A Time to Kill? Part One of Three

President Trump’s decision to kill General Soleimani has stirred up the predictable opposition.  For Nancy Pelosi and her party, Trump had to be condemned either for making an inadequate response to Iranian terrorist aggression against the United States or for a response she has decided, on her own authority, to declare a war crime.  For anti-interventionist conservatives who voted for Trump, he is accused of betraying their trust.

It would be a waste time to analyze the responses (with links provided) of  dishonest or unreflective people, but it should be worth a few moment’s time to ask ourselves what criteria we would use, if we were in the position to make a decision of “Shoot or Don’t shoot.”

I’ll stipulate here, once and for all, that it makes some difference whether the decision to shoot is made by a single person or a nation-state and whether the shooting contemplated is a single act of retaliation or a massive war. Nonetheless, since we are looking for a basic principle or two, it is the area of common ground we are going to be walking over.

It seems to me, after only a little reflection of some five or six decades, that justifications for engaging or not engaging acts of retaliatory aggression fall into several classes.  I’m not claiming to be original or exhaustive in pointing out what most people have probably already thought about this.

Arguments pro and con retaliation can be concerned mainly with first, the practical consequences of acting or failing to act, second, with the justice or injustice, and, we can add, that arguments based on justice may be rooted in tradition, philosophy, and religion.  I shouldn’t have to add this caveat, but I probably do:  No matter how chaotic the expression of vengeance-seeking or pacifism might be, we may not permit self-contradictory arguments.  It really is true that he who says A must say B; to do otherwise is to eliminate one’s self from serious discussion.

Let us start with consequentialist arguments.  It is being said that Donald Trump is dragging us into World War III.  Now, most of the people saying this are simply Trump-haters who have no better idea than the rest of us what is going to happen.  We know what happens when aggression goes unpunished—repeated acts of ever more serious aggression that may or may not terminate in a wide-spread war.

On a very basic practical level, the Democrats’ arguments constitute an open invitation to Iranian and Islamic terrorism.  Kinglake, in his famous history of the Crimean War, partly blames the war on English political leaders whose incautious use of pacifistic language encouraged Russian intransigence.  The Czar, claims Kinglake, was already persuaded that the English had degenerated into a mercantile nation only interested in profits and incapable of fighting for their convictions,  and the anti-war language employed by Lord Aberdeen and Gladstone confirmed the Czar's fatal mistake .  

Bonaparte had made a similar mistake, and, so it is said, Hitler made the same mistake about the racial mongrels of the United States.  Politics rarely presents such either/or silhouettes, but the conventional wisdom that perceived weakness and irresolution encourage an enemy cannot be lightly dismissed.  

If we can speculate that Trump’s “reckless” action may spur further acts of terrorism from people with a record of terrorism, then with far greater ease we can speculate on the far more probable consequence of the Democrats’ (and non-interventionists’) hysterical condemnation.  If you want peace, runs the Latin proverb, get your war ready.  To put it simply enough even for pacifists and leftists, their desire for peace is belied by their demoralizing condemnations of their president’s decision.  

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Avatar Allen Wilson says:

    It could be argued that the policies of previous administrations had left us with such little respect that something like what Trump has done up until now with regards to Iran, and especially the killing of the terrorist mastermind, would be necessary if we wanted to be able to bring those nuts to the table and come to any kind of mutual understanding and detente that they would honor, however grudgingly. Like so many other thugs, they will respect only those they fear.

  2. Avatar Jeff Nyquist says:

    Aristotle said that we do not naturally possess goodness of character. Only by obedience to rules of valid conduct do we acquire such goodness. Does our national security establishment even know what goodness is? And was it right to assassinated General Soleimani?

    Rightness of action, according to Aristotle, involves taking a middle path between a vice of deficiency and a vice of excess. Now let us examine President Trump’s order to kill General Soleimani. As actions go, the killing partakes of the spheres of Fear and Confidence, Honor and dishonor (major), actuated through temper and truthfulness (or lies).

    On the first of these dimensions, did President Trump act with rashness, courage or cowardice? We cannot say it was cowardly, because he publicly took responsibility for killing a high-ranking Iranian general. No coward would place himself in the crosshairs of a violent terrorist regime. The question is whether or not President Trump acted rashly (i.e., the vice of having too much confidence).

    Is Trump over-confident? In terms of acceptable risk, a leader should not create a situation in which he is likely to be killed. Leaders are not invincible, immortal, supermen. Therefore it is not, in principle, wise to wage war with poison weapons, or to target enemy leaders, unless you are prepared to suffer the same fate as those you have targeted.

    In principle, a policy of killing enemy leaders, which (I am sad to admit) the United States has followed intermittently since Pearl Harbor, exposes our own leaders to assassination. An example of how this works may be found in the case of President John Kennedy’s assassination. It is known that Kennedy ordered a hit on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It is also known that Castro learned of Kennedy’s order through a double agent (i.e., the prospective assassin), and said he knew about Kennedy’s hit when he visited the Brazilian Embassy in September 1963. These facts have been alluded to by famous persons, including President Lyndon Johnson and the chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff, James Angleton. It is believed by some intelligence experts that two communist bloc intelligence services (DGI and KGB) were complicit in Kennedy’s assassination; that the Soviets acted to defend Castro, preemptively, and to lay down the law to future American presidents. This action had the intended effect when President Gerald Ford instituted Executive Order 12333, prohibiting assassinations. Because President Ford understood why Kennedy was assassinated, he exercised prudence to safeguard the person of the president — reflecting the lesson of Dallas, learned on 22 November 1963. The lesson was simple: America should not attempt to assassinate foreign leaders or officials. President Carter and President Reagan affirmed Executive Order 12333 during their terms of office.

    Many will disagree with a policy of restraint. Why not kill the bad guys? One should ask, in this context, whether the life of a U.S. President is worth the life of a hostile general or dictator. There are issues here touching on public order, foreign interference in domestic politics, and the wounding of public confidence and morale. Considering the greatness of America’s presidential office, it is inconceivable we should think our president commensurable with any foreign official. Few countries combine the head of state in the same person as the head of government. Ours is one such country. I believe it is wrong to put a president at risk.

    Yet there is a sinister side to this as well. The president did not put himself at risk entirely by himself. He had help in doing this. The Democrats, and perhaps a few Republicans, would like to remove Trump from office. They cannot beat him in an election. They are hesitating to impeach him because the Senate will not convict. What other option might the Deep State have? Was the decision to kill Soleimani an attempt to generate lethal blowback against a disliked president? Trump’s critics in the National Security Council know his weaknesses. They also know how dangerous it would be to kill an Iranian IRGC General and brag about it. Quite frankly, this was not merely rash. It was stupid. The Iranians will react. They will go after President Trump. What I’d like to know is whose idea was this? Who gave this option to a brash, impulsive president? — a president who likes to brag!

    We are now entering into questions which go beyond the moral failings of a president. We are bound to explore the moral failings of presidential advisors as well. After the release of the IG Report does anyone think our national security people are Boy Scouts? After the sickening spectacle of the Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings are we encouraged to trust the president’s NSC advisors? I don’t trust them. I think they give dangerous advice.

    Our entire national security apparatus is permeated with immoral, unprincipled people. Look at what they’re credited with in recent years: enhanced interrogation techniques, drone strikes that kill innocent civilians and hostages, generals who sell out their own soldiers to curry favor with politically correct politicians, federal raids on whistleblowers, the jailing of innocent witnesses, fake intelligence reports, political spying, smuggling weapons to the same terrorists we are supposed to be fighting, etc., etc. The extra-judicial killing of foreign statesmen and generals is simply one more in a growing list of bad practices.

    In my opinion the extra-judicial killing of statesmen and generals is not prudent. If we can kill whomever we judge to be “evil,” by whatever means we deem necessary, God help us. What remedies will other governments then apply against us? If we believe the assassination of Soleimani has made Iranians afraid, why wouldn’t they apply a similar logic to make us afraid? And where does that take us?

    After the USSR collapsed we falsely believed we were the lone superpower. We have become progressively more deranged ever since. The tragedy of 9/11 led to ill-advised invasions, interventions, over-extensions — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. In the wars between the Shiites and the Sunnis we were going to play the balance of power. But people who are drunk with power have no sense of balance.

    Trump’s action is not Trump’s action alone. It is the act of an establishment — with bad habits and worse policies. To order someone killed is rather personal. If this person is a criminal or a terrorist, we accept that they may be “wanted dead or alive.” But an official of a sovereign country represents something different, something distinct from mere piracy or banditry. Even if a regime is objectively evil and supports terrorism, it is nonetheless a POWER. As such it has a recognized “right” of self-defense (under international law). It also has allies armed with nuclear weapons (Russia, China and North Korea). The recognition of Iran’s right of self-defense is not something we can ignore. And there is World War III to consider.

    Will the killing of Soleimani trigger a wider war? Probably not. What we do know is that Iran’s leaders have vowed revenge on President Trump. Here the rules of war are suspended and a blood feud begins. This is a game America should not be playing. Because President Trump made the killing of Soleimani personal, the Iranian leaders are honor bound to make their reply personal in turn.

    But isn’t this simply war? No. It would be monstrous to make war an affair of murdering specific persons for revenge. It is an ancient principle, observed for centuries, that an enemy in war is depersonalized for good reason; first, for the sake of the soldier’s conscience; second, for the sake of the peace that must follow; third, because wars are not fought for personal reasons. They are fought for reasons of state. In respect of these points, nobody should say that soldiers on the battlefield are murderers. They are killers only; and it is a significant distinction. The Sixth Commandment, properly translated, says, “thou shalt not murder.” To kill may be honorable. To be an assassin, to commit murder, is never honorable.

    Having noted the distinction between the personal and impersonal we should also consider what the tutor of Queen Elizabeth I, Alberico Gentili, said on the subject. He wrote that an open attack on an unarmed enemy leader who is not on the battlefield is murder (that is, an assassination). He argued that a murder of this kind could lead to further excesses. War would then gradually lose its relationship to valor. Gentili warned:

    …accomplishment of victory consists in the acknowledgment of defeat by the enemy, and the admission that one is conquered by … honorable means….

    How will an enemy react to dishonorable means? Such an enemy, feeling wronged, will refuse to make peace. In the case of killing a leader as a preemptive strategy, Gentili warned that a new leader would almost certainly emerge to take the place of the fallen leader. The followers of the assassinated leader would redouble their efforts in the name of revenge. If, however, a leader is killed honorably in battle, then who would dare say it was wrong?

    Was General Soleimani armed and on the battlefield when the American drone strike killed him? No. In the strictest sense, it was not an honorable killing. You may object, of course, that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) murders people all the time; that they do not follow the rules of war, that we are entitled to kill them at will. But the Iranians did not target a named American general. We cannot claim we were retaliating in kind.

    With these considerations in mind, I am compelled to say that Trump acted rashly in the sense given by Aristotle; that his advisers failed him. Perhaps they even betrayed him. Trump has exposed himself to serious danger for which he has nothing to show. Certainly, I would like to believe he has saved lives. But lives are going to be lost in the Middle East no matter what we do. Who can calculate, in truth, which path signifies less loss of life?

    In the matter of honor and dishonor, we cannot say that President Trump acted honorably in the killing of Soleimani; for most of the great captains of history would have regarded it as vainglorious to take credit for slaughtering a man with a drone strike. It is likewise vainglorious to imagine that a policy of assassination is a sign of strength, or an effective tactic. Since when has it been so? Drone strikes have, up to the present, served as a substitute for victories which America has been unable to achieve.

    With regard to President Trump’s truthfulness, we take what he says as a matter of faith. He ordered the strike on Soleimani to “stop a war.” He acted to save American lives. But watching General Soleimani’s state funeral, seeing the bitter tears of Iran’s leaders, I wonder who is going to save President Trump.

    The same people who tried to frame him as a Russian stooge?

  3. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I don’t disagree with much of what Mr. Nyquist has said, though Aristotle’s position on the development of virtue is a good deal less abstract. As I am sure Mr. Nyquist is aware, Aristotle viewed virtue more as a condition or state of character rather than as obedience or conformity with a set of rules. There was no point, he argued, in teaching ethics to children or to malformed adults, since they would only turn the argument into a justification for their own vices. I am not offering this as a bit of pedantry but as a possibly useful reminder that Aristotle is our best defense against Boy Scout oaths and dogmatic pronouncements.

    I have always opposed the assassination of political leaders and, indeed, criticized the killing of Osama. I should add that I entirely reject that current thinking prevalent in military circles that justified the Gulf War and any preemptive strike against non-state actors suspected of plotting crimes against a sovereign nation.

    The questions I am raising are designed go meet the claim that a counter-strike against an enemy that has violated all the rules by attacking an embassy and organizing terrorism cannot be justified. Whatever advice was given to the tyrannical queen, who arranged assassinations and presided over a terrorist regime that tortured and murdered anyone suspected of ultramontane allegiances, she acted on opposite principles.

    I don’t think truth has been any significant part of the moral outfit of any president in my lifetime, which spans the period from FDR’s last days to the present. In the unlikely event anyone in power had ever paid any attention to anything I have writen, we would not have fought either Gulf War or invaded Afghanistan.

    The questions on the table could not have been framed by Aristotle but by Machiavelli and perhaps Hobbes. As Cicero once complained of the younger Cato, he acted as if he lived in Plato’s Republic and not among the dregs of Romulus–a reference to the Roman tradition that Romulus had attracted a band of outlaws and cutthroats. We are in a conflict with Islam, as we have been, without knowing it, for over a thousand years. I do not at all agree with the position taken by more than one Pope that one did not have to play by the rules when fighting the Paynim, and even in the degraded condition of a country remade by Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, FDR, and Truman, I continue to oppose the infliction of death and devastation on civilian populations. Trump’s threat against civilians and against cultural monuments was barbaric, and even his ally Boris Johnson has rebuked him.

    As for the prudence of his actions and policies, we must await the outcome.

    Having agreed thus far, I am simply pointing out that in a conflict with an enemy that is forever threatening “Death to America: and is willing to carry out its threats by massive slaughter, and in conditions of warfare in which all sides routinely kill by strategic bombing and savage technological weapons, whether a political leader is justified in killing the perpetrator of what most people regard as criminal actions of violence against Americans.

    Unlike the Buses, Trump has not ordered war against a population that has done us only minimal harm. He ordered the killing of someone whom Britain and the US has regarded as a ruthless and brutal enemy. If he follows this up with an shalinvasion of Iran or massive bombing of civilian centers, I shall be among the first to condemn him.

    By the standards that have obtained throughout the 20th century, I suggest that Trump’s decision is routine, even a predictable response. This is not a world I chose to be born into, and, were someone to hand me political power, I should turn down the offer. Other than rolling over and enjoying it, as one American sheriff famously once advised women were being sexually assaulted, I do not know what a modern ruler is supposed to do under the conditions of modern politics and modern warfare.

    Iran is a rogue state, a pirate state like the Barbary states even the pacific Jefferson was wiling to attack. In many respects we are no better, but this happens to be the country in which we live. What was the alternative? A call for the arrest of Soleimani, if repeated, would have been treated with the contempt that the Iranians have treated every such appeal.

    I recall being taken into sending a postcard to my Congressman, L. Mendel Rivers, among the greatest hawks ever to sit in Congress, to protest the bombing of Cambodia. Surprisingly, Mendel responded by agreeing that if we were not going to fight the war to win it, we had no business fighting.

    I’ve said too much but would like to say more. However, I have had to run off to fix a Greco-Roman chicken dish named “Parthian Chicken” as part of a dinner that precedes a viewing of Singing in the Rain/

  4. Avatar Jeff Nyquist says:

    Yes, I agree with what you say. I would add, in the case of ordering Soleimani’s death, Trump committed the great Machiavellian fault of bragging about it — which he continues to do. General Soleimani, as a strategist, never ordered the assassination of a named U.S. General. He did not commit the offense which alone would have made our drone strike righteous. The offense of escalating the conflict is ours, because it was not reciprocal or in accordance with past usage. We changed the rules in the middle of the game because Mr. Trump was losing by the old rules. But I promise you — Trump and his supporters will hate the new rules when they see how things play out. This is a prediction I make without the least fear of embarrassment.

    Yes, Aristotle’s virtues are related to innate qualities, and also to habits acquired early in life. These cannot be inculcated in the adult children who govern us (LOL); yet moral training is nonetheless based on principles — which are no longer inculcated. Only those who naturally possess nobility of soul can, it seems, comprehend such things. I am gratified that we are in agreement on this matter because I despaired of finding anyone who might agree. meanwhile, Fox News is positively gloating. I do not think the demonization of enemies produces good strategy. “Know thy enemy” is the second commandment of military strategy; “know thyself” is the first — and the two are not unconnected.

    They know nothing — neither themselves nor their enemy.