Qassem Soleimani is dead. The Iranian retaliatory strike is done. The beating of the war drums has faded into the background for the moment. And as the dust settles, we are left to try to make sense of it all. One of the unnoted aspects of the recent crisis is just how personalized war has become. In the aftermath of the strike on Soleimani, much of the coverage focused on the target, on whether he was a genius or not, and on whether it was a game-changing blow to the Quds Force. Almost as much attention was given to how President Donald Trump made the decision and whether he was justified in doing so. And while the Soleimani strike was unique in many ways, the personalization of violence is not. Indeed, the intense public scrutiny of the president’s decision to target the villain du jour demonstrated one of the means Americans are increasingly turning to in order to judge a president’s war performance in the post-9/11 age, often overshadowing the bigger questions — including what these singular events contribute to the overarching strategy.
The public has always related to war through its heroes and its villains. Since ancient times, entire conflicts have been characterized by lead combatants, be it David and Goliath, Hector and Achilles, or Augustus and Antony. In American history, Civil War marching music routinely cast the conflict in personal terms, “We’ll fight for Uncle Abe” or “Stonewall Jackson’s Way.” In the 20th century, Americans were fascinated both by their own generals — think George S. Patton or Douglas MacArthur — but also by their adversaries’ generals — Erwin Rommel or Vietnam’s Vo Nguyen Giap, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
What has changed in the 21st century? This personalization of conflict does not simply shape the public psyche, but also the practice of warfare. Entire campaigns are now built around targeting leaders. Man-hunting has become a staple of how the United States fights wars. It has pushed the development of new technology, most notably with regard to drones, and spurred the growth of new force structure to conduct these campaigns with ever greater lethality and sophistication.
Unsurprisingly, this personalization of violence, in turn, also shapes the politics of war. Each of the past three presidents have announced their capture or kills with pomp and circumstance. President George W. Bush gave a televised address to mark the capture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and another to mark the death of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. President Barak Obama followed precedent with a dramatic announcement of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Trump, likewise, expanded on the tradition and gave a press conference after the raid that killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Presidents, it seems, view their war records as measured by which enemy leaders they kill while in office.
And to an extent, the public also seems to judge its presidents by the scalps they wrack up. Bush’s approval skyrocketed by 9 percent after capturing Saddam while Obama’s approval jumped six points after the bin Laden raid. While Trump has so far not enjoyed a jump in his approval rating after the strike that killed Soleimani, a majority of Americans still credited him for the Baghdadi raid and a plurality applauded his Soleimani strike.
On some level, these plaudits are only natural. In wars with few defined battles and even fewer clear measures of success, the public might more easily relate to specific individuals than more abstract adversaries like the Baathists, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, or the Quds Force. Unsurprisingly, when the public sees its enemies vanquished in near-real time, they reward the political leaders who ordered these operations. Such applause, while understandable, is also deeply counterproductive.
First, much of this acclamation is misplaced. While presidents take on the political risks associated with these operations — like the diplomatic fallout with Pakistan after the bin Laden raid or now with Iraq following the Soleimani strike — much of the hard work of locating the targets and carrying out such operations happens far below the level of the president or any senior political official. Rather, the success of these operations hinges mostly on a handful of professionals inside the intelligence community and military who make these operations successful and whose work goes on no matter who might occupy the Oval Office.
Second, the intense public scrutiny of these strikes and raids is often disproportionate to their strategic impact. It is an open question whether decapitation generally works as a counterterrorism strategy: The Iraq insurgency outlived Saddam’s capture. Zarqawi’s demise did not end al-Qaeda in Iraq, nor did bin Laden’s or Baghdadi’s deaths doom al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, much less the overarching problem of Islamic jihadist terrorism. And while the full impact of Soleimani’s death remains to be seen, the Quds Force will continue.
Third, and most importantly, the fixation on individual leaders encourages strategic laziness — giving the false impression that deep-seated problems are really only about a handful of bad actors who, if excised, would cause those problems to go away. The capture of Saddam fed the arguably unhelpful narrative that “the Baathist holdouts [were] largely responsible for the current violence” in Iraq, which ignored the budding insurgency that led to sectarian civil war. The death of bin Laden, likewise, reinforced the perception that the “War on Terror” was mostly about al-Qaeda and that with bin Laden gone, “justice has been done.” And in the case of Iran, the operational problem was never Soleimani per se, but Iran’s actions to destabilize the broader Middle East. Moreover, the core strategic challenge of Iran goes deeper still — to the nature of the regime and Iran’s fraught relationships with its neighbors —problems that extend beyond any one man, even one as legendary as Soleimani.
Eventually, the public may come to recognize that victory was only an illusion. Whatever bump in the polls Bush and Obama enjoyed, it eventually faded as the significance — or the lack thereof — of these operations to the broader strategic problem became evident. In time, the public realized that even with Saddam gone, violence in Iraq was just beginning. Likewise, the public ultimately saw that even with bin Laden dead, jihadist terrorism rages on. And the public probably will come to see that the challenge of Iran runs deeper than any single individual.
And yet, it is not clear that the public at large has become any savvier at distinguishing tactical wins from true strategic victories. Captures and strikes are important accomplishments and the countless nameless professionals who carry them out deserve the credit for executing them. Presidents and senior national security leaders are charged with something larger and should be judged by a higher standard: namely, seeing beyond the illusion and producing actual strategic victories.
Raphael S. Cohen is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University. He served as an active duty Army officer, including serving in the Iraq War.