In the early hours of the morning, local time, state media in Iraq reported that Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top security and intelligence official, had been killed in a drone strike at Baghdad’s international airport, along with figures tied to Iran-backed Iraqi militias. In the United States, where it was Thursday night, the news quickly spread, albeit with key details missing; cable news shows and one broadcast network, CBS, cut into their programming with portentous reports that something serious had happened. An hour or so later, the US government confirmed that its military had killed Suleimani at the direction of the president. Trump remained strangely quiet, though he did tweet a picture of an American flag. In response, Iranian officials tweeted their country’s flag, and threats of revenge. Such is the road to war in 2020.
Some context: Suleimani was greatly influential in Iran and widely revered by his countrymen. As head of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, he was responsible for Iran’s prodigious maneuvering throughout the Middle East. According to a former operative of the Central Intelligence Agency who spoke to Dexter Filkins in 2013 for The New Yorker, “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East.” In recent years, Suleimani was influential in buttressing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and other efforts that cost lives—including those of US troops—in countries from Iraq to Lebanon. According to the New York Times, Trump’s plan to kill Suleimani was initiated last week, after the administration accused an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia of killing an American contractor in an attack on an Iraqi military base. The militia denied involvement; the US bombed some of the militia’s bases anyway. Afterward, when militia members sieged the US embassy in Baghdad (staffers were trapped inside; none were hurt), American officials blamed Suleimani for being the instigator.
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Presidents Obama and Bush never took shots to kill Suleimani, fearing war with Iran. Trump went ahead and did it. Does that mean we’re now at war with Iran? Experts’ initial reactions, it seems, have fallen on a spectrum—from let’s keep things in perspective to war is now inevitable to we’re already there. (In The Atlantic, Andrew Exum, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy under Obama, wrote that the killing of Suleimani “doesn’t mean war, it will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war.”) Two points of consensus emerged: that we are in uncharted territory and that whatever happens next will not be good. “No ‘hot take’ makes any sense now,” Rasha Al Aqeedi of Irfaa Sawtak, a site associated with the US-funded Middle East Broadcasting Networks, wrote. “None of us who work on Iraq closely ever anticipated a scenario without him.”
Nevertheless, hot takes abounded—on Twitter, where everybody suddenly seemed to be an expert on Iran, and in the news. (In particular, a CNBC piece—“America just took out the world’s no. 1 bad guy”—took a lot of heat online.) Cable shows invited guests with close ties to the military-industrial complex: Fox News hosted Bush stalwarts Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer; MSNBC interviewed Brett McGurk, a diplomat involved in Iraq policy during the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations; CNN had on Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist who was a vocal proponent of the Iraq war. For many progressive commentators, it was all a bit too 2003 for comfort. “Cable news is hard-wired to support war,” Carlos Maza, formerly of Vox, tweeted. “It relies heavily on ex-military, ex-national security people for commentary, and routinely marginalizes anti-war voices.”
Much has changed since the early 2000s, including Boot’s perspective. He has recanted his support for the Iraq war and warned that war with Iran would be worse. Still, as I wrote last year amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran, much mainstream coverage of the countries’ relationship has been too quick to paint Iran as the menacing, unilateral aggressor, and has parroted US government talking points without applying due skepticism.
Last night, as reporters scrambled to fill in the details of Suleimani’s killing, news outlets turned repeatedly to press releases, including the Pentagon’s assurance that the strike on Suleimani “was aimed at deterring future attack plans.” As the Post’s Josh Rogin tweeted, “By the Pentagon’s own logic, if Iran retaliates, the strike mission failed its key goal. Remember that.” That’s sound advice. Already, Iran is promising “harsh retaliation.”
Below, more on Qassem Suleimani and Iran:
- State media: Iranian state TV confirmed Suleimani’s death before US officials did. According to the Times, programming was interrupted and an image of Suleimani was shown on screen as a news anchor recited the Islamic prayer for the dead.
- More division: As several news stories noted, reactions in Washington cleaved sharply on partisan lines. (New year, same old.) Many Republicans praised Trump, but one voice was conspicuous in its silence—that of James Mattis, who quit as Trump’s defense secretary over Middle East policy disagreements. When contacted by the Post, Mattis declined to comment on Suleimani’s death.
- “Say ‘No War’ You Cowards”: In June, with US–Iran relations at a particularly low ebb, Hamilton Nolan argued, for Splinter, that the media’s job here is simple: to say “no war.” Instead, mainstream news outlets “allow themselves to be dragged along into war by more cutthroat actors, insisting the entire time that the paperwork must be in order,” Nolan wrote. “This happened in Vietnam, and it happened in the buildup to the disastrous Iraq war, and you can see it happening again now.”
- A reminder: Before Christmas, the Post published an explosive cache of government documents related to the war in Afghanistan. The files, which it called “the Afghanistan Papers,” show that US officials repeatedly and deliberately misled the American public about the progress of the war. If you haven’t read it yet, now is as good a time as any.
Other notable stories:
- Apocalyptic fires continue to rage in Australia and the situation looks likely to get worse. An official in New South Wales told the Sydney Morning Herald to expect “blast furnace” conditions over the weekend. This week, David Wallace-Wells argued, for New York magazine, that the world is “hardly paying attention” to this crisis, which has gone on for months. “The duration of this climate horror has allowed us to normalize it even while it continues to unfold,” he wrote. A recent uptick in coverage suggests that we may finally be waking up.
- On the second day of 2020, Julián Castro dropped out of the race to be the Democrats’ nominee for president. Throughout his candidacy, Castro offered thoughtful criticisms of media pathologies including “bothsidesism,” horse-race journalism, and double standards when covering candidates of color. (According to an adviser, Castro studied journalism in college.) In November, with his campaign struggling, Castro told Gen that the media’s focus on white candidates risks further depressing non-white turnout.
- Last year, the Justice Department refused to hand the House Judiciary Committee a trove of documents related to the Mueller report that the committee wanted to review as part of its impeachment inquiry. Yesterday, BuzzFeed published the documents, which it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The memos, which contain redactions, summarize interviews with Mueller witnesses including Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Jerome Corsi, the former InfoWars conspiracy theorist. Both admitted to telling lies.
- Last year, Ross LaJeunesse quit as head of international relations at Google. Now he’s claiming that the company sidelined him over his efforts to impose human-rights at Google—a push, LaJeunesse says, that conflicted with the development of censored products for the Chinese market. (Google said LaJeunesse left as part of a “reorganization.”) LaJeunesse is now running for US Senate as a Democrat in Maine.
- For CJR, Mariya Manzhos—who quit her job at the Winchester Star, a newspaper in Massachusetts, because of low pay and understaffing—calls on Gannett to keep local reporters in their jobs following its recent merger with GateHouse, which owns the Star. “It takes time for journalists to develop connections to their communities,” Manzhos says.
- For the Wall Street Journal, Christina Poletto profiles the luxury residential developments that have taken over buildings vacated by newspapers, including the Tampa Tribune and the Chicago Tribune. Per the Associated Press, the Richmond Times-Dispatch just sold its headquarters to a hotel operator. The paper will retain one floor as a tenant.
- On Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, asked Parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution on charges related to his dealings with media companies. (For more on those, read Ruth Margalit’s piece for CJR.) Yesterday, Israel’s Supreme Court declined to bar Netanyahu from ever forming a new government.
- A court in Thailand sentenced Suchanee Cloitre, a TV journalist, to two years in prison; she was charged with libel after she accused a chicken farm of slave-labor practices. (Suchanee is appealing.) The editorial board of the Washington Post condemned the verdict. “Thailand under a military junta has a terrible record on press freedom,” it wrote.
- And Erin Jordan, of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, profiles the Iowa Radio Reading Information Service—a radio and podcast program for visually-impaired residents in which volunteers read aloud from local and national newspapers.