Friday, January 3, 2020

War Is Dead

Last night, "World War 3" started trending on Twitter in response to a US airstrike near a Baghdad airport that killed the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani among other top Iranian and Iraqi military officials. I'm not convinced this will start a war. Rather, I think this is a continuation of the global shift away from formal declarations of war and toward discretionary uses of military force to punctuate foreign policy.

Who Was Qasem Soleimani?

If you ask the Trump administration, they will say that they killed a commander of a terrorist organization. While it is technically true that George W. Bush's Treasury Department designated the Quds Force a terrorist organization under definitions outlined in an executive order signed in response to 9/11 and that Donald Trump declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization in an executive order last year, these facts require heavy contextualization.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is simply the Iranian military, and the Quds Force is its special operations unit. That is, the US considers the military of an entire country a terrorist organization. The justification given is that the Quds Force in particular, and the military generally sponsors what are designated by the US to be terrorist organizations in foreign countries.

It must be noted that the US also has a special operations command within the military commonly called SOCOM, and like the Quds force, it works with local militias and paramilitaries to achieve military aims in foreign countries. Units such as the Delta Force, Navy SEALS, and the Green Berets all fall under SOCOM. Assassinating Soleimani was the equivalent of killing four-star US General Richard D. Clarke.

Does This Mean War?

At least by early 20th century standards, this would be an act of war. Increasingly, however, US military policy has been to engage in aggressive operations on an ad hoc basis. Following World War II, the US began developing special forces in the various branches of the military independent of each other. These were all consolidated under the Reagan administration in 1987 under SOCOM in response to the failure of Operation Eagle Claw to rescue the hostages in the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Reagan had especially made it a habit of using special forces to exact US foreign policy goals, sending them into Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In addition to special forces operations, Reagan oversaw numerous one-time military operations designed to send a message to the adversary of the moment. This policy was continued by successive presidents, both Republican and Democrat.

This act is certainly the most extreme form of these discretionary strikes. As far as I'm aware, no publicly announced US military operation has taken out the military commanders of a foreign country. If, as I suspect, this act does not result in a formal declaration of war, it will confirm that we are in a post-war age.

And it makes sense for Iran to play along, too. Wars are extremely costly and unpopular and put military command under the purview of the legislature and international laws of war. Discretionary strikes, on the other hand, require no oversight and are easier to build a compelling narrative around. Further, they require no commitment to further military strikes, nor a clearly stated strategic vision for victory.

Expect military actions to become more common as a tool of foreign policy. Expect an escalating state of ostensible war without any formal declaration. A war that never starts can never end. War is dead.