On Wednesday, a Ukrainian jetliner crashed in Iran, killing everyone aboard.
After maintaining for days that there was no evidence that one of its missiles had struck a Boeing 737-800 minutes after it took off from Tehran on Wednesday with 176 people on board, Iran admitted early on Saturday that its military had shot down the passenger jet by mistake.
Here is the sequence of events leading up to the missile attack that killed 56 Canadians: Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to kill Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, Iran’s top military leader. Iran, in turn, unleashed a barrage of missiles on Wednesday that seem to have taken no lives and appeared to have inflicted little damage on air bases in Asad and Erbil in Iraq that house thousands of Iraqi and American servicemen and women.
And then a few hours later, Iran tragically shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane mistaking it for an incoming American air attack.
Understanding why Trump ordered the killing of General Soleimani as opposed to other options to constrain Iran
While it is now clear what the sequence of events were that led led to the Iranian attack on the Ukrainian passenger jet, what is not clear is what led to Trump’s decision to assassinate Gen. Soleimani in the first place.
What we know is that in the days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, Pentagon officials apparently put the option of killing Soleimani — which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq — on the list of options they presented to President Trump.
According to the New York Times, Pentagon officials believed there was little to no chance that Trump would choose to kill Soleimani.
But Trump did choose to kill Soleimani – he chose the most extreme option. Reports suggest that the Pentagon officials who prepared the options were “flabbergasted” by the decision.
The question is why did he choose the most extreme option as opposed to other options to constrain Iran? It has become clear in the last 10 days that the Trump administration has no consistent rationale for the killing so most observers believe that the order to kill Gen. Soleimani was either an impulsive action related to the violent Iranian initiated riots outside the U.S. embassy in Iraq, or a strategic distraction related to his impeachment woes.
This post is not first and foremost about Iran or Middle East politics – it is about trying to understand the President of the United States. And the central argument of the post is that if you try to understand Donald Trump as a politician with a clear strategy and motivation to achieve real world policy objectives, you will understand very little. The key is to remember that the Donald Trump that matters is not first and foremost a politician with a coherent word view. He’s a reality TV performer.
In other words, the Donald Trump who ordered the killing of Gen. Soleimani, who got elected president, and who has been performing on TV screens since the 1980s, is a reality TV character simply continuing a decades-long media performance.
And Donald Trump is a really good reality TV performer who knows exactly what TV wants. In his campaign rallies, he told The Washington Post, he knew just what to say “to keep the red light on”: that is, the light on a TV camera that showed that it was running. Bomb the [redacted] out of them! I’d like to punch him in the face! The red light radiates its approval. Cable news aired the rallies start to finish.
Even when he adopted social media, he used it like TV, tweeting his birther conspiracies before he would talk about them on Fox News. He also road-tested his call on social media for a border wall during the cable-news fueled Ebola and border panics of the 2014 midterm U.S. elections.
If you want to understand what President Trump will do in any situation, then, it’s more helpful to ask: What does a mass TV audience want?
They want conflict. They want excitement. If there is something that can blow up, it should blow up. It wants a fight. It wants evil foreign generals to be killed.
And what does social media want?
Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms want pretty much what the mass TV audience wants.
And that is why Donald Trump chose to order the killing of Gen. Soleimani as opposed to other options to constrain a dangerous Iran and to deal with Gen. Soleimani. Killing Soleimani was loud and easy to understand – Trump’s base would notice.
Being “real” and performing for the camera
Being a reality TV star, as Donald Trump was on “The Apprentice,” is a performance. Playing a character on reality TV means being yourself, but bigger and louder.
And reality TV rejects empathy and instead encourages “getting real.”
But being “real” on reality TV is not the same thing as being honest. To be real is to be the most entertaining, provocative form of yourself. It is to say what you want, without caring whether your words are kind or responsible — or true — but only whether you want to say them. It is to emphasize the parts of your personality (aggression, obnoxiousness, prejudice) that will focus the TV camera’s red light on you. All this works extremely well on social media as well.
But “getting real” also resonates with a rising conservative notion: that political correctness keeps people from saying what is really on their minds. Trump and leaders like U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ontario Premier Doug Ford excel at politically incorrect “getting real” rhetoric. The killing of Gen. Soleimani was the perfect “getting real” action.
The institution of the Office of the President of the United States is not changing Donald Trump, because he is completely immersed in other institutions – TV and social media. His decisions are not influenced by expert advisers with a long history in specialized fields (like the incredibly complex politics of the Middle East), but by the imperative of American reality TV: Never de-escalate and never turn the volume down.
Donald Trump ordered the killing of Gen. Soleimani to mobilize his voting base which he began to cultivate decades ago through The Apprentice and his various other public performances.
His choice of the most extreme option offered up by Pentagon officials “flabbergasted” those very same officials. They shouldn’t have been flabbergasted. They were not providing options to a conventional politician but rather, were providing options to a reality TV performer named Donald Trump who knew exactly what action would get the attention of his base.
It is true that Gen. Soleiman had the blood of Americans (and others) on his hands and that he was instrumental in destabilizing Iraq and in keeping the Assad regime in power in Syria. It is also true that Iran is the sponsor of the terrorist organization Hezbollah which poses a constant threat to Israelis and is a major force in neighbouring Lebanon. In short, he was a general in a regime that caused chaos, mayhem and death throughout the Middle East.
However, the Trump administration’s stated rationale for killing Soleimani — that he posed an “imminent threat” to Americans requiring the US to take him out — is looking more and more dubious.
From political rallies to press conferences to secret briefings to official documents, Trump administration officials have repeatedly failed to provide evidence that Soleimani posed more danger to Americans at the time he was killed than he routinely did for decades. Trump’s team has so bungled its justification for the strike that even some Republicans have criticized the administration.
On Monday, January 13, President Trump put an end to the speculation of a specific rationale for the killing at this point in time when he tweeted: “It doesn’t really matter, because of his horrible past.”
While the Trump administration may not have had a coherent rationale for why they chose to kill Soleimani at this point in time, the fact is that Soleimani was a key figure in a regime that does pose a threat to Americans and Middle East stability more generally. As such, a strong case can be made that something needed to be done to constrain him and the regime in which he served.
So let’s return to the range of options open to deal with a dangerous general serving a dangerous regime. Let’s imagine that there is a thoughtful U.S. President, who is not a reality TV performer, open to a range of policy options. This U.S. President values deep expertise in his advisers, embraces complexity and is genuinely interested in achieving public policy outcomes that constrain the current Iranian regime and stabilize the Middle East.
One option is to revisit the notion of a nuclear deal – to try to forge a simple, revised nuclear deal that would impose a permanent freeze on Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity, with even more intrusive international inspections than levied by the original deal, in return for an end to the oil sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S.. Those sanctions are currently crippling the Iranian economy, harming innocent people, and enraging an already hard line regime.
There are almost certainly many career officials in the U.S. State Department, the U.S. intelligence community, and even in the Pentagon, who would favour such an approach to constrain the current Iranian regime. And such a deal would have the overwhelming support from Democrats in Congress.
But Trump, who unilaterally withdrew from a similar deal with Iran within months of taking office, would see no point of even considering such an option – and not because he is a “hawk” and would see the negotiation of such a treaty as “appeasing” a rogue Iranian regime.
No, Trump the reality TV performer would reject such an option because his audience/voting base would be completely bored by it – many wouldn’t even know he negotiated and signed it.
On Thursday of this week he made the killing of General Soleimani a theme of an election rally, drawing cheers from thousands when he said Soleimani’s death saved lives and delivered “American justice”.
Donald Trump loves his rallies and he constantly needs something that involves conflict and excitement to animate them. Remember, in order for that red light on the TV camera to light up, something needs to blow up and there should be a fight.
The problem with fighting and things blowing up, however, is that sometimes innocent people get killed.
And sometimes those innocent people are Canadians.