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What’s next? Former ambassador Ryan Crocker hopes U.S. has long-term strategy after ordered killing of Iranian general

A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the U.S. airstrike in Iraq, prior to the Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, Friday Jan. 3, 2020. (Vahid Salemi / associated press)

President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani came as a surprise to Ryan Crocker, a Spokane native who served as ambassador in the Middle East during six presidential administrations.

“If ever there was somebody who needed killing, it would have been him, the damage he has done to us and would likely do in the future,” Crocker said. “But does it fit into a long-term strategy?”

The key question now is what happens next, he said.

Crocker said the Trump administration has struggled to maintain long-term commitments, and he cautioned that Iran would be patient. Still, there was no doubt that the loss of Soleimani could be beneficial for the U.S. and its allies, given the general’s sphere of influence and knowledge as the 20-year leader of Quds Force.

Crocker said Quds Force is the element that carries out Iran’s support for militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Soleimani became a combination of special operations leader and director of intelligence, akin to head of the CIA. He was also essentially the foreign minister, Crocker said. Additionally, he became responsible for Iran’s internal security after protests in 2009, a role that Crocker said he carried out with “efficiency and ruthlessness.”

“He is not easily replaceable,” Crocker said. “Someone else will assume that position, but I doubt seriously if he will have the abilities and certainly not the experience that Soleimani had. So this will have a negative impact on Iran’s ability to carry out the kinds of efforts that have been so extremely damaging to our interests and those of our allies – especially Israel.”

The Associated Press reported that Iran vowed “harsh retaliation” for the killing of Soleimani and that the U.S. is sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Mideast for reinforcement.

“We’ve seen a chain of events,” Crocker said. “This clearly is not going to be the last one. I don’t know what actions Iranians will take. They may not know at this point. … It’s a very complex, multidimensional chess game going on between Iran and the U.S. They have to calculate what their next step is, what they can do, and then what the consequences are going to be. We have to make the same set of calculations.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington said in a statement that “no one wants to see an escalation with Iran.”

“The President needs a strategy that involves working with our allies to find a diplomatic solution for the region,” Cantwell said. “The President also needs to brief Congress on the intelligence that led to this strike, as well as the plan to protect Americans and allies from the repercussions of his actions.”

But Crocker said war with Iran didn’t start on Thursday, and it wouldn’t end on Thursday, either.

“It’s terribly important that this administration have a complete and long-term strategy because, again, this is going to be a long war,” Crocker said. “It didn’t start with the killing of Soleimani. I was in Iraq as ambassador from 2007 to 2009, and I saw the efforts of Soleimani’s people arming and training Shia militia men in Iraq under their control to kill American soldiers.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said in a statement that the president’s action “sends an important message to those who wish to do us harm.”

“Qassem Soleimani is a terrorist who actively aided and supported groups like Hezbollah and Hamas,” McMorris Rodgers said. “He is responsible for the death and injury of thousands of Americans. This decisive strike was a defensive action against imminent threats and plans to attack more Americans and our allies. I support our Commander in Chief. I encourage the administration to engage with Congress on this moving forward so we can be strategic in avoiding escalation and in protecting American lives and American interests.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside, called Soleimani an enemy of the United States, “and his death signifies American strength against his threats, attacks, and acts of global terrorism. President Trump acted decisively to defend America.”

Idaho U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, characterized the death of Soleimani as justice.

“Qassem Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and his death presents an opportunity for Iraq to determine its own future free from Iranian control,” said Risch in a prepared statement, using an alternative spelling of the Iranian general’s last name. “As I have previously warned the Iranian government, they should not mistake our reasonable restraint in response to their previous attacks as weakness. The U.S. will always vigorously defend our interests and allies in the face of terrorist conduct and provocations.”

In a statement, Washington U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat, agreed that Soleimani was an enemy of the U.S., but said she was “gravely concerned this President’s escalatory actions jeopardize American servicemembers, allies, and interests and could put us on a path to deeper, sustained engagement – once again without a strategy or clearly defined objectives, and this time without any attempt to seek Congressional approval.”

However, Crocker said the president was well within the scope of the law in ordering this strike.

“In terms of legal authorities, I don’t think there’s any question that the president had the authority to do it,” Crocker said. “Should he have done it? Well, that will be a question going forward as we see what the Iranians do and how well prepared we seem to be for a long campaign.”