Right Opinion

Soleimani Had It Coming, but Don't Get Cocky

Peggy Noonan · Jan. 13, 2020

So far our recent encounter with Iran looks as if it ended pretty well, or as well as it could have. At the moment it looks like we’re more or less where we were before Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was killed, only he’s gone and that’s good. There is no particular reason to believe Iran has been chastened, but it might have been tempered, reminded that there are limits. For the first time in 40 years, since the hostages were taken in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian government took a hard jab from America right in the face. This appears to have left them surprised, rocked back on their heels.

It’s not terrible that that government be put on the back of its heels.

How will Americans see it? I don’t care what instant polls suggest, they’ll say, “A monster was killed and nothing bad happened? OK, good.”

Now we’ll see where it all goes. Iran will likely continue what it always does, mayhem through cutouts, machinations and subterfuge. Maybe it will increase its efforts at mayhem sharply. Maybe, unlikely but who knows, its rulers will decide a readjustment in their general approach is in order, what with a plummeting economy and America led by the Great Mental Case.

I didn’t experience President Trump’s speech Wednesday as others seem to have. Observers were appropriately relieved he didn’t announce an escalating response to the Iranian missile strike. They called it conciliatory. But it wasn’t, it was stark. He repeatedly referred to Iran’s rulers as a “regime,” not a government, and he slammed their “destructive and destabilizing behavior.” He said Soleimani’s hands “were drenched in both American and Iranian blood” and he “should have been terminated long ago.” Mr. Trump damned the rulers as scoundrels who abuse and murder their own countrymen, including, recently, 1,500 antigovernment protestors. The people of Iran, on the other hand, are great and have “enormous untapped potential.” “Iran can be a great country.”

I think I discerned an attitude shift. Washington’s previous longtime common wisdom has held that Iran is split and divided; the young, moderate and liberal, hate their government and its repressions and despise the mullahs. So we should let this internal resistance spread, rise and deepen as economic sanctions make life harder and the government’s position less secure. Do nothing to get in the way, to ruffle things or encourage Iranians’ love of country to transfer to loyalty to government. Play it cool.

From what I heard, Mr. Trump thinks: No, don’t be cool. Heighten the tension between the people and their government. Make them decide. Force the crisis.

You have to wonder how this will play out, considering that the Iranian resistance just saw the mullahs embarrassed and exposed in a new way.

All this had me thinking about the poignant pictures that flood the internet whenever Iran is in crisis. They are of men and women on the streets of Tehran before the shah fell and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. They all look so modern, it’s all Western dress—men in sharp suits, women in bouffants driving cars. No one looks feudal or shrouded. They could have been in America. Iran has never figured out how to be both modern and moral — well, no one has — and chose a particularly reactionary and clenched form of nonmodernism. Iranians are a brilliant people from a dazzling culture saddled by the cultural stylings of medieval clerics.

Writers knocking about in New York and Washington over a few decades meet or bump into the diplomats of the world, and though they are individuals you get a general sense of their country’s attitudes through them. The Chinese are courtly and careful; they radiate a sense of “We are a great and sober people who mean business.” The Russians have lost respect for America but maintain form and are businesslike. They’re also more fun than they once were. Their old defensiveness about America is gone because they don’t think we’re great anymore, which has relaxed them. The Brits are professionals who sometimes do hale and hearty but often treat an acquaintance like a ferociously probing BBC interviewer; they suck out whatever view or data occupies your brain because they’re so desperate to fill their weekly diplomatic dispatch and show Whitehall they’re in the mix and in the know. The French never seem desperate and preserve the old well-tailored élan. The Germans have European self-deprecating modesty down.

The Iranians are altogether different. They don’t bother to arrange their face into a friendly look and don’t care what you think of them. They do not mind if you notice their contempt for us. They kind of like it! They enjoy a stony-faced recital of our sins.

For 40 years they’ve been riding high. They’ve enjoyed scaring everybody. They just got pushback they didn’t expect. We’ll find out with time if the decision was wise or helpful. But it’s hard to feel bad about it. Actually I feel as I did about the Pakistanis after the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It took place on their soil. They weren’t alerted. They were embarrassed. But they’d allowed him to live there for years without telling us. So too bad. You had it coming.

* * *

Under the heading, “Men more frequently need to be reminded than informed”:

If the past few decades have taught us anything it’s that you should never accuse those who question a U.S. military action of lacking patriotism. Sometimes the greatest patriotism is to stand against the crowd to protect your country from ill-thought-out actions. That is one of the harder forms of patriotism. Nikki Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations, charged Monday “leading Democrats” were “mourning” the loss of Soleimani. No one mourned his loss, everyone knows he’s a bum, and that was cheap. They questioned the decision and the reasons behind it.

No administration should tell the people’s representatives to refrain from questioning or criticizing a decision because it might signal dissension in the American ranks. It is true the world is always watching. It’s also true they expect the Americans to disagree among themselves. It’s part of our fabulousness. Our friends in the world become anxious only when the disagreement doesn’t fully occur, or is repressed, as in the run-up to the Iraq war.

We all know that top positions in the government are still not fully staffed, and some key positions are staffed by those without deep experience. The past week would have gone better if the administration were sufficiently alarmed by and attentive to its personnel problems. Lines of communication would have been clearer and the sense of alarm lessened by more reliable information. It is fair to say they made a good decision to take out Soleimani, and fair to say that for much beyond that they were lucky duckies.

Administrations that get lucky in one drama tend to get cocky and begin new dramas. How would this administration look if it were feeling cocky? The way it looks every day. What would be good to see now is modesty — the modesty of serious people who know they got lucky.

Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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