An Eye for an Eye Doesn’t Make Americans Safer

The Trump administration is doubling down on vengeance as a foreign-policy doctrine, placing the United States and its allies in danger.

Pakistani Shiite Muslims in Lahore burn U.S. and Israeli flags in a protest against the killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani on Jan. 7.
Pakistani Shiite Muslims in Lahore burn U.S. and Israeli flags in a protest against the killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani on Jan. 7. ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

In the aftermath of the United States’ assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Jan. 3, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised “forceful revenge,” while Iraqi militias chanted “revenge is coming.” The Iranian regime took revenge with missile attacks on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops on Jan. 8 but appeared to indicate that it did not seek further escalation.

It is tempting to see revenge as an impulse that guides Iranian foreign policy, or Muslim adversaries generally, while seeing U.S. policy as directed by more rational aims. U.S. President Donald Trump’s actions and public remarks, however, make clear that there is a parallel desire for vengeance in Washington.

In order to avoid escalation of war with Iran in this situation as well as to create the conditions for more just relations between the United States and the Middle East, U.S. decision-makers must understand the role vengeance plays in the United States’ Middle East policy and how American vengeance has become institutionalized and helps perpetuate endless war.

In the public discussion since Jan. 3, three general positions have emerged regarding Trump’s decision to assassinate Suleimani. The first—that of the administration and other supporters of the strike—holds that killing Suleimani in Iraq by drone was both necessary for preventing an imminent attack and justified because of Suleimani’s history of violence against Americans. Trump’s statements also suggested that Suleimani’s fate would have a deterrent effect on U.S. adversaries. According to the administration, the strike was thus simultaneously preventative, retributive, and deterrent.

Subsequently, Trump indicated that the retributive element was all that was needed to justify the killing, tweeting on Jan. 13: “[I]t doesn’t really matter [whether or not Suleimani had planned an imminent attack] because of his horrible past!” It was an open expression of American vengeance and nothing more. In this respect, it mirrored the killings of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and others.

According to a second position—taken by diplomats, security experts, and other commentators—targeting Suleimani was strategically misguided because it risked an uncontrollable escalatory spiral with Iran that might set off a regional war. But many who took this position still believed the strike had value as an act of retribution. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman admitted that he had “no idea whether this was wise or what will be the long-term implications” after he celebrated Trump’s assassination of “possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East.”

Indeed, there was delight that could be taken in the killing of Suleimani. As former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker put it, for example, it was a moment of “quiet satisfaction” for him when Suleimani’s death was confirmed. It was “vindication” for the “hundreds of American lives he had taken over the years.”

Many who adopted this position appeared unconvinced that the assassination would deter Iran, with some contending that, at the very least, U.S. citizens were at greater risk across a wider area than before the strike—but they nevertheless saw vengeance as having value in itself. (Of course, they would likely understand the strike as legitimate retaliation rather than vengeance, but that is a difficult distinction to make in this context.)

A third position, taken by some of the most ardent critics of the strike, criticized Trump on the grounds that by authorizing this assassination he set a dangerous precedent in international relations. These critics argued that the assassination was reckless in the way that it violated international norms. They pointed to the executive order banning assassination as a tool of foreign policy that has remained in force since the mid- 1970s. Trump, according to these critics, revived this tool in killing Suleimani, possibly in order to distract attention from the ongoing impeachment proceedings against him.

Former National Security Council director Steven Simon, for example, observed that the executive order banning assassinations had been adopted by every administration from Gerald Ford’s to Barack Obama’s “because no one has thought it would be a good idea to legitimize assassination, given how hard it is to protect US public figures.” In line with Simon’s critique, the assassinations of Suleimani and Muhandis, as well as the attempted assassination of Abdul Reza Shahlai in Yemen on the same day, should all be criticized as rogue actions.

But Trump’s decision was not isolated; it was part of a broader trajectory that included the reinterpretation of the executive ban on assassination beginning under the Clinton administration. In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton authorized the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden and his top deputies. Clinton’s national security team determined that because of the threat bin Laden represented to the United States, killing him would be an act of self-defense under the laws of war and therefore not an assassination. Even if his administration failed to carry out the operation he’d authorized, Clinton had asserted an exception to the ban on assassination mandated by the executive order.

The post-9/11 global war on terrorism greatly expanded the scope of such actions, as President George W. Bush began targeted killings outside of war theaters in 2002, beginning in Yemen, justified also as defensive and legal under Congress’s post 9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as attacks on al Qaeda and allied forces. Obama intensified the executive branch’s embrace of targeted killing from Libya to Pakistan, arguing these killings were neither assassinations nor acts of retaliation but rather self-defense in war.

Trump’s decision was not isolated; it was part of a broader trajectory that included the reinterpretation of the executive ban on assassination beginning under the Clinton administration.

According to this logic, all that was required to justify these strikes—whether they targeted state officials or non-state actors—was the U.S. president’s determination that the target represented an imminent threat to the United States. Trump has simply continued and extended this policy while more openly expressing the vengeful impulses behind it.

It is notable that preceding the assassination of Suleimani the U.S. government officially designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including the Quds Force that Suleimani led, as a “foreign terrorist organization.” This more directly connected Iran to the logic of Congress’s AUMF, forging another link between Iran and U.S. retaliation for 9/11, already evident, for example, in Bush’s 2002 inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil.”

Vice President Mike Pence tried to make this connection explicit when he tweeted that Suleimani had helped 10 of the 9/11 hijackers. Pence’s inaccuracies, like Bush’s conflations during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq 18 years ago, sow confusion, whether deliberately or not. The fact that Iran, and Suleimani in particular, worked alongside the United States in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is obscured in the resulting confusion.

Supporters of Trump’s assassination of Suleimani argue that the killing had value as an act of vengeance. It was American justice, whether or not it was also preventative or would deter future terrorism. They rationalize the retributive element in this strike as an end in itself.

Recent history suggests, however, that vengeance is most likely to beget more vengeance and that retributive violence by the United States in the Middle East is both morally questionable and strategically bankrupt. But how seriously can one take the element of deterrence? And who precisely was the attack meant to deter? By showing that he could execute a terrorist leader whenever and wherever he wanted, Trump—as had Bush and Obama—intended to send the message that terrorists would never get away.

As Trump put it: “If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people.” His audience ought to be suspicious of this trope in presidential rhetoric, however, since every “world’s top terrorist” eliminated by the U.S. military is swiftly replaced by the next in the American imagination, creating an endless series of Islamic terrorists to kill (who often have little connection to one another).

Announcing the killing of Baghdadi in October 2019, for example, Trump anticipated the next top terrorists to go after when he said, “These savage monsters will not escape their fate, and they will not escape the final judgment of God.” Yet killing Suleimani was also ostensibly supposed to advance the Trump administration’s policy of deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Some commentators have correctly pointed out that killing Suleimani, along with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and withdrawal from the nuclear deal, has if anything hastened Iran’s drive to acquire a nuclear weapon.

The position that equates vengeance with deterrence, then, is not just mistaken; it dangerously ignores the extent to which vengeance propagates violence and puts Americans (and many others) at greater risk of future attacks.

Those who argue that killing a high-ranking Iranian official was a rogue act are correct to criticize Trump’s assassination, but they should do so as part of a broader critique of American vengeance in the Middle East. By overemphasizing Trump’s impulsiveness as the root of the problem, the history of targeted killings in the region is forgotten. Indeed, this tendency was on the ascent long before Trump took office and will undoubtedly persist as a problem after he has left the White House. Trump can so easily act on his impulses only because of the structures of American vengeance are already in place.

These structures have durable foundations because the United States’ pursuit of vengeance in the Middle East reaches back decades. In the 1980s, for example, the CIA attempted to kill the Shiite religious leader Muhammad Fadlallah to avenge attacks on Americans in Lebanon. An intricate plot involving CIA Director William Casey and Saudi intelligence agents led to a car bombing that killed scores of civilians but missed Fadlallah.

The attempted assassination of Fadlallah spurred Hezbollah’s 1985 hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 and the killing of a U.S. Navy diver on board. In 1986, the Reagan administration decided to avenge attacks against U.S. military personnel with a strike against Libya intended to kill Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and his family. The bombing failed to kill Qaddafi and likewise failed to deter him. But it did set an important precedent.

Eventually, in 2011, the United States helped ensure that Qaddafi got his just deserts. In the words of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We came, we saw, he died.” And American vengeance has been manifested in many other ways: the endorsement of torture, the abuse of prisoners, the so-called Muslim ban, to name several. But assassination deserves particular attention because it has become such a widely accepted instrument of vengeance within U.S. political culture.

The rising importance of vengeance in American political rhetoric is a troubling symptom of a U.S. foreign policy that has been emptied of any attempt to make real progress in favor of the political expedience of emotional release. U.S. leaders need to continually perform with strength, resolve, and credibility in order to stay in power, which means maintaining the threat to Americans, not eliminating it. While there has not been another 9/11-like attack in the United States, terrorism has not only spread but evolved. The U.S. response to 9/11 helped spawn new jihadi movements, such as the Islamic State. And the threat of attacks by self-proclaimed jihadis remains.

Suleimani’s death, then, is one more act of vengeance in the long war on terrorism, in which presidents are willing to kill whomever they deem to be a terrorist, in some cases even if they are a top foreign official, whatever the consequences. It is notable that Trump called Suleimani the “No. 1 terrorist anywhere in the world,” a designation that Trump had previously given Baghdadi when he was killed in October.

The United States is more freely using the tools honed during its war on terrorism to take revenge against an ever-expanding cast of enemies. Vengeance is not unique to Trump, though his style has highlighted the impulse. The idea that the United States is acting as the arbiter of justice in such payback killings has become increasingly powerful, just as the strategic logic of U.S. intervention in the Middle East becomes more confused.

Indeed, in the absence of a coherent strategy, exacting vengeance has become one of the only markers of progress for U.S. policy in the Middle East. But retribution tends to encourage never-ending cycles of retaliation, and when the blowback arrives, Americans will find that Trump’s vengeance doctrine—despite its promises of restored deterrence—has in fact made them far less safe.

Alex Hobson is a lecturer at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. He is writing a book titled Chains of Vengeance: The United States, the Middle East, and the Long War on Terrorism, 1967-2003.

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