The killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp leader Major General Qasem Soleimani by an American drone will reverberate across the Middle East and the world for decades to come. The architect of Iran's imperial expansion and its worldwide terror networks, including hundreds if not thousands of attacks that killed American soldiers in Iraq, Soleimani was a unique and deadly figure. Iranian revenge attacks for his killing are inevitable.
In the meantime, however, it is useful to examine reactions to Soleimani's killing from the interlocked American foreign policy and media apparatus. Former Obama White House staffer Ben Rhodes introduced the term 'Blob' to mean the bipartisan foreign policy establishment,shapeless and permanent, as a way of highlighting the Obama administration's purportedly novel thinking.
Like a shapeless iceberg, the blob is mostly underwater, comprised of hundreds of individuals inside and outside of government, with the latter mostly residing in policy organizations, think tanks, the media, and academia, before cycling back into official positions.
Know-nothings say what former Obama administration officials tell them to say.
Rhodes, a former speechwriter turned policy guru, also noted that "The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That's a sea change. They literally know nothing." Together these formed what Rhodes described as the "echo chamber," "saying things that validated what we had given them to say."
This handy description is Rhodes' only useful and lasting contribution to American foreign policy. Indeed, as if to illustrate both the permanence of the blob/echo chamber revolving door and its vacuity, Rhodes currently runs an anti-Trump policy organization and appears frequently as a television commentator.
What then do the blob and the echo chamber have to say about Soleimani's death? The medium known as Twitter, with its short, impulsive, and poorly thought out messages, provides a unique window into what people are really thinking.
Rhodes himself, fundamentally invested in the Obama JCPOA nuclear deal, was quick to respond. Among his comments were "Trump may have just started a war with no congressional debate. I really hope the worst case scenario doesn't happen but everything about this situation suggests serious escalation to come," and "Iraq and Lebanon are just two of the places where we have to be very concerned about the potential Iranian response which could play out over time - not to mention Iran's nuclear program. Again, QS was as bad a guy as there was, but what is the strategy here?"
Former American Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power also condemned the action by pointing to the uncertainty of the outcome, and specifically the allegedly precipitous mannerin which the decision was made: "Trump is surrounded by sycophants (having fired those who've dissented). He has purged Iran specialists. He has abolished NSC processes to review contingencies. He is seen as a liar around the world."
Lesser-known blob members also weighed in. Kelly Magsamen, currently of the Center for American Progress and formerly principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, similarly lamented"I worked the Iran account for years at the NSC under two Presidents. I'm honestly terrified right now that we don't have a functioning national security process to evaluate options and prepare for contingencies. God help us."
Finally, Brett McGurk, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, now of Stanford University, complained "We need to presume we are now in a state of war with Iran... and that is not something that the Trump administration appears to have been prepared for."
The echo chamber expressed similar concerns. Charter member Ezra Klein of Vox complained, "The question isn't whether Solemaini was a bad guy. The questions are: 1. What are the likely consequences of his assassination? 2. Do you trust the Trump administration to have planned for those consequences and to manage what comes next?"
Higher up on the echo chamber food chain, the New York Times' Max Fisher's expressed concerns for not for the decision-making process but the nature of the Iranian-American relationship: "If reports are true, assassinating Iran's Soleimani would represent a major, overt act of war. Functionally and legally, it's not a "risk of war" or "tantamount to war." It is war outright, and against a country that has invested years of preparation into enduring just that."
Washington Post columnist and CIA leak conduit David Ignatius warned ominouslyabout "An eerie feeling reading this news, reminiscent of when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple a brutal dictator—and set in motion a chain of consequences for which America was utterly unprepared."
Finally, representing academia and its distorted view of both history and contemporary reality, Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt pondered "Just imagine how we'd react if some adversary assassinated a member of the Joint Chiefs, an Undersecretary of State, or the DNI."
Scores of similar examples are easily found but what does this exercise in collecting ephemera suggest? One observation is that the blob is uniquely and absolutely committed to the decision-making process and its own indispensability. Only they, in this case meaning Obama veterans, have the wisdom and patience to analyze situations and predict outcomes. When they act, such as in killing Osama Bin Laden, it is wise; when others act, wisdom is lacking.
Another is that the blob has a deep, if newly discovered, respect for the American Constitution and its war-making powers, namely the apparent need to consult Congress in order to take action against a designated terrorist and his associates. That this was not a concern with regard to the JCPOA is of little consequence. Similar complaints have been expressed by others regarding the Soleimani killing and the malleable fiction of 'international law,' as opposed to the Obama Administration's immense global targeted killing program. The concern is simply who is pulling the trigger, not why.
The blob's concern is simply who is pulling the trigger, not why.
At one level the complaints are inescapably partisan; Democrats complaining about the Trump Administration is the first and only law of American politics today. Parallel complaints regarding process, wisdom, and ultimately fitness for office were leveled at Obama by Republicans and will be again, but they hardly reached the current level of antipathy directed at Trump. The questions then become not simply whether Trump's policy decision was correct, but whether critics adopting such tones of ill-disguised hatred are themselves to be trusted.
But the responses to Soleimani have additional relevance not simply because of their partisanship and self-referential elevation of expertise, which illustrate if nothing else the processes of elite groupthink. They anticipate a possible future, namely the way Democratic presidential candidates uniformly disapproved of killing Soleimani.
Current frontrunner and former Obama Vice President Joe Biden likened the act to throwing "a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox." Elizabeth Warren acknowledged "Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans. But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict." Finally, Bernie Sanderswarned "Trump's dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars."
The parallels between the blob/echo chamber and the Democratic candidates illustrate their interlocking nature; Obama veterans would return under Biden or Warren, while Sanders likely bring in ideologue outsiders, such as his foreign policy advisor, progressive blogger Matt Duss. But they also illustrate common intellectual foundations, the elevation of process and celebration of expertise, the search for predictability and corresponding avoidance of disruption. Readiness to be gamed by canny adversaries is thus built in.
The candidates' responses are thus a foreshadowing of a future Democratic administration. Like most members of the blob and the echo chamber, the candidates have already stated they would recommit to the JCPOA nuclear deal (which of course may not longer be possible). But they would likely return to the Obama policy of indulging Iran's 'legitimate regional aspirations,' 'security concerns,' and Islamic government, even as they offer tepid criticism, as means of restructuring American relations away from Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Still, every new administration has to deal with reality bequeathed by its predecessors. The killing of Soleimani may, or may not, upend the chessboard of Iranian imperial expansion, much less unleash World War III. As the new reality unfolds, the question remains whether experts on all sides of the equation are willing to rethink their premises and contend with the world as it is now. First indications are not promising.
Alex Joffe is a Shillman-Ingerman fellow of the Middle East Forum and a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Center.