The consequences of the strike are unpredictable, and there is no denying that this move pulls the US deeper into the Middle East and its conflicts
Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani's death in a drone strike was being cheered by US allies and progressive forces across the region, from Israelis and Saudis to the pro-reform demonstrators of Beirut and Baghdad.
This move, however, does not translate to US president Donald Trump's decision to assassinate him as wise, or that it will ultimately benefit US interests.
The real question to ask about the American drone attack is not whether it was justified, but whether it was wise. Many pieces of the puzzle are still missing, but the killing is a big leap in an uncertain direction.
The consequences of the strike are unpredictable, and there is no denying that this move puts the US deeper into the Middle East and its conflicts.
Having made clear that he wants to pull the nation out of those conflicts, and having said as recently as Tuesday that he wanted peace with Iran, Donald Trump has committed an act of escalation and now is deploying more than 4,000 additional troops, including soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, to Kuwait as a hedge against Iranian counterstrikes. Joining are 750 more who were deployed there earlier this week.
Assassinating Soleimani, moreover, was not the same as hunting down Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, both terrorists who answered to no government. Soleimani was a senior official of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and openly targeting him was a sharp escalation in the conflict between the United States and Iran, all but taunting Iran to strike back. And that by a president who had previously demonstrated strong aversion to American involvement in the Middle East, contempt for intelligence from the region and occasional reluctance to order the use of military force.
As Senator Christopher Murphy, among other Democrats, pointed out, the Trump administration might have set off "a potential massive regional war" without congressional authorization.
The American escalation is particularly aggressive, if not impulsive, after the administration's hesitation to respond to a series of previous Iranian provocations, including an attack on Saudi oil facilities. It is reasonable to ask why the administration didn't take more measured deterrent steps before abruptly twisting the regional dial to "boil."
It is certainly possible that the killing will have the effect of deterring further Iranian attacks on Americans, such as the rocket strike that killed a US contractor at an Iraqi base last week, or the assault by Iranian-backed militias on the embassy in Baghdad on December 31. The loss of Soleimani might disorient and demoralize the militia forces he steered. The Trump administration is clearly hoping Tehran will absorb the blow and retreat, which is why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kept talking about "de-escalation" on Friday.
As Donald Trump awaits Senate trial on his impeachment by the House of Representatives, the president's ordering of the assassination raised discomfiting questions about his motive.
Similar questions were raised in 1998 when President Bill Clinton ordered a major bombing campaign of Iraq, known as Operation Desert Fox, while Congress was holding impeachment hearings. In Washington's acutely partisan climate, most Republicans rallied in support of Donald Trump while Democrats demanded to know what imminent threat the attack was meant to avert.
Donald Trump on Friday afternoon said, "We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war."
When Donald Trump took office, Iran's nuclear program was quiescent and its threats to US interests manageable. He pulled the United States out of the treaty that had limited Iran's nuclear activity, and he ratcheted up sanctions against the regime. He took sides in a regional battle between an intolerant Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia and an intolerant Shiite regime in Iran.
Now, even as short- and long-term threats from Russia, China, and North Korea require urgent attention, the United States finds itself in an ever tenser confrontation with Iran. Donald Trump has yet to offer any explanation of why this is in America's strategic interest.