The assassination on 3 January of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, ordered by Donald Trump and discussed on the SOAS blog for its implications for Middle East politics, provoked anxieties throughout the media that a war is in the offing, even the imminence of World War III. Fears flourished among serious commentators who considered the “targeted killing” a reckless step towards an Iran-US war long in the planning or would serve as the catalyst for such a war through a series of retaliatory misjudgements on both sides. Less dire predictions foresee repeated Iranian government interventions destabilising Western Asia and the Middle East.
Anticipation of war and that the British government would join in prompted public demonstrations, including one in London at which Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke, pledging that Labour would do all possible to prevent conflict. The criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a craven supporter of the reckless Trump formed a common UK media theme in this unfolding narrative of looming danger. While Johnson maintained notable silence, EU leaders urged Trump and the Iranian regime to practice caution, with the French foreign minister citing the apocalyptic possibility of a “nuclear proliferation crisis”.
While not baseless, these war anxieties are exaggerations, reflecting misinterpretation of conditions in Iran and Iraq, as well as fundamental misunderstanding of Donald Trump. Much closer to the reality are the few sceptics, who have stressed that war anxieties reinforce US government propaganda and weaknesses of the Iranian regime that limit its retaliatory options.
Neither the Iranian nor the US government will initiate war, and the probability of war as an accidental consequence of miscalculation is slight. There will be no war and no series of major retaliations – for reasons I explain.
The threat of war over the Soleimani murder represents a more deadly version of the June 2019 report that claimed that, in response to the Iranian government shooting down a US drone, Trump launched then “called back” bombers destined for Tehran. This moment of alleged reconsideration by Trump never occurred. It was propaganda designed to portray the US president as a strong leader wisely rejecting the path of war.
The widely misinterpreted Soleimani murder emerged in the context of an Iraqi government on the verge of collapse and an Iranian regime severely constrained by its own structural weaknesses. Perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates yet again that the media and politicians often misunderstand Donald Trump.
Throughout 2019, the governments of both Iran and Iraq faced increasing opposition. While the demonstrations in front of the US embassy in Baghdad captured foreign attention, more threatening to the regime have been the months of pro-democracy demonstrations that included protests against the influence of the Iranian government. In part, these protests focused on the repressive role of the Iranian-backed militias, created by Soleimani and a major source of the Iranian government’s power influence in Iraq.
At the same time as these protests challenged the Iraqi government, mass demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities threatened to undermine the Iranian regime. While Trump’s assassination of a high government official has provoked nationalist outrage in both Iraq (where the drone strike occurred) and Iran, the context in which this outrage manifests itself should not be ignored. The Iraqi government is weak. The Iranian government faces severe domestic opposition that limit its retaliatory actions.
The rare attempts to portray Trump as making his decision in a deliberate manner over several months, part of a rational strategy, border on the surreal. The public murder of Soleimani represented a reckless violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and a war-like provocation of the regime he served. It is hardly surprising that it prompted horror and outrage within the foreign policy establishment in the United States and Europe. To maintain a world based on law and diplomacy, responsible governments do not murder officials of other governments.
But Donald Trump is not a responsible leader, nor has he pretended to be one. At a loss to account for his failure to conform to the mainstream view of rational policy action, sensible commentators seize on the belief that the US president actions on impulse with no clear strategy, without even an ability to formulate a strategy. The “irrational” Trump explanation views him as ignorant, impulsive, and perhaps mad.
Donald Trump is not mad, nor is he notably irrational. His version of rational behaviour is alien to the sensible, stolid rationality of mainstream foreign policy, and, therefore, appears impulsive and incomprehensible. While the similarity should not be pushed too far, his foreign policy behaviour bears some commonality to Adolf Hitler’s. It is built around extreme demands on leaders of other countries that on first look could not be seriously considered as basis for negotiation (see “Preface to the American Edition” of A. J. P. Taylor’s famous Origins of the Second World War).
Trump’s difference from Hitler is fundamental. Hitler sought the recovery of and expansion into territory to achieve a greater Germany that would dominate Europe and perhaps beyond. Trump’s motivations are all variations on a single objective, consolidation of his personal business empire including his re-election. Due to his lack of morality and ethics, he pursues that objective with largely unprecedented tactics. Hitler as head of state was an extreme anti-Semitic nationalist without moral constraint. Trump as head of state is an extreme capitalist without moral constraint.
In practice, Trump is the ideal capitalist as specified in neoclassical economics, profit seeking with no social conscience. Milton Friedman famously wrote “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
In the course of competition, capitalists regularly engage in deception and fraud. This occurs because the legal prohibitions are relatively easy to avoid, and individual responsibility can be displaced onto the company. Penalties frequently prove in practice mild compared to the profit gained. By comparison, murdering one’s competitive rivals seems rare, no doubt because legal systems are less tolerant of it, and avoiding personal responsibility more difficult (though not impossible, as the UK law on corporate manslaughter shows).
The international laws against murder by heads of state are weak to non-existent. Experience of the International Court of Justice in the Hague suggests that cases of murder are enforceable only against state officials of small countries whose governments lose wars. It is in this context that we interpret Trump ordering the murder of Soleimani. In pursuit of his re-election, essential to maintaining his business empire, Donald Trump did what a morality-free capitalist would do were it not illegal under US law; he arranged the murder of an official from a rival enterprise.
Because that rival worked for a much weaker competitor, major retaliation did not present a serious danger. For Trump, the concerns of sensible foreign policy – for example, impact on US global power – were of marginal importance at most. This apparently irresponsible disregard of the longer-term consequences of the murder fits well into the 21st century priority of US business on short-term profitability rather than long-term sustainability, much less any concern for social consequences.
Why did Donald Trump order the killing of a foreign official, carry it out in full public display, then brag about it? He did so because no law stopped him, and the negative consequences would be trivial for his personal and business interests. He acted as one would expect a profit-seeking capitalist to behave in the absence of effective “rules of the game”.
John Weeks is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Coordinator of the Progressive Economy forum. In the early 2010s, he advised the UNDP on Iraqi reconstruction.