Sunday, January 5, 2020

Thomas Friedman on the Assassination of Qassim Suleimani

Qassim Suleimani has been a hugely prominent figure in all of Iran's proxy wars across the Middle East, but that does not mean his policies have been wise or successful:
On Nov. 27, Iraqi Shiites — yes, Iraqi Shiites — burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf, Iraq, removing the Iranian flag from the building and putting an Iraqi flag in its place. That was after Iraqi Shiites, in September 2018, set the Iranian consulate in Basra ablaze, shouting condemnations of Iran’s interference in Iraqi politics.

The whole “protest” against the United States Embassy compound in Baghdad last week was almost certainly a Suleimani-staged operation to make it look as if Iraqis wanted America out when in fact it was the other way around. The protesters were paid pro-Iranian militiamen. No one in Baghdad was fooled by this.

In a way, it’s what got Suleimani killed. He so wanted to cover his failures in Iraq he decided to start provoking the Americans there by shelling their forces, hoping they would overreact, kill Iraqis and turn them against the United States. Trump, rather than taking the bait, killed Suleimani instead.

I have no idea whether this was wise or what will be the long-term implications. But here are two things I do know about the Middle East.

First, often in the Middle East the opposite of “bad” is not “good.” The opposite of bad often turns out to be “disorder.” Just because you take out a really bad actor like Suleimani doesn’t mean a good actor, or a good change in policy, comes in his wake. Suleimani is part of a system called the Islamic Revolution in Iran. That revolution has managed to use oil money and violence to stay in power since 1979 — and that is Iran’s tragedy, a tragedy that the death of one Iranian general will not change.

Today’s Iran is the heir to a great civilization and the home of an enormously talented people and significant culture. Wherever Iranians go in the world today, they thrive as scientists, doctors, artists, writers and filmmakers — except in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose most famous exports are suicide bombing, cyberterrorism and proxy militia leaders. The very fact that Suleimani was probably the most famous Iranian in the region speaks to the utter emptiness of this regime, and how it has wasted the lives of two generations of Iranians by looking for dignity in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.

The other thing I know is that in the Middle East all important politics happens the morning after the morning after.

Yes, in the coming days there will be noisy protests in Iran, the burning of American flags and much crying for the “martyr.” The morning after the morning after? There will be a thousand quiet conversations inside Iran that won’t get reported. They will be about the travesty that is their own government and how it has squandered so much of Iran’s wealth and talent on an imperial project that has made Iran hated in the Middle East.

And yes, the morning after, America’s Sunni Arab allies will quietly celebrate Suleimani’s death, but we must never forget that it is the dysfunction of many of the Sunni Arab regimes — their lack of freedom, modern education and women’s empowerment — that made them so weak that Iran was able to take them over from the inside with its proxies.
The real tragedy of four decades of US-Iran conflict is that none of it was much wanted by the citizens of either county. There is no reason for the US and Iran to fight, except that intense mutual suspicion has made peace impossible, leaving various opportunists on both sides to advance their careers by stirring up trouble.

As for Suleimani himself, I think he is best remembered by some of his own words:
The battlefield is mankind's lost paradise – the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest. One type of paradise that men imagine is about streams, beautiful maidens, and lush landscape. But there is another kind of paradise – the battlefield.


David said...

Friedman's comment misses the fact that there really are large factions in both Iran and the United States that want conflict as a matter of ideological principle. John Bolton's life's work is to promote war with Iran; he's hardly an opportunist. And there is a significant, motivated minority in Iran who still believe in the regime and its ruling ideas, such as the guardianship of the jurists; and a significant portion among Arab Shi'ites in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere, whose priority is sectarian identity (as is the case with Sunnis, of course). Millions of Iranians and Arab Shi'ites really did revere Soleimani and admire him when he struck at their perceived enemies. This is not to say that there is not also a significant portion of Arabs and Iranians who want secular modernity. But they haven't been able to win decisively yet, and I see no near prospect that they will. I foresee decades of stalemated conflict and muddle, as in our own country.

Shadow said...

I don't think Friedman has any credibility when it comes to commenting on current events in Iraq. It's best just to ignore him, or better yet, embrace the opposite of what he says. That's more likely to happen. His constant refrain on what would happen in Iraq after the initial invasion, "we'll know in another six months," which he said for like a year and a half, is a now best left as a comedy routine.

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

A very clever and fair view on the matter of the Soleimani issue. Trump with all his stupidity was this time well advised - obviously he just 'obeyed' to a top military plan.