Counting the Costs of Reckless Militarism

U.S. troops are still living with the consequences of Trump’s decision two years ago to assassinate Iranian Qods Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Initially sold as necessary to ward off an "imminent attack" that did not exist, the drone strike that killed Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader at the Baghdad airport provoked the largest ballistic missile attack on US forces and completely failed in deterring further attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria. More than a hundred troops were injured in the missile attack on Al Asad base, and dozens of them suffered serious traumatic brain injuries. Many of those injuries were severe enough that they caused permanent and devastating damage. The injuries that Trump casually dismissed as "headaches" have ended the careers of many of these Americans and ruined the lives of some.

While there were fortunately no fatalities in that missile attack, we should also remember the 176 passengers and crew killed when the IRGC shot down their plane after takeoff from Tehran. The Iranian government is obviously responsible for that action, but that accident would never have happened without the crisis atmosphere created by the Soleimani assassination. Ratcheting up tensions with other states and launching gratuitous attacks always have serious consequences even when they do not lead to further escalation. In this case, it was innocent civilians that paid the highest price for reckless militarism.

It was mostly a matter of luck that Trump’s arbitrary and illegal decision to kill a high-ranking Iranian officer did not lead to a larger conflict. No one should assume that we will be that lucky in the next crisis. Failing to remember the costs of reckless militarism in January 2020 will make it easier for policymakers to take unnecessary risks with using force in the future. Many of the troops injured at Al Asad will pay the price for that decision for the rest of their lives, and other US troops are at greater risk today from further attacks so long as they are kept on pointless missions in Iraq and Syria. Trump loyalists continue to praise the assassination for supposedly making Americans safer, but this is demonstrably false.

If anything, Americans are less secure than before because another barrier to illegal warfare has been broken down. The assassination and the Trump administration’s justifications of it have helped pave the way for more executive power grabs and more unnecessary wars in the future. As Brian Finucane explained, "That military operation had many long-term consequences. One of the most dangerous is a set of extreme legal opinions drafted during the Trump administration to justify the president’s actions that now lie ready to be used by future presidents." The justifications for the assassination are dangerous because they chip away at the few remaining limits on what the president can do. Specifically, "these legal justifications erode important constraints imposed by both the US Constitution and the U.N. Charter on the unilateral use of force by the President in the future."

When one president orders illegal attacks and then has his lawyers conjure up justifications, that makes it easier for the next one to break the law more brazenly later. Because Congress routinely fails to take its responsibilities in matters of war seriously, each president "gets away" with doing this, and future presidents can then cite the illegal actions of their predecessors as precedent. Trump flagrantly violated the Constitution and the UN Charter by ordering Soleimani to be killed, and because he paid no price for it a future president will likely cite that decision to justify illegal attacks. That makes it more likely than it was before that a president could start a war with another state without so much as notifying Congress, much less seeking their approval. The US and Iran came alarmingly close to war two years ago, and it happened because of the decision of a single man that was made on a whim. When the president can so easily put the US on a path to war without the public’s knowledge or consent, that makes all of us less safe.

That experience should have put a stop to careless rhetoric about war with Iran, but the near-miss in 2020 has only encouraged hardliners in the US in their desire to attack. Iran hawks now view the Iranian response to Soleimani’s assassination as "muted," and some of them insist that Iran’s response to an attack on their nuclear facilities would be similarly limited. Mark Dubowitz and Matt Kroenig made that claim as they were agitating for attacking Iran just last week. They went even further: "The attack would stun the Iranian political system since it will be unexpected," as if there hasn’t been a constant stream of threats from the US and Israel for years. If the US does launch an illegal attack on Iran at some point, it will be one of the least surprising things of all time.

It is also reasonably certain that there would be significant Iranian retaliation against US forces and regional client states in response to an attack on Iranian soil. Iran has developed its drone and missile forces and proxies for exactly this scenario, and it is absurd to think that they would refuse to use them if their country came under attack. Far from being "muted," the Iranian response to a single drone strike in a different country was unusually direct and immediate. It shows how potentially dangerous Iranian retaliation can be, and it is just one more reason why launching an illegal and unnecessary attack on Iran would be a horrible idea.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.