The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq at the hands of an American drone has stirred up a partisan hornet’s nest. Republicans overwhelmingly approve of the killing of the individual responsible for the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq. Democrats, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly focused on the risks of “escalation” with Iran.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democrat for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination, acknowledged blood on Soleimani’s hands, but the main thrust of his statement concerns the risk of escalation: “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox, and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy and a plan to keep safe our troops and embassy personnel, our people and our interests.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), another 2020 presidential candidate, called the move “reckless” and feared it would “lead to a new Middle East conflict.” Similar sentiments were offered by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Patty Murray (D-WA), and many others.
Some went further. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made no condemnation of Soleimani’s actions, instead decrying President Trump for putting us on a path to “endless war.” Senator Warren later suggested that killing Soleimani was motivated by a desire to distract from impeachment. The usually hawkish Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would do everything he could to prevent war with Iran — suggesting the killing of Soleimani, rather than Iran’s numerous attacks on the U.S., would be responsible for any such war. Legislation to tie the administration’s hands has already been introduced.
Republicans, on the other hand, were having none of it. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) accused fellow Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who largely echoed the party line, of “drunk partisanship.” Sasse declared that “General Soleimani is dead because he was an evil bastard who murdered Americans.” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put it most starkly: “For too long, this evil man operated without constraint, and countless innocents have suffered for it. Now his terrorist leadership has been ended.”
In short, to paraphrase a popular film, most Democrats are critical of the Trump administration risking “open war,” while Republicans insist that “open war” is already upon us.
The Republicans have the better argument. There has been a steady escalation of tensions in recent months — by Iran, not the U.S. In addition to the previously mentioned attack on the American embassy in Iraq, which was not a “protest,” but an attack perpetrated by Kataib Hezbollah, one of Soleimani’s most loyal terrorist proxy militias in Iraq, Soleimani was responsible for repeated escalation.
Republicans have eagerly pointed this out. Sen. James Risch (R-ID), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that Soleimani had been actively involved in an attack that killed an American contractor and wounded four American troops just days before the embassy attack. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) pointed out that there had been over 10 rocket attacks against Americans since October. Moreover, Iran’s attack on Saudi oil fields, attack on a British ship in the Persian Gulf, and downing of a U.S. drone are all part of Iran’s provocations. These events were seen as escalations by both sides of the isle.
All this is not even considering that, according to the State Department, Iran, and thus Soleimani, its chief unconventional warfare strategist, is responsible for the deaths of over 600 American soldiers in previous years — nor is it even considering Soleimani’s boundless support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria vis-à-vis proxy groups. Nor, still, is it considering Soleimani’s part in Iran’s support of the radical Houthi movement in Yemen, resulting in one of the bloodiest civil wars in recent history. The list goes on.
Unlike the killing of Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the killing of Soleimani presents significant risk. Soleimani was at the height of his power, and while the Quds Force he oversaw is indisputably a terrorist organization, it is also a branch of a state actor. This creates a more complicated, and dangerous, situation.
However, the focus on U.S. “escalation,” ignoring recent history, is a potentially catastrophic mistake. The word “appeasement” is overused, but no other word accurately describes the position of most Democratic politicians, who are ignoring the pattern of increasingly bellicose Iranian behavior. As Garry Kasparov recently said, appeasement kills because it “raises the stakes, postpones the inevitable, and encourages aggressors to assume they can act with impunity.”
Moreover, Democratic worries about endless escalation seem unwarranted. Iran’s recent “retaliation,” launching missiles that resulted in zero U.S. or Iraqi casualties and even giving the Iraqi government advance notice, seems aimed at face-saving more than a desire to escalate further.
The temptation to take a partisan stance on such a major issue, during an election year, may be almost irresistible. But that doesn’t make it right. Leader McConnell was indignant, asking in a rousing speech, “Can we not maintain a shred, just a shred, of national unity for five minutes … before deepening the partisan trenches?” As former Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman recently wrote, “In their uniformly skeptical or negative reactions to Soleimani’s death, Democrats are … creating the risk that the U.S. will be seen as acting and speaking with less authority abroad at this important time.”
The late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s (R-MI) maxim that “politics stops at the water’s edge” has always been more aspirational than real. But in preaching what amounts to appeasement, Democrats are endangering the country.
Cliff Smith (@CliffSmithZBRDZ) is Washington Project Director for the Middle East Forum.