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In the hours after the Pentagon announced the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani on Thursday, “World War III” was trending on Twitter. Traffic to the US Selective Service, the agency that would be responsible for any eventual military draft, spiked so high that the website crashed.
Also trending was “Wag the Dog,” the 1997 movie that conjured up the notion of a president trying to distract from a scandal by spreading news of overseas conflict. Remarkably, that dark comedy was officially released just days before news broke about President Bill Clinton’s real-life scandal, his relationship with a White House intern. That scandal played out as the US fired missiles at Iraq and resulted in an impeachment trial in the Senate. “Wag the Dog” became a pop culture meme, and some of President Donald Trump’s critics trotted it out to question the timing of the killing of Soleimani, who commanded Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force.
It’s much more complicated. “The significance of Thursday’s US strike against Qasem Soleimani cannot be overstated because he ran Iran’s military operations across the Middle East,” Peter Bergen wrote. “Soleimani also oversaw operations against US servicemen in Iraq by Shia militias in which hundreds of American servicemen were killed following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.” The general had “the blood of many Americans on his hands.”
Retired US Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling noted, “While the Ayatollah Ali Khameini once described Iran’s premier general as his ‘living martyr,’ most Americans – myself included – and many Iraqis, Kurds and Syrians who faced him and his forces on the battlefield will describe Soleimani as a mass murderer, a war criminal, a terrorist and a despicable demon.”
Soleimani’s killing was a sharp escalation in an already tumultuous conflict. It came days after protesters stormed the US embassy compound in Baghdad in response to American airstrikes on an Iranian-backed militia.
Christiane Amanpour wrote that Soleimaini was “a shadowy spymaster mythologized among Shiites and loathed by Iran’s American adversaries” and the world is watching “to see how and where Iran retaliates after three days of official mourning end.” The key question now: “What’s the strategy against Iran? In the words of a former UK ambassador in the region, does the Trump administration have a plan to prevent this killing from being more than just ‘drive-by adventurism’?”
Writing before the general was targeted, Aaron David Miller noted “the inconsistency and vulnerability of the Trump administration’s policies toward both Iran and Iraq. Like a modern-day Gulliver, President Trump is metaphorically wandering around a Middle East where he’d rather not be, tied up both by smaller powers whose interests are not his own — and by America’s illusions about the region, perpetuated by Trump who somehow believes he can force Iran to bend to his will.”
American officials justified the strike by saying Soleimani was developing plans to attack American interests, but legal experts questioned it. “Assassination cannot be justified by the law of self-defense,” wrote Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame’s law school. “Trump is not the first president to carry out drone assassinations in violation of international law,” she noted. But “he has taken the practice to a new level of lawlessness.”
The Soleimani killing grabbed headlines hours after news broke of a previously redacted email linking President Donald Trump directly to the controversial withholding of congressionally approved lethal aid from Ukraine, the matter at the heart of the impeachment articles voted by the House.
“Whatever praise or condemnation President Trump is drawing from the latest US actions in the Middle East, they in no way diminish the power of the legal bombshell that just exploded in the United States with new evidence of his behavior regarding Ukraine,” observed Frida Ghitis. “If Trump had a coherent explanation, a viable defense, he would put it forward. He doesn’t. The more we learn, the guiltier he looks. That’s why he blocks every release of information, blacks out key pieces in court-ordered document releases.”
When the New York Times reported that three top administration officials tried in vain to talk Trump out of withholding the Ukraine aid, Elie Honig warned, “this is a cover-up, unfolding right before us.” The three officials “honored Trump’s blanket instruction to executive branch officials not to testify … It is precisely because of the crucial missing evidence that we need a real trial in the Senate.”
That trial is on hold, awaiting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision on when to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate.
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Horror in Monsey
As Jews were celebrating Hanukkah a week ago, a man wielding an 18-inch knife charged into the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York, and slashed at least six people. Investigators later found anti-Semitic journal entries in the attacker’s home, indicating that the stabbings were the latest in a series of purposeful attacks on Jews.
Frimet Goldberger, a former member of a Hasidic community in New York, wrote, “while the Hasidic community is reeling, it is also resilient.” The community “is one where everyone knows everyone, and where one person’s woe is the community’s affliction,” she added. “Their togetherness is such that one mother’s cancer diagnosis is a call for communal prayer and for a clamoring of balabustas (‘homemakers’) to deliver meals and ease the patient’s burden,” Goldberger said. “It is a community that desperately needs our support now — from Americans and Jews everywhere alike.”
“If you think this is a New York problem, or a Jewish problem — or perhaps a far-right, or a far-left, or a black or white problem — you should think again,” observed Frida Ghitis. “Anti-Semitism is a symptom of a larger societal problem. Sure, when Jews are unsafe, it is they who are most at risk, but Jews are the canary in the coalmine, an early warning sign of a community or a nation losing its moorings. The coalmine is filling with toxic fumes.”
Meanwhile, West Virginia authorities pushed back strongly against one episode of symbolism associated with hate, noted Jill Filipovic: “There is a tiny bit of good news at the tail end of the trash fire that was 2019. A Nazi salute will, in some corners of America, get you fired.” The members of a class of correctional cadets in West Virginia, along with several staff members were dismissed after they were photographed appearing to give such a salute.
Ricki Lake’s story
Actress and TV host Ricki Lake posted on social media about her struggle with hair loss and shared a photo of her shaved head. “Lake has set a brave example by talking about her hair loss and candidly revealing her fears,” wrote Holly Thomas.
“While it is a shame that she felt she needed to explain her decision to cut her hair — and incredibly likely that, had she not, it would have prompted speculation — one advantage of doing so on social media is that she is able to control the narrative.
“Having spent years presenting a version of herself which, as she put it, caused ‘deep pain and trauma,’ she was finally able to be ‘liberated.’ Lake’s fears illustrate how damaging stigmas of appearances can be, perhaps more than appearances themselves. Here’s hoping her decision can spur others to choose the same form of freedom.”
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A decade of lists
December 31 was not only the end of the year, but the end of a decade. And so, it was only natural to take stock and compile lists.
We took the opportunity to look back at 100 op-eds from the first decade of CNN Opinion, curated by Pat Wiedenkeller, with the aid of Laura Juncadella and Margaret Vorhaben.
Jane Carr looked back at the highlights of the year in culture and Yaffa Fredrick corralled predictions from our contributors about what will happen in 2020.
John Sutter traced the discouraging story of the decade’s impact on climate change but found a big ray of hope: “young people are waking up. They are shouting, loudly and with purpose.”
Former President Barack Obama released his annual year-end reading list and, as Dean Obeidallah observed, it made for quite a contrast with the books President Trump has been touting. “While the books that Obama recommends will make readers more well-rounded and informed, Trump’s list is filled with books that will make the reader angrier and more supportive of Trump.”
In the Washington Post, humorist Dave Barry provided an acid-laced year in review:
“Can we say anything good about 2019? Was there any positive news, a silver lining, a reason to feel hopeful about the future — to believe that we, as Americans, can recognize our common interests, overcome our differences and work together to build a better tomorrow, for ourselves, for our children and for the world?