In the ten days since a drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the Trump administration has been dogged by questions about the rationale for the attack and its potential to escalate tensions. Did Trump have intelligence that suggested an attack orchestrated by Soleimani was imminent? Was the strike strategically sensible? Has the United States risked another war in the Middle East, this time with Iran?
In a policy discussion with students on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to address these questions by describing the attack as part of a broader strategy to deter challenges from adversaries and restore credibility in American power.
Speaking to around 250 students at the Hoover Institution’s David & Joan Traitel Building, Pompeo claimed the high-stakes move aimed to deter an emboldened Iran from further aggression by demonstrating America’s capacity to impose significant military costs on the regime. He pointed specifically to Tehran’s involvement in terrorist activities and nuclear provocations. “You can have the greatest army in the world,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter if you’re not prepared to use it.”
The administration’s strategic objectives are to deprive the regime of resources through a combination of diplomacy, economic pressure, and military deterrence and to push the regime to behave more like a normal country. “Just be like Norway,” he said to laughter from the audience. Pompeo claimed that the administration intends to accomplish these strategic objectives while reducing America’s footprint in the region.
The Secretary of State outlined the administration’s goal of pursuing similar deterrence strategies vis-a-vis Russian and Chinese aggression as well. He suggested that the failure of previous administrations to take a hard line against adversaries emboldened their aggressiveness, citing the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and Chinese intellectual property theft. Referencing the latter, he warned that China has “stolen masses of innovation created at campuses like this one: everything from engineered crop seeds to self-driving cars.”
While Pompeo downplayed the imminent threat Soleimani posed to the United States, he reiterated the message from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the government would have been “culpably negligent” if it had not eliminated the Iranian general. In response to a question from Anat Peled ’20 about public mistrust of the intelligence community, Pompeo offered anecdotes from his time leading the CIA, describing the community as one that works hard to provide accurate, reliable data to policymakers like himself.
He held Soleimani responsible for “nurturing misery” across the region, displacing millions of Syrians, destabilizing democracies in Lebanon and Iraq, and causing mass starvation and cholera epidemics in Yemen. He drew the strike into a narrative of defending liberty and democracy in the Middle East, expressing solidarity with the thousands of Iranians and Iraqis who took to the streets to celebrate the general’s death.
“There is no terrorist except Osama bin Laden who has more American blood on his hands than Soleimani,” Pompeo said.
In response to his point on defending democracy abroad, Bryce Tuttle ’20 asked how the United States intends to support democracy and freedom in Hong Kong following months of sustained anti-Beijing protests. Pompeo said that the protests are part of “a much longer conversation on China” and that the administration has “done its best to draw a set of boundaries of what is acceptable” given the Chinese government’s long-standing commitment to both Hong Kong and the international community’s desire to afford the region autonomy.
Following the event, second-year medical student Suleman Khan said the talk left many questions unanswered about the specific rationale behind the attack and the future of America’s policy in Iran. Gabby Conforti ’21 expressed skepticism about the administration’s ability to pursue its “maximalist objectives” while reducing the number of soldiers it deploys in the region.
“I think the administration is yet to reconcile how they will achieve all of their goals in the Middle East,” she said.