Trump’s threats draw Iran’s cultural sites into tensions (copy)

In this Jan. 19, 2019 file photo the shrine of Iran's revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini is seen, just outside of Tehran, Iran. Iran, home to 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites, has in the past reportedly guarded the sprawling tomb complex of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with surface-to-air missiles. 

On Sunday, President Donald Trump raised the possibility of targeting Iranian cultural sites as part of the ongoing conflict with Iran. He has since received plenty of criticism, but rather than just piling on — though I too think it is a bad idea — I think it is worth looking at the broader calculus of how to choose an appropriate target for retaliation.

Under current circumstances the retaliatory options include targeted assassinations, strikes at military targets, escalating cyberattacks, escalating proxy wars and now attacks on cultural sites. (Tough sanctions are already in place.)

One reason not to strike at cultural sites is that it puts the U.S. government in some very pernicious company. The Taliban destroyed historic Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan to help make the country more Islamic. Hitler wanted his generals to detonate Paris as they were retreating, though fortunately they refused to do so. Such policies are now considered to be war crimes.

A second reason is that the Iranian government itself has mixed feelings toward those cultural sites. Some remind Iranian citizens of their country’s pre-Islamic heritage, while others in their splendor stand as reminders that Iran, formerly Persia, was once one of the world’s great powers. That invites unfavorable comparisons to Iran’s current status. Destroying those sites would turn them from implied rebukes of the current Islamic Republic into symbols of it.

Maybe Trump’s threat to attack cultural sites was not meant literally, but rather as a brash reminder that his retaliatory actions will not be constrained by world opinion, international law or the views of American elites. If so, such a signal, to be effective, has to harm the Iranian regime. Trump’s message shows that he doesn’t understand the calculus of retaliation very well.

Assassinating a military leader by drone, by contrast, is something the U.S. can do but the Iranian government cannot, at least not easily or without provoking even greater retaliation. That makes such a policy an effective deterrent in the short run, as it hurts the actual decision maker, and indeed that is what Trump chose to do.

By mentioning cultural sites, he in essence has decided to follow a very strong signal of action with a much weaker signal of words. If you are a hawk, you should understand that Trump’s talk of cultural sites is weakening his core message that retaliation will be effective. It is usually better game theory to follow up a highly impactful action with relative silence, but silence never has been Trump’s strong suit.

To be clear, it remains to be seen whether the killing of Qassem Soleimani will be good policy. Perhaps Iran cannot or will not retaliate against Americans right now. In the longer run, however, such decisions normalize targeted assassinations as tools of foreign policy. Over time, effective drones will become more widely available, and Americans will become more likely as targets.

In fairness to Trump, it should be noted that Barack Obama escalated such drone assassinations in several countries to an unprecedented degree, often killing innocent bystanders in the process. The primary difference is that Trump chose a higher-value target, but the logic of drone assassinations — if you accept it — argues for going after higher-value targets. Thus I don’t find current criticisms of the strike very convincing. The better argument is simply that both Obama and Trump have opened up a Pandora’s Box that Americans will someday come to regret.

And what about the other options?

Attacking or bombing military targets is an old deterrence standby, but these days it doesn’t seem to send much of a signal. Did the U.S. missile strike on the Shayrat airbase in Syria in 2017 have much of an impact?

Cyberattacks have been used to limit the Iranian nuclear program, and perhaps in other instances. But they don’t deliver an obvious public message. At any rate, cyberattacks don’t seem like the appropriate response in this case, given that Iran appears to have attacked the Saudi oil fields in September and was behind the recent storming of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, both highly visible events.

Escalating proxy wars might be another option. But doing so would play into the hands of the Iranian government, which cares about those conflicts more than the U.S. does.

And so on the spectrum of possible responses, assassinating military leaders emerges as the best idea, relatively speaking, with targeting cultural sites as the worst. But the deeper question is how America got itself into a situation where the best retaliatory idea is still pretty bad, especially in the longer run.

The point of retaliation is to protect your long-term interests. If effective retaliation is now a short-term tool, then U.S. foreign policy is in very bad shape indeed.

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