reinforced borders, green economies, European values and much else, but does not mention either war or human rights once. This silence does not bode well for Von der Leyen’s geopolitical ambitions: it is after all impossible to do geopolitics without having some vision on war and human rights.

To have a vision on these, however, would mean responding to America’s recent decades of war-mongering, torture, targeted killing, proxy militias, economic aggression, support for violent colonial dispossession, and friendships with a host of virulently repressive autocrats.

It would mean deciding whether migrant, Muslim and Middle Eastern lives are equal to those of the west. Until they are, America will kill with impunity and Europe will variously legitimate or ignore it – while doubling down to reinforce its borders in order to keep out the refugees such foreign policy produces.

International stability – the thing Europe most wants to facilitate – will mean challenging American violence and impunity – the thing Europe least dares to do. Until then, America will remain an international killing machine.

Trump’s murder of Qessim Soleimani exposes this dynamic with great clarity. It is an outrageous deed. It would be convenient if Trump were the only one responsible for this violation of international law and human rights. But the situation is different and worse than that: while Trump creates spectacles of insult, inhumanity and violence, these are facilitated by structural US policies in place long before his election – ones that Europe must confront.

In 1989, Donald Trump and Richard Nixon were in discussion at the afterparty of a gala in Houston. “Mr. President,” Trump said, “it bothers me no end that these [Iranian] dinghies in the Strait of Hormuz are punching big holes in our battleships, and that we, America, are not doing anything about it. If you were still president, what would you do differently?”

Nixon answered, “If I were president, there wouldn’t be an Iran.”

The profound desire to eradicate Iran is deeply implanted among Republicans. It has been transmitted from one generation to the next and now infuses many of those advising Trump, himself much inspired by Nixon.

It is a crucial starting point for understanding the assassination of Qessim Soleimani. The United States, most especially its Republicans, never forgave Iran for its Revolution and its spectacular insolence in holding some fifty-two Americans hostage for all the world to see.

This fury is a striking irony in light of how great has been US interference with Iranian politics and society – from a military coup to deposing a prime-minister; the supply of weapons and intelligence to its enemy during the deadliest war of the twentieth century (ranked by population death rates); decades of sanctions that have created shortages of medicine, goods and employment, and fundamentally disrupted its economic development; as well as a direct cyber attack by Stuxnet, the world’s first digital weapon.

Yet for those who despise Iran, the hostage drama was a worse assault than any of this and the only way to undo this existential insult to America would be to erase the Iranian regime itself. Or at least bring it to its knees.

But Iran has survived decades of enmity with America without collapsing. Quite the opposite: it has maintained a tight, repressive control of Iranian society and politics; it has consolidated and expanded its regional power; the export of its revolutionary ideology stimulated a regional Shi’a Revival; and it has developed a network of allied militant organizations concentrated in the Middle East but reaching far beyond.

American Iran hawks find this impossible to accept. So they blame Iran itself: its success in resisting American power proves its own criminality – even when Iran’s means mimic those of America: military proxies; covert actions; a highly effective propaganda machine; powerful blending of political and religious interests; and transnational networks linking the military complex to economics, politics, culture and identity.

Soleimani played a particularly important and ruthless role in this and it was this which for America made Soleimani, in the words of MSNBC, “the world’s no. 1 bad guy.”

A show of force

The news is full of expressions of fury and aversion to Trump’s murder of Soleimani. George Packer finds relatively unimportant the question of whether or not this was a crime: what truly infuriates him is the apparent lack of strategy and consultation with experts. Graham Fuller is livid that Trump has opened the Pandora’s box of political assassination.

And yet, Trump’s killing of Soleimani is the outcome of years of Republican foreign policy, well stocked by multiple generations of Iran hawks, some of whom are Trump’s closest advisors. Crucially, not just the bellicose anti-Iran hawks are with Trump on this, but so too are his constituents.

In assassinating Soleimani, Trump has just given his followers what they most want. There is, of course, always a complex fuzziness in that regard: do Republicans support Trump’s actions because they support Trump whatever he does? (“If I stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot a man …”) Or does Trump act as he does because it will consolidate the support of his supporters? Who follows whom?

To understand the logic of Trump’s politics it is virtually useless to search for an ideology and set of principles beyond racist nationalism, unilateralism and isolationism. Much more important is Trump’s fine attunement to those who adore him – Evangelicals and conservative Jews; rural and high-school educated whites; small-government libertarians; US-oriented corporations; the coal, manufacturing and financial sectors.

He has fought to give them what they want, even when diametrically opposed to earlier positions he has taken: anti-abortion justices and judges; legal religious exemptions; attacks on Hillary Clinton; gutted anti-discrimination policies; the (slow) decimation of universal health care; Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; tax cuts for the rich; financial and environmental deregulation; migrant incarceration camps; the Wall and much more.

In exchange for their worship and loyalty, he gives them what they want. This is the beating heart of Trumpism.

Trump’s relation to his constituents is as transactional as any other: in exchange for their worship and loyalty, he gives them what they want. This is the beating heart of Trumpism.

Trump’s dramatic shredding of the JCPOA – the Iran Nuclear Deal – thrilled another set of constituents: the anti-Iranians. Their politics align closely with his nationalist Islamophobia.

Trump both violated and decimated the nuclear deal by unilaterally deciding to wreck Iran’s economy and generate unrest that would lead to collapse. Instead, the economy survived and the regime contained the civil unrest by killing hundreds of demonstrators, while the streets ran with blood. So the anti-Iranians wanted more: a real show of force.

Symbolic drama

Until now, Trump has resisted such pressure. While Trump has been willing to unleash the hound dogs of ICE on migrant families and communities across the nation – enjoining them to ever more ferocity and inhumanity – he has avoided international violence. It is the logic of the bully, all too willing to damage those weaker than himself, but fearful of a real fight.

The overrunning of the embassy in Baghdad, however, changed all that. It is all too easy to imagine the impact such images would have on a territorial creature such as Trump. His entire presidency has been staked on building impenetrable walls and travel bans to hold off the fearful hordes of the world.

To then see Muslims overtaking the embassy grounds and chanting on its roof – while American diplomats and staff cower in safe rooms and flee – can only have been grotesque and unbearable to Trump.

Mike Pompeo, obsessed with Iran (he opened a special Iran center at the CIA when he was the director) saw his chance. He had discussed an attack on Soleimani with Trump before, pushing this for the past year. Now he told Trump exactly what he could do and to whom, coordinating closely with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (a classmate from West Point who shares Pompeo’s anti-Iran fervor).

Trump’s tendency to personalize politics – invariably reducing international relations to interpersonal feuds and bonding – would have made him extremely susceptible to agreeing to the murder. If the Iranian regime could not be eradicated, pulverizing its second-most-powerful figure would be deliciously rewarding and appeal directly to Trump’s hunger for symbolic drama.

Yet the raw, shocking blatancy of the assassination – a declaration of war in the form of bodies blown to bits across the landscape without warning – confronts us directly with the libidinal brutality of the Trump presidency at the level of blood and guts, lawless killing, and swaggering power.

It shifts Trump’s international political register from the realm of twitter, economics, negotiations, law, and military deployments to that of performative butchery – the specialization of the likes of Daesh.

As with Daesh and al Qaeda, however, Trump’s grotesque public violence does not mark an absence of strategy: quite the opposite.

Violated norms

Like 9/11, the killing of Soleimani is a staged event, whose impact far outstrips the organizational and strategic effects of suddenly removing the head of Iran’s Quds Force. It does this precisely by violating the norms, rules and ethics we had thought were in place.

Encapsulated in a raft of international laws and guidelines that include the Nuremberg Principles, the International Criminal Court and Human Rights Law, these should have safeguarded against such public murder by an American president. Instead, Trump is claiming the right to act without regard to the law by making himself the legitimator of his own violence.

While Pompeo claims Soleimani was preparing an imminent attack on Americans, there is no evidence for this. Incidental information – Soleimani was on his way to discuss a Saudi proposal with the Iraqi prime minister – discredits this further.

Trump’s impunity to kill as he decides is as much the message – to Iran, to the world and to his own constituents – as the specific, targeted punishment of a hated enemy. “Make America Great Again” in effect has become “Make America Kill Again.”

One of the ironies of this is that Pompeo himself warned of it during Trump’s presidential campaign (as reported in a great New Yorker article by Susan B. Glasser). Initially a supporter of Marco Rubio, Pompeo told a Kansas audience during the primaries of his disgust at Trump (as Trump listened in the wings):

“You know, Donald Trump the other day said that ‘If he tells a soldier to commit a war crime, the soldier will just go do it.’ [booing from the audience] ‘They’ll do as I tell them to do’.”

Pompeo continued, “American soldiers don’t swear an allegiance to President Trump or any other President. They take an oath to defend our Constitution … Marco Rubio will never demean our soldiers by saying that he will order them to do things that are inconsistent with our Constitution.”

Having by the strangest twists of fate become Trump’s Secretary of State, Pompeo has transformed not only his feelings about Trump but also his squeamishness about personal loyalty and war crimes.

Profoundly aware of the premium Trump places on loyalty, he has become so obsequious that a former American ambassador once described him as being “like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” In the heat of the fusion and with the power of American military might at his (president’s) finger tips, Pompeo has lost all sight of what constitutes a war crime.

Obama’s precedent

Yet US international criminality is unbeholden to person or party. It is an equal-opportunity policy and ideology, just as alluring to those who preceded Trump and Pompeo as it now is to the Republicans. Indeed it was Barack Obama who made targeted assassinations as American as apple pie.

Following the bloodbath of Vietnam and scandals of Nixon, Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan prohibited assassinations by Executive Order in the 1970s and 80s. After 9/11, assassination returned under George W. Bush, but relatively hesitantly. Barack Obama then threw ethics and caution to the wind, dramatically expanding and fully implementing such assassinations as a core component of foreign policy.

By 2012, the Obama administration had normalized “Terror Tuesdays.” During this weekly ritual, 100 members of the national security apparatus vetted terrorist suspects to recommend to the President as next in line to be killed by drones. With no input or oversight of the process by Congress or the Judiciary, Obama would review their recommendations and personally make the final decision of which suspects to kill by drone. Cumulatively, these kills would include hundreds of civilian adults and children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By 2012, the Obama administration had normalized “Terror Tuesdays.”

Along the way, Obama thoroughly lost sight of his own hubris, which assumed that the intellectual rigor he applied to the process compensated fully and adequately for its complete extrajudiciality, violation of the Bill of Rights and Human Rights. So egregious were the casualties, that Obama was becoming known as the “Assassin-in-Chief.”

Going rogue

Seven years later, the Trump administration would designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps – the national military – a terrorist organization. In the first instance, this enabled the United States to impose wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on the IRGC. More broadly, it further consolidated the structural and strategic delegitimation of Iran as a sovereign state in the international system.

For years, the US has labeled Iran an exporter of terrorism. Designating its military as terrorist, meant in effect designating the Iranian state itself as terrorist – in the process taking it out of the domain of international relations and shifting it into the violent, arbitrary and extralegal limbo of the War on Terror.

The murder of Qessim Soleimani is both the logical outcome of this and prime evidence for the extent to which the United States has itself gone rogue. Notably, the same week that the US designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization, the US also imposed sanctions on officials of the International Criminal Court (ICC) involved in the examination of US actions in Afghanistan. Not only does the US refuse to recognize the legitimacy and authority of the court, but it now actively undermines and disrupts it by harshly punishing those who gather information on its behalf.

In effect, the United States’ international lawlessness is increasing incrementally. This complements a final core element of Trump’s foreign policy – and the one that time and again is most overlooked by those responding to Trump’s behavior: his isolationism.

In and of itself isolationism might sound innocuous or even seem to be precisely the thing that will bring about a reduction in US international war-mongering. Trumpian isolationism, however, means something different. Rather than only the extraction of America from its many sites of conflict across the world, Trumpian isolationism includes equally the disruption of alliances, treaties, historical relations and humanitarianism.

Humanity is not in America’s interest

Trumpian disruption occurs in a fashion that is arbitrary, aggressive, has no practical limits and is merciless in its lack of empathy. It is raw narcissism as foreign policy. Given how deeply America is embedded and interwoven with the international system, such isolationism has the potential to be as deadly in its own fashion as an invasion.

Where the entire thrust of US international relations since World War II has been to expand and consolidate the central role of the United States in directing the order of the world, Trump wants to undo this.

In this regard, Trump radically breaks with his predecessors and with the entire conceptual, ideological and institutional infrastructure in place to legitimize and perpetuate the international role of the United States. This disrupts not only actual international relations, but the logic of the system itself, built as it is around American hegemony. Trump is to the international order, what the Tea Party was to American politics.

Trump is to the international order, what the Tea Party was to American politics.

Like them, Trump thrives on disruption rather than seeking to avoid or mitigate it. The politics of scandal and outrage are the air he breathes. Others’ instability is Trump’s comfort zone.

To abide by multilateral agreements or conform to norms and conventions – from diplomatic, to legal to moral ones – which limit US unilateralism is, from this angle, a betrayal of Americans and US interests.

Correspondingly, all arguments made by so many commentators that Trump’s assassination of Soleimani will destabilize a precarious situation in Iraq are dismissed as irrelevant. Rather than reflecting an absence of strategy, Trump’s uninterest in the international impact of his actions – relative to his profound interest in his constituents’ concerns – is the essence of his strategy.

That he might start a war is irrelevant as such to Trump. That Fox News’ Tucker Carlson rails against it, however, matters mightily. It tells Trump what Fox News viewers care about. And that is what he cares about.

Trump’s policy of isolationism is radical most especially in its absolute lack of empathy and humanity. See his betrayal of the Kurds in northern Syria, see the tortured inhumanity of his refugee policies for Central Americans. Embedded in it is an absolute and insurmountable divide between Americans and others.

Trump’s uninterest in the international impact of his actions – relative to his profound interest in his constituents’ concerns – is the essence of his strategy.

Much as Trump understands power in zero-sum, transactional terms, he responds to humanitarian issues in the same fashion: to account for others’ humanity detracts from America’s interests.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – some days ago prevented by the US from attending a meeting at the UN (another violation of a US international agreement) – responded to the murder of Soleimani in a speech broadcast live on television. "Our region, because of the US intervention ... has become victim to the endless war," Zarif said. "Removing the US from western Asia is what will ... end wars and death in this region."

Killing machine

Zarif’s words ring true and will continue to apply to America regardless of who is elected in November. The easy continuity between Obama and Trump as they both slipped into extralegality – the frontier justice of international lynching – should warn us. This is neither about persons nor about political parties. Much less is the problem Trump’s lack of strategy or his racist, Islamophobic nationalism. Obama was a cosmopolitan internationalist, but when it came to commanding assassinations, he found it easy to kill like the best of them.

Obama’s articulateness masked his violence; Trump’s violence masks America’s. It is America that has become an extralegal killing machine and it is America that must be brought to heel. Until the world sets itself that task, the violence will not end.

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