By Michael T Klare, Le Monde diplomatique: President Donald Trump’s decision to order a lethal attack on Iran’s top military leader, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, surprised many foreign and domestic observers. Although there have been tensions in the Gulf region for some time, there were no indications of an impending confrontation between the US and Iran or between Iran and the other Gulf powers; in fact, there is some evidence that Soleimani was in Baghdad, where he was killed, to consider a Saudi proposal for dampening these tensions.
The Trump administration’s explanation for Soleimani’s killing — that Trump acted to avert an ‘imminent’ attack on US embassies and military installations in Iraq and elsewhere in the Gulf — is hardly persuasive. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo stated after the attack that ‘we had deep intelligence indicating there was active plotting to put American lives at risk.’ But no intelligence validating this claim has yet been shared with members of Congress, and defence secretary Mark T Esper has said that he was not aware of any specific intelligence about forthcoming attacks on US embassies.
Analysts have advanced other explanations, many of them linked to Trump’s propensity for reckless behaviour and his personal reactions. Some speculate that he was afraid of being trapped in a Benghazi-like disaster, similar to the September 2012 terrorist attack that killed US ambassador J Christopher Stevens and provided the Republicans with an excuse to harass then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in a congressional inquiry. Others claim that he was afraid of seeming weak for failing to respond to earlier Iranian provocations, such as the September 2019 missile attack on the Saudi oil processing facility at Abqaiq. While these anxieties likely played some role in Trump’s decision, they were hardly a sufficient motive.
Trump has been more aloof from the machinery of policy-making than other recent presidents. Nonetheless, he is regularly surrounded by senior officials from the state and defence departments, CIA, National Security Council and other security-oriented agencies, who attempt to brief him on key concerns and to advocate particular courses of action. More often than not — for example in pressing for higher military spending — these agencies have acted in concert, but they are deeply divided over grand strategic policy.
For the past two years, the US national security establishment has been split into two powerful camps, each with its own ties to the White House. On one side are the ‘ideologues’, who believe that the Middle East should remain a primary focus of US strategic planning and that the US should assume leadership in building an international coalition to contain Iran, and, if possible, bring about the collapse of the current regime. This group is led by Pompeo and vice-president Mike Pence, and backed by key Republican figures in Congress and the White House, notably Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, who often echo the views of top Saudi and Israeli officials with equally harsh views on the Iranian regime.
On the other side is a group of senior military and intelligence officials — whom I call the ‘geopoliticians’ — who view the rise of China as the principal challenge and believe the US should shift its military resources from the Middle East to Asia.
Both camps firmly believe the US should remain the world’s paramount power, exercising dominion in all key areas. But despite its enormous military strength, the US does not possess unlimited military capabilities, and so top leaders often disagree over how best to allocate the available resources (aircraft carriers, army divisions etc) to the various theatres of contention. As long as Islamic terrorism and ISIS were viewed as the principal threats to US security, the Middle East was accorded first claim to those resources. But now, to the consternation of the ideological camp, many in Washington believe that Asia has become the epicentre of global power competition and that the bulk of US forces must be concentrated there; while the Middle East still occupies an important location on the strategic chessboard for these officials, it is as a secondary theatre, principally important as a source of energy for Asia.
Until recently, it appeared as if the geopolitical camp was in the forefront. This group, led by the senior Pentagon leadership and including senior figures from the Treasury Department and the intelligence community, claims that the US has been excessively preoccupied with Middle East conflicts of questionable strategic import while its great-power rivals, notably China and Russia, have exploited US strategic myopia to bolster their military strength and diplomatic outreach. They argue that China has also been able to marshal its vast economic and industrial strength to enhance the technological capacity of its military forces, significantly eroding US technological advantages. Powerful figures in the business community, many of whom enjoy close ties with the White House, have also expressed their concern over China’s rise.
For a time it seemed that the curtailment of China’s rise had become the dominant strategic outlook in Washington. The Department of Defense has requested billions of dollars in additional funding for the development of advanced weaponry and has begun repositioning forces from secondary conflict zones, such as North Africa and the Middle East, to areas immediately surrounding China and Russia. Defence secretary Esper reconfirmed this policy in his final public address of 2019, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. He promised that the Pentagon would ‘develop and deploy new warfighting doctrine’ while, at the same time, ‘we are working to re-allocate our forces and equipment to priority theatres that enable us to better compete with China and Russia’ (author’s italics).
This belief that the US military should re-allocate its forces and equipment from secondary theatres, presumably including the Persian Gulf area, to ‘priority theatres’ elsewhere is anathema to the ideological camp, with its fixation on Iran. For them, the Iranian regime is both a moral and a strategic threat: moral because of its fierce hostility to Israel, Judaism and the US; strategic because of its sway over well-armed militias throughout the region, its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its ambitions to dominate the Gulf. Pence declared in Warsaw last February that Iran’s current regime aims to ‘recreate the ancient Persian Empire under the modern dictatorship of the ayatollahs’. He insisted that only a firm and unremitting response from the US could prevent such a disaster from occurring.
If we attempt to recreate the series of events that led up to Trump’s January 3 decision to kill Soleimani, it seems that the ideological camp, led by Pompeo and Pence, played an outsized role in swaying the president, pushing the geopolitical camp to the side. All accounts suggest that Pompeo, and not Esper, got Trump’s attention during most of the high-level discussions over US policy toward Iran. Pompeo, a graduate of West Point and former army officer, is known in Washington as a fierce opponent of the Iranian regime and is certain to have lobbied against any reduction in US military strength in the greater Gulf area.
So it would seem that Trump, who has always had powerful anti-Iranian feelings of his own, had fallen under the sway of the anti-Iranian faction within the national security establishment, predisposing him to approve a measure that was bound to provoke a harsh response from Iran and so ensure an enlarged US military presence in the region. Although tensions have calmed a little since the initial Iranian response to Soleimani’s assassination, the likelihood of future, more indirect, Iranian attacks, such as militia assaults on US or allied positions elsewhere in the region, remains high. As a result, the thousands of army and marine corps reinforcements rushed to the Gulf in recent weeks are likely to remain there for some time to come, eliminating any possibility of re-allocating forces to the Asia-Pacific region.
Stepping back, it appears that Trump has retreated from his hardline stance toward China and embraced a more hostile stance toward Iran and its proxies. This means that, for now, US forces will continue to be concentrated in the Gulf and that the prospects for a US-Iranian clash remain high. It is certain, however, that the pendulum will eventually swing in the other direction, toward a more Asia-focused strategy. US foreign policy elites are too worried about the rise of China to allow what they view as inconsequential squabbles in the Middle East to distract attention from the momentous task of preserving the US’s superiority over its prime geopolitical competitors.
First published in Le Monde diplomatique.
Michael T Klare is a professor at Hampshire College (Amherst, Massachusetts) and the author most recently of All Hell Breaking Loose: the Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change/, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2019.