- The Trump administration’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani is turning into a man-made disaster, one with a fallout so potentially disastrous it cannot be obscured by lies and propaganda.
- This has happened to governments before. In 1986 the nuclear accident at Chernobyl helped to break the USSR’s propaganda machine.
- Now, as then, lives are at stake, and it’s imperative that the people demand real answers.
- To get to the truth of why this happened, we’ll have to reject words like “imminent threat” this White House is using to explain itself and insist on knowing what they actually mean.
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Let the assassination of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani be President Donald Trump’s Chernobyl moment.
That is to say, let Soleimani’s death be the moment that propaganda fails, that this administration’s lies are confronted with the truth. Let it be the moment when even those who support Trump cannot help but be witness to his scandalous ineptitude.
That was what the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which took place in Ukraine in 1986, was for the USSR. As the calamity worsened, even the mighty Soviet propaganda machine was unable to force the empire’s citizens to accept the official narrative of what had, and would, transpire.
Glasnost — Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of opening up the government to the people — was already in place by the time of the disaster. But it was only after the accident that the program began in earnest, as Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics, said in his book “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.”
It took a man-made disaster to lay bare the government’s weakness and mendacity for all to see, beyond the shadow of denial or delusion. Soleimani’s death could do the same thing to the Trump administration, by creating a situation on the ground that is too deadly and volatile to be glibly dismissed as fake news by the administration, or spun away by Trump aligned propagandists.
There is no strategy
On Thursday the US assassinated a man who planned the murder of thousands, yes. It was Soleimani’s military prowess that helped Syrian government forces hold out in the darkest days of their civil war. He was an enemy of the US, and two American presidents — Barack Obama and George W. Bush — considered assassinating him.
But they didn’t, because they understood that decision to kill Soleimani was not an act in isolation. There would be consequences that put American lives at great risk, and potentially start a war. It is the job of the president of the United States to weigh those considerations before taking such a dramatic step. In the days following Soleimani’s assassination, though, it appears that Trump did nothing of the sort.
No matter what anyone in the administration says about this killing being part of a strategy, Trump seems determined to contradict the idea that Soleimani’s death was part of a broader plan.
—The Tennessee Holler (@TheTNHoller) January 4, 2020
The administration said Soleimani’s death was necessary because of “imminent” threats to US lives. But there are questions surrounding the administration’s use of the word “imminent” to describe the threat level of an attack from Soleimani.
Details about what Soleimani was planning have yet to materialize, and the language Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been using to describe it has been squishy. He told CNN on Sunday: “If you’re an American in the region, days and weeks, this is not something that’s relevant.” He also said it wasn’t “just one thing” that forced the US military’s hand.
An unnamed Pentagon source told Reuters that whether or not the US had strong intelligence indicating that Soleimani was planning an imminent attack depends on your definition of the word “imminent.” Hardly reassuring coming from an administration known for lies, half-truths, and obfuscations.
If Americans must die as a result of this — and it’s possible they may — we must know whether the word “imminent” is being abused by this administration. If we want to get to the truth in this situation, we have to stop accepting the vocabulary the administration uses to shield it and demand that words have real meaning.
Hooked on cacophonies
Truth has been in short supply over the past three years, in part because the Trump White House has done everything it can to disrupt the normal flow of information from the government to the American people.
What this White House does present to the American people can often hardly be called information. It’s just an arrangement of words devoid of facts. In this case specifically — as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said — the White House’s classified war-powers notification to Congress on the bombing “raises more questions than it answers.“
By cutting off normal pathways to the truth the Trump administration is trying to make facts unknowable. And so it was in the USSR. Here’s how Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen described it as she wrote about Chernobyl for The New Yorker in June:
The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.
For the Trump administration, the problem with the assassination of Soleimani is that, as this story unfolds and the consequences are being made clear, it does not have the monopoly on information to a dramatic degree. It was the same for the Soviets during Chernobyl.
Trump may be able to obstruct Congress’ quest to determine whether there was a “real and imminent threat” emanating from Soleimani. His administration can tie subpoenas up in court (as it has done with efforts to obtain Trump’s tax returns). It can tell journalists lies (as Trump did when he said he didn’t know Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two men at the center of the Ukraine scandal). And it can feed the American people a diet of factless nonsense (like it does when it insists on pushing conspiracy theories about the so-called “Deep State”).
But the president cannot control the grieving, angry people in the streets of Iran or their government. He cannot control the Iraqi Parliament, which just voted to expel American troops in the country fighting ISIS. He cannot control the actions of Iran’s proxy forces located near assets belonging to the US and its allies. He cannot control the public disapproval of US allies. And he cannot control the potential for the tragic loss of American personnel serving overseas.
The loss of control of a narrative has political ramifications — even for a mighty authoritarian government or a politician with a slavish base of support.
Trump won the presidency by cobbling together a coalition of the angry, and a great many of them (like Fox News host Tucker Carlson) were angered by US intervention abroad. They took Trump for an isolationist — just as everyone in the coalition took Trump for whatever they wanted him to be — and now they may see that he was just enjoying the luxury of being a candidate — free from the pressure of a job that requires decisions that reveal a person’s true nature.
The assassination of Soleimani has not revealed that Trump was some sort of secret war hawk the whole time. It has simply forced a truth that many people have always known out into the open: The president is an opportunist willing to say or do whatever, whenever to get what he wants.
Soleimani’s death has simply made it impossible to ignore what we’ve learned every day of this presidency, that Trump is an emotionally weak man, easily pushed to irrationality by anything from images on a TV screen to the insecurities that bend his mind. Trump is not fit to be president, and Soleimani’s death may be the disaster that lays that bare beyond the shadow of denial or delusion.
“Reality,” a former president said in a time that seems long ago, “has a way of asserting itself.”