In Defense of “Yes, But” Rhetoric: The Case of the Suleimani Assassination
by John Whitehead
The U.S. government’s assassination of Iranian General Qasem Suleimani began the year 2020 with violence, and the possibility of more violence.
The assassination, in retaliation for Suleimani’s alleged involvement in attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq (and supposedly to prevent further attacks), threatened to escalate into open war between the United States and Iran. Peace activists and others responded with criticism and protests against the United States’ actions; I and other Consistent Life Board members have participated in some of these protests. This reaction was encouraging and may have contributed to the danger of war decreasing somewhat.
One piece of anti-war commentary provoked by the Suleimani assassination disturbed me, however. The commentary was an unusually direct articulation of an unfortunate attitude I have encountered among a few critics of American foreign policy. Further, this attitude reflects a kind of partisanship that can be displayed by activists for other causes, as well.
In his newsletter Nonzero, journalist Robert Wright lamented certain media commentary on the Suleimani assassination. Wright, who opposed the assassination, wasn’t concerned with pundits who supported the killing. His main complaint was that too many people, while criticizing the U.S. assassination, also engaged in criticism of Suleimani. Condemnation of Suleimani for having “blood on his hands” prompted Wright’s concern:
[P]eople who note the blood on Suleimani’s hands go on to raise doubts about the wisdom of assassinating him. Condemning Suleimani seems to be a ritual that commentators and politicians must perform before condemning, or even questioning, the killing of Suleimani.
Thus: “Suleimani was responsible for unthinkable violence and the world is better off without him. But…” (Rep. Adam Schiff). Or “Suleimani was a terrible man who caused terrible violence in the world. But…” (Rep. Jerry Nadler)
Even a scathing critique of the assassination by Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council was objectionable to Wright:
Or this doozy of a first-paragraph disclaimer in a generally excellent New York Times op-ed by Barbara Slavin: “Few tears will be shed in many parts of the world for Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, whose Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ruthlessly spread Iranian influence and contributed to the deaths of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians, as well as hundreds of American servicemen in Iraq, over the past decade and a half. But…”
He goes on to say,
I think the compulsory recitation of his crimes has a big downside. Even when it precedes a critique of heedless American militarism, it can wind up reinforcing the narrative that sustains that militarism.
Wright points out, quite correctly, that the United States also has a great deal of blood on its hands and has committed more crimes than the Iranian regime has. He also makes the reasonable argument that the U.S. bears the larger share of blame for hostility between the two nations. Many of Iran’s actions can be understood as attempts to protect themselves against the U.S.
Yet how is recognizing any of this incompatible with recognizing Suleimani or other Iranian officials’ responsibility for violence or human rights violations?
Wright asserts that criticizing Suleimani fosters a simplistic view of Iranian leaders as evil:
[F]rom the point of view of warmongers, depicting a country’s leaders [as evil and implacable] is a twofer: it makes violence against them seem justified, and it makes exploring their perspective—an exercise that might undermine that justification—unlikely…
The various kinds of moral disclaimers that critics of Trump’s killing of Suleimani engage in—he has blood on his hands, but; the world is better off without him, but; the killing was morally justified, but—also, in some small way, help sustain the image of Iran that has brought us to the brink of war.
While much of Wright’s analysis is well taken, his conclusion about the dangers of criticizing Suleimani strikes me as questionable. Wright isn’t claiming such negative comments were false, that Suleimani was actually innocent of wrongdoing and didn’t have blood on his hands. Within the same newsletter, he acknowledges (I think sincerely) “There’s no denying that Suleimani does (or did) have a lot of blood on his hands. He is responsible for many deaths, including the deaths of innocent civilians.”
His position seems to be (to put it in my own words) that condemning Suleimani will complicate the larger picture of American guilt for the conflict with Iran, and make it harder to empathize with the Iranians. So we shouldn’t talk about Suleimani’s misdeeds, even though they’re real. Such talk apparently undermines opposition to assassination and war.
This seems misguided to me. Moreover, this misguided thinking isn’t unique to Wright, although he is more matter-of-fact about it than other anti-war commentators. Self-identified “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone made essentially the same argument as Wright, except with regard to Bashar Assad’s Syria rather than Iran. Glenn Greenwald, a well-known critic of the American national security state, has also responded to criticism of human rights violations by anti-American regimes and groups by changing the subject, either emphasizing America’s many crimes or attacking his ideological opponents for supposed hypocrisy.
To be sure, unqualified, passionately asserted claims have advantages. They’re simple, forceful, and provocative. They attract attention, and can sometimes serve as effective rallying cries to action. The importance and urgency of a cause—in this case, stopping a war—seems to demand a firm, unequivocal stance that makes no concessions to the other side.
Also, in a political environment where everyone tends to express themselves this way, there’s a strong incentive to follow suit. Facing aggressive advocates of hawkish American policies, anti-war advocates can easily be tempted also to go on the offensive, to bring up America’s many crimes, to accuse the hawks of hypocrisy, and generally not to yield an inch. More qualified, measured statements tend to get drowned out or come across as wishy-washy.
Such uncomplicated rhetoric has two major flaws, however.
- Preaching to the Converted
The first is that such rhetoric does little to convince those on the other side. In this case, I doubt a foreign policy hawk who supported the assassination, and perhaps outright war with Iran, would be moved to rethink that position by someone who refused to even acknowledge crimes by Suleimani or the Iranian regime.
Such a refusal’s most likely effect would be to undermine the credibility of the anti-war advocate, who could come across as an apologist for the other country’s regime. Or at least the anti-war advocate would seem unwilling to acknowledge information that didn’t clearly promote the anti-war cause.
Even someone who isn’t a hawk, who’s on the fence about assassination or other aggressive actions, might react skeptically if an anti-war advocate seemed to be ignoring inconvenient facts. (A more fruitful approach might be to point out the tremendous cost and disastrous long-term consequences of escalated conflicts with Iran or other nations.)
By contrast, the kind of “Yes, but” approach Wright objects to might actually get someone not already converted to the anti-war cause to listen. A “Yes, but” approach establishes at least some common ground with the unconverted. It also shows the anti-war advocate is careful and reasonable enough to recognize complexity. Indeed, at one point in his commentary, Wright even acknowledges the rhetorical value of such recognition.
- Ignoring Complexities
The second flaw with these kinds of unqualified claims is perhaps more abstract but no less significant. They take a toll on the person making them.
Deliberately ignoring qualifications, complexities, or facts because acknowledging them might somehow hurt your cause is a good way to undermine your own intellectual and moral integrity. Insisting on a simplistic, partisan view of an issue while dismissing inconvenient facts can become a habit, and a very bad one.
It’s especially dangerous when the inconvenient facts being ignored are deaths or suffering that don’t fit into the preferred partisan narrative.
Falling into this trap is a hazard for all activists, not just those opposed to war but those working on all the issues covered by the consistent life ethic. A commitment to that ethic should involve recognizing every person’s shed blood, whoever’s hands might have shed it.
For more of our posts from John Whitehead on foreign policy, see: