Is the Middle East a powder keg ready to blow? Or did an assassination late last week actually make it less dangerous? Is the targeted killing of a top official of a sovereign state just plain wrong? Or did he deserve it because of his murderous actions and plans for more?
These are the questions lingering after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of an elite unit in the Iranian military. He’s regarded as the second-most powerful person in the country. The organization he headed — the Quds Force, an external unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — was responsible for violence and killing across the region for years.
President Donald Trump on Thursday authorized the drone strike on Soleimani, who was in Iraq at the time. In doing so, he made a decision that his predecessors — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — never did, though they could have. Mr. Soleimani was in plain sight, but neither of those presidents wanted to risk a wider conflict in the Middle East by pulling the trigger.
President Trump has already said that Soleimani should have been killed a long time ago. It’s not entirely clear what made killing Soleimani a priority right now; military officials have said only that there was a threat of violence against Americans.
In carrying it out while Soleimani was in Iraq, the U.S. did manage to sidestep directly striking Iranian territory, and that makes good tactical sense. We do not want all-out war with Iran. Despite the crippling effects of U.S. sanctions, a full-scale war there would be disastrous for everyone.
There will almost certainly be an Iranian response, and the attack will clearly destabilize the region for some time to come. That is evidently a risk that Mr. Trump was willing to take.
It might, in fact, be a blow serious enough to destabilize the Iranian regime, and to weaken its ability to foment violence. It might be justifiable, based on the threat he represented. We’re willing to withhold judgment on that, although we would encourage all Americans to look for answers to difficult questions.
We also encourage Mr. Trump’s political opponents to exercise some restraint here. Asking tough questions is necessary and good; jumping to the conclusion that the strike was a mistake just because it was Mr. Trump who ordered it is wrong and counterproductive.
It’s going to take some time to see the effect of the assassination. We’re hoping, as all Americans should, that it was somehow necessary, and that it was in the interests of Americans and the Middle East generally.