The goal was to prove American resolve in the face of Iranian attacks. Now, American officials have no doubt the Iranians will respond — but they don’t know how quickly, or how furiously.
President Trump’s decision to strike and kill the second most powerful official in Iran turns a slow-simmering conflict with Tehran into a boiling one, and is the riskiest move made by the United States in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The calculus was straightforward: Washington had to re-establish deterrence, and show the Iranian leadership that missiles fired at ships in the Persian Gulf and at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, along with attacks inside Iraq that cost the life of an American contractor, would not go without a response.
But while senior American officials have no doubt the Iranians will respond, they do not know how quickly, or how furiously.
For a president who repeated his determination to withdraw from the caldron of the Middle East, the strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who for two decades has led Iran’s most fearsome and ruthless military unit, the Quds Force, means there will be no escape from the region for the rest of his presidency, whether that is one year or five. Mr. Trump has committed the United States to a conflict whose dimensions are unknowable, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeks vengeance.
“This is a massive walk up the escalation ladder,” wrote Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute. “With Suleimani dead, war is coming — that seems certain, the only questions are where, in what form and when?”
Bruce Riedel, the former C.I.A. officer who spent his life studying the Middle East, and is now at the Brookings Institution, said, “The administration is taking America into another war in the Middle East, bigger than ever.”
Yet it may not be a conventional war in any sense, since the Iranians’ advantage is all in asymmetric conflict.
Their history suggests they will not take on the United States frontally. Iranians are the masters of striking soft targets, starting in Iraq, but hardly limited to that country. In the past few years, they have honed an ability to cause low-level chaos, and left no doubt that they want to be able to reach the United States.
For now, they cannot — at least in traditional ways.
But they have tried terrorism, including an abortive effort nine years ago to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington, and late Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security was sending out reminders of Iran’s past and current efforts to attack the United States in cyberspace. Until now, that has been limited to breaches on American banks and scrutiny of dams and other critical infrastructure, but they so far have not shown they have the abilities of the Russians or the Chinese.
Their first escalation may well be in Iraq, where they back pro-Iranian militias. But even there, they are an unwelcome force. It was only a few weeks ago when people took to the streets in Iraq to protest Iranian, not American, interference in their politics. Still, there are soft targets throughout the region, as the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities showed.
Complicating the management of a perilous moment is the president’s impeachment and the revival of Iran’s nuclear program.
Here’s how the situation developed over the last eight days.
It is only a matter of time before there are questions about whether the strike was meant to create a counternarrative, one of a conflict with a longtime adversary, while a Senate trial to determine whether to remove Mr. Trump begins. And already there are charges that the president overstepped, and that the decision to kill General Suleimani — if it was a decision, and the Iranian leader was not simply in the wrong convoy at the wrong moment — required congressional approval.
“The question is this,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, asked on Twitter as news of the strike spread. “As reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”
Mr. Trump will argue that he was well within his rights, and that the strike was an act of self-defense. And he will have a strong argument: General Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans in Iraq over the years, and doubtless was planning more.
The American announcement, from Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, cited the general’s plans — which were not specified — as a justification for the action. If there was real intelligence of impending strikes, then the longtime principles of pre-emption, enshrined anew in American policy by President George W. Bush, would apply.
Mr. Trump walked away from the 2015 nuclear agreement more than a year ago, over the objections of many of his own aides and almost all American allies.
At first, the Iranians reacted coolly, and stayed within the limits of the accord. That ended last year, as tensions escalated.
Before the strike, they were expected to announce, in the next week, their next nuclear move — and it seemed likely to be a move closer to enrichment of bomb-grade uranium. That seems far more likely now, and poses the possibility of the next escalation, if it prompts American or Israeli military or cyberaction against Iran’s known nuclear facilities.
Once it buries General Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — which oversaw the secret projects to build nuclear weapons two decades ago — may well determine that it is time to surge ahead. There is little question the United States is far less likely to challenge a country with an existing nuclear arsenal. The Iranians, like the North Koreans and the Pakistanis, could well take General Suleimani’s death as a warning about what happens to countries with no nuclear options.
Even those critical of the president’s nuclear move said they understood why the Iranian general was such a target.
“These guys are the personification of evil,” David H. Petraeus, the retired general who was an architect of the surge in Iraq, said in an interview Thursday night. “We calculated they were responsible for at least 600 deaths” of American soldiers.”
But Mr. Petraeus offered a caution.
“There will be an escalation,” he said. “I assume they have to do something. And the only question is, over time, have we created more deterrence than if we had not acted.”
What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.
Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.
.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.
.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.
Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.
.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.
When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.
A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.
.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.
It’s not that the Amish view technology as inherently evil. No rules prohibit them from using new inventions. But they carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it. And the best clue as to what will happen comes from watching their neighbors.
“The Amish use us as an experiment,” says Jameson Wetmore, an engineer turned social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “They watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then they decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves.”
.. The motto of the 1933 World Fair in Chicago was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.”
It was really a very prevalent idea that technology was going to save us all. Basically, we needed to worship it if we were going to have any chance of survival. This was just out of the Great Depression. There were a lot of really destitute people. Governments and companies were saying that technology can lead us out of this. It may not always be comfortable, but we have to ride it out.
.. That is the clear push coming into the 1930s and into the 1940s and 1950s. Household technologies are all the rage. When you hit the 1960s and 1970s, there is this shift. I think the hallmarks of that shift are the dropping of the atomic bomb, and then of course you have Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, and you also have Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
.. It’s interesting that the Amish have different districts, and each district has different rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Yet it’s very clear there are two technologies that, as soon as the community accepts them, they are no longer Amish. Those technologies are the television and the automobile.
.. The reason the Amish rejected television is because it is a one-way conduit to bring another society into their living rooms. And they want to maintain the society as they have created it. And the automobile as well. As soon as you have a car, your ability to leave your local community becomes significantly easier.
.. You no longer have to rely on your neighbor for eggs when you run out.
.. Think about the origins of Facebook. This was not a value-free technology. The goal was to connect people.
.. A big part of the sexual revolution was just the fact that young people could escape their parents with a car in ways they never could before.
.. I asked one Amish person why they didn’t use automobiles. He simply smiled and turned to me and said, “Look what they did to your society.” And I asked what do you mean? “Well, do you know your neighbor? Do you know the names of your neighbors?”
.. For the Amish, there are no rules prohibiting new technologies. So typically what will happen is one member of the community will say, “You know, I’m fed up with axes. I’m using the chainsaw.”
So maybe he goes out and begins to use a chainsaw. You might get some stern looks from neighbors, but officially it’s not prohibited. Every six months, the [Amish district councils] sit down and discuss. People are beginning to use chainsaws in our communities: Is this what we want? And then they have a conversation about it.
.. But the Amish said the Sabbath was something they would not change. They would not compromise their day of rest. They worked with local milk wholesalers and arranged to have their milk picked up early Saturday and Saturday night, so they would have Sunday free.
.. One thing it’s taken me awhile to understand is that I don’t think the Amish believe in progress. I don’t think the Amish believe there is a perfect world in the future.
.. It’s pretty crazy if you stop to think about it to realize that car travel is so important to us, that were willing to sacrifice 30,000 to 40,000 lives a year for it.
.. All things being equal, it’s hard to say decreasing infant mortality and radically increasing the life expectancy of people isn’t in some ways good.
I think if you’re like the Amish, it’s not a goal you are going to be working for. You’ll be satisfied with much lower life expectancies.
.. In the 1930s, we ended up as a society deciding that four-year-olds should be the one to blame. We began to train people even before they began to speak about how to cross the street and how to avoid it in the street. We redesigned our world to be safe
.. When sociologists were really diving into the Amish culture in the 1960s and 1970s, 75% of Amish children would decide to become Amish adults. The most recent statistics show that 95% are now choosing to join the Amish Church.