Saturday night, less than 48 hours after an American missile has exited Iranian General and Quds Force Commander Qasem Suleimani, President Trump was already threatening retaliation if Iran retaliated against the assassination. Tweet from Mar-a-Lago, which seems to be his favorite place for launch airstrikes in the Middle EastTrump even suggested that the Iranian target list include sites “important to Iran and Iranian culture.” On Sunday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appears to have been accused of doing public relations for the Suleimani strike, refused to contradict the president, even when Jake Tapper (correctly) pointed out that targeting cultural sites would constitute a war crime. (This is stipulated in the 1954 Hague Convention, of which the United States is a signatory.) Questioned on this subject Sunday evening, Trump, back at last in Washington from his vacation in Florida, doubled. “They have the right to kill our people,” he said noted. “They are allowed to torture and maim our people. They are allowed to use roadside bombs and detonate our people. And we don’t have the right to touch their cultural site? It does not work like that.
This is not the first time Trump has suggested that the United States is deliberately engaging in war crimes. In 2015, the candidate Trump at the time proposed a barbaric strategy to fight against terrorists: “Take their families out”, he noted. The difference between then and now, however, is that Trump’s comments in the wake of Suleimani’s death are no longer the offhand reflections of a badass aspirant; this time Trump is arguing for war crimes as President of the United States.
Of course, this is deeply problematic on several levels.
Iran, in its contemporary incarnation, is ruled by a brutal and theocratic regime, which funds terrorist groups and militias across the Middle East (that Suleimani supervised), imprison Americans without cause, detonated Jewish community centers in Argentina and Israeli tourists in Europe, and killed and injured countless American soldiers use IEDs in Iraq. But as Americans of all political stripes can understand, a country is bigger than its current rulers. Iran is home to two dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites, the relics of an ancient and rich cultural history.
Destroying these artifacts would officially put the United States on a par with the same terrorists we claim to be fighting, the same people we believe to be anathema to our values. In 2015, Daesh bombarded the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman ruins in Palmyra, Syria. In 2012, al-Qaida broke loose in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Three years later, the International Criminal Court accused al-Qaeda commander who ordered the destruction through war crimes.) And in the spring of 2001, just months before the most spectacular terrorist attack in history, the Taliban shocked the world by blowing up ancient Bamiyan Buddhas carved in the mountains. from Afghanistan. It was a decision that, according to to a representative of the Taliban, was made “in a fit of indignation”.
The United States certainly participated in such cultural destruction. During World War II, we Bombed dresden, the baroque jewel of a city in eastern Germany. (The horror was eloquently documented by Kurt Vonnegut, who was an American prisoner of war locked in an underground meat locker in Dresden at the time.) In the summer of 1945, Kyoto, the old Japanese capital of yesteryear, topped the list of Japanese cities as the United States planned to target with the new atomic bomb.