Cue Inigo Montoya

The last week of nail-biting US foreign policy and flirtation with all-out war against Iran has served to highlight a couple of basic concepts that the Trump administration clearly does not comprehend. I’m going to touch on one here.

Let’s talk about the concept of “imminence.” The assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in Iraq a week ago was justified, according to President Trump, because Soleimani was planning “imminent and sinister” attacks that would kill Americans. The president elaborated:

“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump said during brief remarks at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “We did not take action to start a war.”

Without divulging details about what led to the early morning airstrike that killed Soleimani and nine others, the president said the United States “caught” the general “in the act and terminated him.”

OK, sounds serious. After all, the standard definition of “imminent” is that something is “likely to occur at any moment.”

Unless you’re Secretary of State Mike Pompeo …

Apparently the secretary also doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “consistent.”

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

At least that’s the implication of a new report in the Washington Post this afternoon:

On the day the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, U.S. forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.

The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.

If this latest report is accurate, then what the United States did in assassinating Soleimani was not a defensive use of pre-emptive military force, but an aggressive act of war. One which, so far, has not spiraled out of control.

So far.

‘They didn’t help us with Normandy’

(Credit: Steve Breen, San Diego Tribune)

That’s how President Trump yesterday justified his shameless betrayal of Syria’s Kurds, who for years have been the sharp end of the spear in our fight against the Islamic State.

“The Kurds are fighting for their land,” Trump told reporters at the White House during an event in the Roosevelt Room.

“And as somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example. They mentioned names of different battles. But they’re there to help us with their land and that’s a different thing.”

There’s a lot of stupid that we could unpack here. I mean, how many Turkish battalions landed alongside American GIs at Omaha or Utah Beach? (And as an aside, Kurds did in fact fight on the side of the Allies in World War II, helping to stymie a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq then serving under British command in other theaters.) But then, the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of Trump’s justification is really beside the point.

What his comment shines a bright spotlight upon is his overarching tendency to view all relationships in purely transactional terms. The question isn’t what have you done for us before, or even lately, but what are you doing for us right now? The idea of loyalty to an ally is completely irrelevant in this calculus.

By Trump’s entirely self-serving logic, stabbing the Kurds in the back is the perfectly natural thing to do. When they were fighting for us on the frontlines in the war against ISIS, losing nearly 11,000 of their own people in the process, keeping Turkey at bay was the smart play. But now that Trump has declared the caliphate “100% defeated” we don’t need them anymore. So the Kurds are on their own.

As Elliot Hanlon explains at Slate:

The Kurds were an ally worth defending when we had a common strategic interest in defeating ISIS, the argument goes, but now that the U.S. feels it has accomplished that, there’s not much use for the Kurds anymore.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues on this second day of the Turkish offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. But it’s not that Trump bears the our one-time allies any ill will. Far from it:

“With all of that being said, we like the Kurds.”

In Syria, our betrayal is complete

American armored vehicles in Syrian Kurdistan. (Credit: AFP)

Last night, to the surprise of both the Department of Defense and State Department, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its military forces from northern Syria, opening the door for neighboring Turkey to stage the invasion of the region it has yearned for.

Turkey’s target: The Kurdish militias that have been our staunchest allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria. This completes the American betrayal of our allies there.

First, in June 2017, Trump killed the program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels who had been battling both ISIS and the brutal government of Bashar Assad. This was an outcome long desired by Russian president and Trump patron Vladimir Putin, who is deeply invested in seeing his client Assad retain power. I wrote then:

For their part, Syria’s moderate rebels were understandably taken by surprise. Even if the effectiveness of US support had been swamped by the efforts of Russia (and Iran) to militarily prop up the Assad regime, the rebels still didn’t expect to be so unceremoniously hung out to dry:

“The program played an important role in organizing and supporting the rebels,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saud, who commands the Division 13 rebel group in Idlib province.

He said that “this won’t affect our fight against the regime, the Islamic State or Nusra,” which is the former name of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. But he also expressed disbelief that the United States would end its support.

“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that.”

And now the Kurds get to experience what happens when America abandons its proxies. Perhaps they should ask the Montagnards or Brigade 2506 how things turn out.

This is a very dangerous moment

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif (Credit: Washington Post)

Which one of these statements sends a clear message?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif:

“I’m making a very serious statement that we don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” Mr. Zarif told CNN in an interview. “But we won’t blink to defend our territory.

President Donald J. Trump:

“There are many options. There’s the ultimate option, and there are options a lot less than that,” the president told reporters in Los Angeles, while announcing a move to increase sanctions on Iran.

I feel pretty confident that the Iranians are not bluffing. But how confident can anyone be about American intentions?

You tell me how all this is going to play out.