There are many approaches to the subject of ethics. Aristotle said that we do not naturally possess goodness of character. Only by obedience to rules of valid conduct do we acquire such goodness. Does our national security establishment even know what goodness is? And was it right to assassinated General Soleimani?

Rightness of action, according to Aristotle, involves taking a middle path between a vice of deficiency and a vice of excess. The following table illustrates various vices:

Now let us examine President Trump’s order to kill General Soleimani. As actions go, the killing partakes of the spheres of Fear and Confidence, Honor and dishonor (major), actuated through temper and truthfulness (or lies).

On the first of these dimensions, did President Trump act with rashness, courage or cowardice? We cannot say it was cowardly, because he publicly took responsibility for killing a high-ranking Iranian general. No coward would place himself in the crosshairs of a violent terrorist regime. The question is whether or not President Trump acted rashly (i.e., the vice of having too much confidence).

Is Trump over-confident? In terms of acceptable risk, a leader should not create a situation in which he is likely to be killed. Leaders are not invincible, immortal, supermen. Therefore it is not, in principle, wise to wage war with poison weapons, or to target enemy leaders, unless you are prepared to suffer the same fate as those you have targeted.

In principle, a policy of killing enemy leaders, which (I am sad to admit) the United States has followed intermittently since Pearl Harbor, exposes our own leaders to assassination. An example of how this works may be found in the case of President John Kennedy’s assassination. It is known that Kennedy ordered a hit on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It is also known that Castro learned of Kennedy’s order through a double agent (i.e., the prospective assassin), and said he knew about Kennedy’s hit when he visited the Brazilian Embassy in September 1963. These facts have been alluded to by famous persons, including President Lyndon Johnson and the chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff, James Angleton. It is believed by some intelligence experts that two communist bloc intelligence services (DGI and KGB) were complicit in Kennedy’s assassination; that the Soviets acted to defend Castro, preemptively, and to lay down the law to future American presidents. This action had the intended effect when President Gerald Ford instituted Executive Order 12333, prohibiting assassinations. Because President Ford understood why Kennedy was assassinated, he exercised prudence to safeguard the person of the president — reflecting the lesson of Dallas, learned on 22 November 1963. The lesson was simple: America should not attempt to assassinate foreign leaders or officials. President Carter and President Reagan affirmed Executive Order 12333 during their terms of office.

Many will disagree with a policy of restraint. Why not kill the bad guys? One should ask, in this context, whether the life of a U.S. President is worth the life of a hostile general or dictator. There are issues here touching on public order, foreign interference in domestic politics, and the wounding of public confidence and morale. Considering the greatness of America’s presidential office, it is inconceivable we should think our president commensurable with any foreign official. Few countries combine the head of state in the same person as the head of government. Ours is one such country. I believe it is wrong to put a president at risk.

Yet there is a sinister side to this as well. The president did not put himself at risk entirely by himself. He had help in doing this. The Democrats, and perhaps a few Republicans, would like to remove Trump from office. They cannot beat him in an election. They are hesitating to impeach him because the Senate will not convict. What other option might the Deep State have? Was the decision to kill Soleimani an attempt to generate lethal blowback against a disliked president? Trump’s critics in the National Security Council know his weaknesses. They also know how dangerous it would be to kill an Iranian IRGC General and brag about it. Quite frankly, this was not merely rash. It was stupid. The Iranians will react. They will go after President Trump. What I’d like to know is whose idea was this? Who gave this option to a brash, impulsive president? — a president who likes to brag!

We are now entering into questions which go beyond the moral failings of a president. We are bound to explore the moral failings of presidential advisors as well. After the release of the IG Report does anyone think our national security people are Boy Scouts? After the sickening spectacle of the Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings are we encouraged to trust the president’s NSC advisors? I don’t trust them. I think they give dangerous advice.

Our entire national security apparatus is permeated with immoral, unprincipled people. Look at what they’re credited with in recent years: enhanced interrogation techniques, drone strikes that kill innocent civilians and hostages, generals who sell out their own soldiers to curry favor with politically correct politicians, federal raids on whistleblowers, the jailing of innocent witnesses, fake intelligence reports, political spying, smuggling weapons to the same terrorists we are supposed to be fighting, etc., etc. The extra-judicial killing of foreign statesmen and generals is simply one more in a growing list of bad practices.

In my opinion the extra-judicial killing of statesmen and generals is not prudent. If we can kill whomever we judge to be “evil,” by whatever means we deem necessary, God help us. What remedies will other governments then apply against us? If we believe the assassination of Soleimani has made Iranians afraid, why wouldn’t they apply a similar logic to make us afraid? And where does that take us?

After the USSR collapsed we falsely believed we were the lone superpower. We have become progressively more deranged ever since. The tragedy of 9/11 led to ill-advised invasions, interventions, over-extensions — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. In the wars between the Shiites and the Sunnis we were going to play the balance of power. But people who are drunk with power have no sense of balance.

Trump’s action is not Trump’s action alone. It is the act of an establishment — with bad habits and worse policies. To order someone killed is rather personal. If this person is a criminal or a terrorist, we accept that they may be “wanted dead or alive.” But an official of a sovereign country represents something different, something distinct from mere piracy or banditry. Even if a regime is objectively evil and supports terrorism, it is nonetheless a POWER. As such it has a recognized “right” of self-defense (under international law). It also has allies armed with nuclear weapons (Russia, China and North Korea). The recognition of Iran’s right of self-defense is not something we can ignore. And there is World War III to consider.

Will the killing of Soleimani trigger a wider war? Probably not. What we do know is that Iran’s leaders have vowed revenge on President Trump. Here the rules of war are suspended and a blood feud begins. This is a game America should not be playing. Because President Trump made the killing of Soleimani personal, the Iranian leaders are honor bound to make their reply personal in turn.

But isn’t this simply war? No. It would be monstrous to make war an affair of murdering specific persons for revenge. It is an ancient principle, observed for centuries, that an enemy in war is depersonalized for good reason; first, for the sake of the soldier’s conscience; second, for the sake of the peace that must follow; third, because wars are not fought for personal reasons. They are fought for reasons of state. In respect of these points, nobody should say that soldiers on the battlefield are murderers. They are killers only; and it is a significant distinction. The Sixth Commandment, properly translated, says, “thou shalt not murder.” To kill may be honorable. To be an assassin, to commit murder, is never honorable.

Having noted the distinction between the personal and impersonal we should also consider what the tutor of Queen Elizabeth I, Alberico Gentili, said on the subject. He wrote that an open attack on an unarmed enemy leader who is not on the battlefield is murder (that is, an assassination). He argued that a murder of this kind could lead to further excesses. War would then gradually lose its relationship to valor. Gentili warned:

…accomplishment of victory consists in the acknowledgment of defeat by the enemy, and the admission that one is conquered by … honorable means….

How will an enemy react to dishonorable means? Such an enemy, feeling wronged, will refuse to make peace. In the case of killing a leader as a preemptive strategy, Gentili warned that a new leader would almost certainly emerge to take the place of the fallen leader. The followers of the assassinated leader would redouble their efforts in the name of revenge. If, however, a leader is killed honorably in battle, then who would dare say it was wrong?

Was General Soleimani armed and on the battlefield when the American drone strike killed him? No. In the strictest sense, it was not an honorable killing. You may object, of course, that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) murders people all the time; that they do not follow the rules of war, that we are entitled to kill them at will. But the Iranians did not target a named American general. We cannot claim we were retaliating in kind.

With these considerations in mind, I am compelled to say that Trump acted rashly in the sense given by Aristotle; that his advisers failed him. Perhaps they even betrayed him. Trump has exposed himself to serious danger for which he has nothing to show. Certainly, I would like to believe he has saved lives. But lives are going to be lost in the Middle East no matter what we do. Who can calculate, in truth, which path signifies less loss of life?

In the matter of honor and dishonor, we cannot say that President Trump acted honorably in the killing of Soleimani; for most of the great captains of history would have regarded it as vainglorious to take credit for slaughtering a man with a drone strike. It is likewise vainglorious to imagine that a policy of assassination is a sign of strength, or an effective tactic. Since when has it been so? Drone strikes have, up to the present, served as a substitute for victories which America has been unable to achieve.

With regard to President Trump’s truthfulness, we take what he says as a matter of faith. He ordered the strike on Soleimani to “stop a war.” He acted to save American lives. But watching General Soleimani’s state funeral, seeing the bitter tears of Iran’s leaders, I wonder who is going to save President Trump.

The same people who tried to frame him as a Russian stooge?

30 thoughts on “The Killing of General Soleimani: Was it Right?

  1. Hi Jeffrey,
    This is David Talizin Júnior, from Brasil.
    I know foi through Terca Livre, Allan dos Santos.
    I see that most right wing conservative analists in Brasil who defend Bolsonaro and Trump, are in agreement to Trump’s attitude.
    Now, after reading your text, I feel confuse.
    Consider that Brasil’s experiense with terrorism is quite diferent than yours, and that my mind was shapped by leftwing thougths, besides I never supported socialism, maybe because of my russians grandpas.
    I ask you, is it possible to explain your idea about Trump’s action in a more simple way?
    Thanks a lot.

    1. Soleimani was not simply a terrorist. He was one of the top leaders in Iran. He was a state actor. Killing him was an act of war. This is different than killing a pirate or terrorist. There is a line you cross, and it changes the rules of the game. It is not a change we should want to make.

  2. Actually I was just reminded of a prediction I made in my short book, “Russia may try to assassinate Trump and frame Democrats and/or Islamic Jihadis.” This actually meshes pretty good with the idea in this entry about how the national security establishment may be trying to set Trump up.

  3. Great article, a pleasure to read. The analysis of Kennedy’s assassination, and the precariousness Trump’s well being, is intriguing. I don’t know about applying ancient standards of conduct to the modern world. Unfortunately, when God died he, took Aristotle with him.

  4. Hard to argue with the logic here. My main concern, like yours, is that a nation like Iran won’t be satisfied with a response “in kind.” They won’t be content with “general for a general” retaliation. I’m worried about innocent men, women, and children paying for Trump’s actions.

    1. The violent death of a controversial leader always worsens a domestic crisis. The natural give-and-take is interrupted by something that bypasses discussion. Every political conflict carries within its womb a revelation. Kill the human vehicle of this revelation and you set the process back.

    2. Iran today is not a sovereign nation since the soviet coup there. A people’s(genocidal) republic functions differently, NOT as a nation at all. It is the same in Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, China(PRC), in Vietnam and so on. The western naive public has NO idea because of the total ignorance and psychological displacement , that operates in the mind unconsciously, same way ostrich behaves

  5. a friend, a serving colonel in UA military who does training for top level spetsnaz fighters recently said that top global eliteof ALL kinds used to consider themselves untouchable BUT not any more. My reply was: remeber Kennedy brothers, both murdered by soviet terrorists so soleimani is a first time OUR side did it and did it CORECT. Lets REJOYCE

  6. Jeff wrote: “Decapitation strikes are a two-edged sword. Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
    ANY killing is a two-edged sword. As Sergei Witte who managed to make peace with Japan used to quote a classic one: “evil creates only evil and can be eradicated only be eradicating the root of evil. I believe in “The Messiah” series this quote also was mentioned.

    But killing stalin effectively prevented a nuclear war he was about to launch.

    A smaller evil prevented a greater evil, if not a catastrophe that could end the humanity. In the early 50s soviet nukes were not even close to surgical limited high precision. Might have wipe out humanity in the subsequent aftermath.

  7. JEFF NYQUIST says: A perverted and dysfunctional state is still a state, and its sovereignty is an existential reality. Sorry to say

    We need to come to a consensual DEFINITION for important notion of sovereignty . The term can not be just something fuzzy , not specific, not concrete and it means only one thing: how is the national interest provided for in those nation. This is how we see it:

    Russia is a perfect case to analyze. It was a sovereign state before 1917. Since then 130 millions perished in mass murder not mentioning at least 45 millions in the WWII To this day the real figures are censored all over the globe because of the humans being deadly scared weaklings in general. Another at least 100 million of inhabitants of Russian Empire ands soviet Union left the territories in the stretch from 1917 till 2020 adn are moving out today at the staggering tempo by around a million a year(from all those territories), also hidden statistics.

    The rulers of the soviet empire (sill there under fake names) are NOT Russian or Ukrainian citizens and most of them are on constantли living outside . Those who are there- real names are not mentioned as the real rulers

    The communist movement was and remains international, nomatter if they call themselves communists or no name at all.

    There are no political or any other state level decisions made by the inside, official governments there: same goes for Ukraine and Russia and all other alike entities

    The issue of sovereignty is a common thing in the political discussion in al former soviet republics. This is not an exaggeration, it is the way they function. From the top leaders of Ukrainian intelligence , who served in Yushchenko government we know, as they say publicly and this is confirmed by the Western sources: since 2014 an equivalent of one year GDP in dollars were syphoned into offshore accounts by the REAL rulers in Ukraine , among them and who provided the vehicles for it, are Biden , Soros and many others. R. Giuliani is very big on that, btw.

    Sovereignty must be shown in decision that are made. SO far Russia and Ukraine are nothing else but COLONIES exploited by the international players who came to loot, among whom of course former central committee communist party USSR play a key role but the are being helped massively by MANY western structures and figures.

    Look at the Iranian nation : the conditions there , the political process , all of it is not FOR the national interest but just the opposite. It is a nation in decline same as Rusia , they are dying as Nation states and will be wiped out as even formal state entities if the vector they move toward will not change.

    Look at Afghanistan or Venezuela and try to find ANY sovereignty there. Syria recently joined the suit

      1. you invited me to read your stuff here Yourself.
        what a shame to steal my comments and pretend that it is a platform (YOPUR WORDS NOT MINE: exactly what you told me
        Why did not you tell me beforehand that you are incapable to maintain discussion at the level your readers comprehend (me)
        I am out of here. Please find my stolen comments and return back

  8. This profound article should have its proper place in one of America’s leading newspapers. Imagine the impact of it, were it to reach the President’s breakfast table…

    1. people who advice POTUS are of the highest competence possible. There is no other way to protect from leninists and their proxies: they only fear AMERICAN FORCE, not EU, not NATO< no one else. But they are scared deadly by Americans ONLY. This was exactly why comunist party bowed in 1985 to the Pershing misiles and Star War threats. I will never forget how scared they were: I was right there at the time with direct access to information from central committe

  9. Well argued hypothesis….Grim hypothesis on Iran.

    Russian collusion failed. Ukraine quid-pro-quo failed. Impeachment failed. Did the “deep state” lure Trump into an assassin’s crosshairs?

  10. He was personally responsible for the violent deaths and maiming of thousands. He can no longer cause violent things to happen to other people, including innocent bystanders.

    He chose to live by the sword. He could have chosen peace. He did not.

    Karma a bitch ain’t it?

    For my part I don’t think he was the one being targeted. The US had never gone after him before even when we had multiple opportunities to do so. The target of the drone strike was actually al-Muhandis.

    It was his bad luck to be collateral damage.

    Proving that Karma is really a BITCH.

    1. I don’t know what you mean by saying that General Soleimani is “personally responsible” for the violent deaths of thousands. If this is true, in the sense you mean, aren’t all leaders “personally responsible” for the killing that is done by their forces in war? Was Churchill personally responsible for the women and children who burned to death in Dresden in February 1945? Was Harry Truman “personally responsible” for the women and children who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Were presidents Bush and Obama “personally responsible” for every innocent life taken by bombing or drone strikes? Or do you really say there is a difference between making a drone strike on someone’s residence and planting an IED?

      I am not saying there is moral equivalence between our political system and theirs, between our leaders and theirs. Although you don’t realize it, YOU ARE THE ONE SAYING THAT. You are the one embracing the unlimited use of violence in war. I say that dirty methods are not made clean because our cause is better than theirs. Let us not be morally blind to our own lapses into wickedness. No doubt you will be outraged; but if we act as though unlimited violence is okay, then we are as wicked as they are. This statement is going to make me very unpopular; but I despise the “morality” that says there is no honor in war with regard to enemies. Decency is possible, even in war, even when it comes to people whose ideologies we find repugnant. In the long-run we lose nothing by acting honorably. In the long-run we earn a small degree of trust which, under certain circumstances, allows peace — or some semblance of peace.

      Did you know that Admiral Yamamoto was grieved when he learned that Tokyo had not transmitted its declaration of war to Washington BEFORE attacking Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. This great Japanese strategist, who masterminded the December 7 attack, wanted to conduct the attack honorably. Think of what a blunder it was for Tokyo to have ignored his counsel!

      Even if enemy leaders are psychopaths, most of their followers are not. To demoralize enemy troops a victorious army must not only outfight its enemy, but exhibit moral excellence. We must show that we are worthy of victory; that we are valorous, honorable and just. What do we lose by honorable conduct? We lose the advantages that dishonorable methods promise. But do we really want these advantages? I think these advantages come at great cost.

      You say Karma is a bitch. Is she YOUR bitch? I think not. Like so many Americans you imagine we are invincible, invulnerable, untouchable. But this is conceit. This is arrogance. I’ve watched this country deteriorate since I was a child. This deterioration is intellectual and moral. There is no telling how far it has progressed. At least, in this current discussion, it has progressed to half the country making YOUR argument. I grieve because you have just now advanced the premise that “all is fair in war.” I cannot relate to you the disappointment I feel every time I turn on Fox News, every time I read a tweet by someone who celebrates Soleimani’s death. This person was not a mere bandit or terrorist. He was a high-level leader in a country of 80 million people. He was beloved by his colleagues in the Iranian government. I have no doubt he deserved to die; but in killing him we have wronged ourselves. We have given the Iranian leadership permission to kill our president. We have made new rules for the game and now they will play by these rules.

      There are other questions that need to be asked, as well: Is our president qualified to judge the guilt of an Iranian statesman and general? — to then sentence this general to death? — to order this general’s execution? The idea of statesmen acting in this way should horrify you. But I do not sense you are horrified. I do not think — after two days of arguing my case on TWITTER — that any Americans were moved by my arguments. Yes, of course, Soleimani’s victims are rejoicing that their oppressor has been killed. It is, of course, the joy of revenge. But don’t ask me to bask in it. This “righteous” act of revenge — if that’s how you see it — has not freed one Iranian from Islamic tyranny. This “righteous” act, though it eliminates a killer, does not stop the killing. This “righteous” act, rather than ending a long war merely makes it into a blood feud.

      Now they will “righteously” come for our president.

  11. Jeff

    I understand the logic behind this article, my apologies if the comment is a bit off topic or not appropriate, something has come on my mind about the Hong Kong Legislative Council Elections this year, the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party which is the real ruler or Government of Hong Kong will use it to pull something off similar to Operation Trust in Russia during the 1920’s which will result in the victory of the Pro-Democracy Movement in the Legislative Council Elections which will also in fact fool the Media, US Republican and Democrat Parties and the US Government’s China Commission into thinking the victory of the Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Movement is a victory for democracy and universal suffrage when the Pro-Democracy Political Parties are fronts for the Hong Kong Underground Communist Party

  12. ‘Decency is possible, even in war, even when it comes to people whose ideologies we find repugnant.’

    How? When? Where? Is combat ever ‘decent’?

    1. Because war is so terrible, every small decency is crucial: the treatment of prisoners, respect for enemy rank, the flag of truce, the allowance for burying the dead, not assassinating leaders while they are unarmed and off the battlefield, etc.

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