Last night a U.S. airstrike killed General Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. A literal political assassination of a state military target, the attack is an unprecedented escalation of hostilities against Iran.
In the aftermath of the event the U.S. mainstream media, the major newspapers and television networks, cover for the administration. Unsurprisingly, initial American coverage of the event differs radically from the European coverage. Whereas the European coverage tended to emphasize the scope of the American escalation of hostilities, the American coverage was emphasized the villainy of Suleimani and the strategic value of the strike. The objective of the American coverage is to inform the oblivious public that the killing of this man, of whom they were previously unaware, is as justified and momentous as the death of Osama bin Laden. Political assassination (previously seen as “beneath us”, banned by executive orders under Ford, Carter, Reagan) has now been entirely normalized, even encouraged.
In The New York Times: “General Suleimani was the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past two decades, and his death was a staggering blow for Iran at a time of sweeping geopolitical conflict.” And according to CNBC: “America just took out the world’s no. 1 bad guy.” And so on…
The mainstream media propaganda/damage-control line offers a glimpse into the logic of the Trump administration—in spite of Trump’s infamous personal aversion to “detailed plans.” Two separate government explanations are offered—from the Pentagon: “It was meant to deter future Iranian aggression;” from Secretary of State Pompeo: “There was an imminent attack taking place we needed to stop.” Thus, out of the chaos of the administration itself comes the rationalizing speech in the press, giving the semblance of order retroactively. The advantage of having a press that is so intimately tied to the interests of the government is that by reading it closely—sometimes against itself, sometimes literally—you really do get a glimpse into the “truth” of the government’s motivation embedded within its misinformation, the way that “Kremlinologists” deciphered Pravda.
So what on earth were they thinking? Exactly this: the Americans are “committed to de-escalation,” they “don’t actually want war,” this airstrike is just a “red line,” just see how bad Suleimani really was—and now it’s up to Iran to “interpret” this.
In other words, the government really does think it can get away with this—it thinks it can avoid a war. And I think that it is actually true that the U.S. government doesn’t “want war.” But its relation to what it wants is what’s not so simple. What the government wants is for Iran to simply lay down its weapons and roll over to America’s demands across the region. But that is an impossible, hysterical demand, one that the Iranians could not agree to even if they had the most moderate and rapprochement-minded faction of their government calling the shots. And with that impossible, hysterical demand, and I dare say its enjoyment of this demand that takes form in the grotesque excess of the targeted assassination, it lurches itself toward exactly what it “doesn’t want”—war, economic instability, skyrocketing oil prices, general chaos.
And since this sign, this “surgical” strike, this assassination, is out in the open, articulated in the press, the “speech” of the unconscious of the U.S. government (which doesn’t really understand what it itself is doing, it acts contrary to its own desire) it’ll be on the Iranian Other if they “misinterpret” this sign—even though the sign itself is so aggressive that it alone would seem to demand a warlike response.
But even before the Iranian other has a chance to speak, to truly speak, beyond the immediate reflexive chest-thumping after the insult (which is, of course, translated in the American media so as to emphasize the exotic, fundamentalist terrorist-like vocabulary of “God,” “martyrs,” “revenge,” and so on…) the U.S. has already announced a dramatic increase in its troops deployed in the Middle East, already foreclosing the meaning of the sign before an interpretation is even possible.
They killed the guy without thinking it through and now all the rest is left to the necessity of fate.
No matter for the sign-generators and the smooth-talkers on our end, they’ll continue to interpret and re-interpret and produce the always-retroactive truth that emerges from the hysterical chaos of our leaders, whose rationality we take for given in international relations theory. Ostensibly opposed to him in principle—“Democracy Dies in Darkness”—the liberal media loves Trump because he gives them the only two things they actually care about (protecting bourgeois capitalist interests—as with tax cuts—and imperialist war) while letting them indulge in hysterical posturing about all the other “inessential” stuff. The Pete Buttigieg platitude: “It’s good that [xyz military action—hardly limited to this one] happened, but the way Trump did it, that was just too much.” This is collaboration and pure ideology. There is essentially no resistance contained in it at all. What it does instead is thanks Trump for absolving them of their responsibility in it, absolving them of their sin of collaboration. That unpalatable, unacceptable excess is precisely what redeems Trump by redeeming his loyal opposition. A perfect representation of the insanity of the center, the hollow center, the hollow center that is embodied in Trump as its ultimate statesman. And now, not just a statesman, but a war commander.