As Republican hardliners rally for an election year of bitter division, Qassem Suleimani's killing has more to do with impeachment politics than geopolitics, writes Paul Thomas.
Qassem Suleimani, the military commander often described as the second most powerful figure in Iran, had far too much blood on his hands to be seen as a loss to humanity and a victim worth mourning. He was, in fact, the personification of the biblical saying paraphrased as “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword”.
But there was no explanation as to why Trump was undeterred by the consequences – foreseeable and unforeseeable – that persuaded previous administrations such an operation simply wasn’t worth it. Iran has said it will no longer abide by the 2015 nuclear deal. In due course, unconventionally and with deniability, it will take an eye for an eye. And while Iran alone must take responsibility for the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner causing the deaths of 176 people, it was nevertheless a swift and salutary reminder of what can happen when the fog of war descends.
The US silence coupled with the failure to explain “why now?” – Defence Secretary Mark Esper chillingly revealed that Trump’s claim that Suleimani was readying attacks on four US embassies was an expression of personal belief rather than based on hard intelligence – encouraged suspicion that it was more about politics than geopolitics. Sure enough, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump was telling associates he authorised the strike under pressure from hawkish Republican senators whose support he will need during his impeachment trial.
Thunder from the right
Meanwhile, a social media skirmish that won’t rate a footnote when the history of these times is written provided a troubling snapshot of the state of the nation as it gears up for impeachment and what promises to be a spectacularly bitter election campaign.
Congressman Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, declared on Fox News the Democrats were “in love with terrorists. We can see that when they mourn Suleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families who suffered under Suleimani.” (Gold Star families have lost a family member in military action.)
In the face of an outcry, much of which referenced candidate Trump’s disparagement of a Muslim Gold Star family in 2016, Collins demonstrated that he hasn’t entirely absorbed the Trump playbook: he apologised. “Let me be clear,” he tweeted. “I do not believe Democrats are in love with terrorists.”
That triggered another wave of indignation, this time from supporters of his original statement. A small sample:
“DemocRATS do love terrorists and you should NEVER apologise to the outrage mob.”
“Let me be clear: Demoncraps are in love with terrorists.”
“But they are. They love terrorists and citizens of foreign nations more than US citizens.”
We should be wary of drawing conclusions about public opinion from social media, but these belligerent defences of the indefensible speak to a fracturing of American democracy. If you vehemently believe those on the other side of politics are traitors, it would seem to follow that you have no interest in the consensus and compromise upon which democracy depends, no inclination to abide by the rules if that might deliver a gain to the other side.
This thunder from the right is making politics so acrimonious that even tiny accommodations are out of reach. Although some congressional Republicans don’t share this scorched-earth view, they are under relentless pressure from above and below, from Trump and their constituents, to adopt it or, failing that, keep their reservations to themselves. (A telling Twitter response to Collins’ apology was, “We know you do not believe it. The disgusting thing is that you said it anyway.”)
A properly conducted impeachment trial would be a public loyalty test for Republican senators, so it’s hardly surprising that they’ve raised barely a murmur of protest over majority leader Mitch McConnell’s threats to gut the process, to the extent of not even calling witnesses. Trump, meanwhile, has signalled that he’ll invoke executive privilege to prevent witnesses such as former National Security Adviser John Bolton from testifying. In that event, the whole matter would probably make its way to the Supreme Court, where two Trump appointees have created an ostensible 5-4 conservative majority.
One of those appointees is Brett Kavanaugh, the subject of a rancorous 2018 confirmation battle. It would be interesting to discover whether Kavanaugh is now an advocate of unfettered presidential power and unlimited immunity, given his protracted pursuit of President Bill Clinton.
As an associate of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Kavanaugh devoted three years to investigating a right-wing conspiracy theory relating to the death of Clinton White House lawyer Vince Foster, although no fewer than five official governmental investigations concluded it was suicide. He was also a lead author of the Starr report to Congress that argued the broad case for Clinton’s impeachment over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The report accused the then-president of conspiracy to obstruct justice, disgracing his office and lying to the American people.
Back then, conservatives disapproved of such behaviour.
In a normal time and place, such brazen obstructionism would create irresistible pressure for the thing to be done properly, with witnesses called and evidence heard until the truth was arrived at. Not in the US, not now. Trump and the Republicans operate on the basis that truth is a political concept and their supporters aren’t interested in the other side’s version. By and large, they’re right.
As novelist-turned-political commentator Richard North Patterson wrote: “Our deeper problem is not Trump, but us – our widening political polarisation and alienation. Trump’s special contribution to society was his idea to make cementing our tribal hatreds not an unfortunate byproduct but the actual raison d’être of his presidency.”
Reflecting on the near-impossibility of compromise, Jonathan V Last, executive editor of The Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative website, observed, “This is just one more example of how some of the problems our republic faces are not logistical, but systemic. Which is to say, unsolvable. This is what decline looks like.”
This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.