Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
Is Donald Trump to blame for Iran’s horrific downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752? Yes – in the same way that Barack Obama and Stephen Harper were to blame for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, by Russian-backed militias on July 27, 2014.
No, Flight 752 would not have been downed had Mr. Trump not ordered the earlier assassination of General Qassem Soleimani. Neither would MH17, had Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper not joined other Western leaders in supporting Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression. Had the West not refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and supported Ukraine in resisting Russia’s designs on other parts of its territory, those militiamen would never have cocked their itchy fingers.
So, too, had Mr. Trump not decided to eliminate Gen. Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard anti-aircraft battery would never have fired its fatal rockets on Jan. 8. Both the West’s decision to back Ukraine and Mr. Trump’s to rid himself of Gen. Soleimani were necessary links in the chain of events leading to these disastrous outcomes. Were Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper therefore culpable for those outcomes? Absolutely not.
Mr. Trump’s decision to proceed with the assassination of Gen. Soleimani and his close Iraqi ally Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was debatable, as all such decisions are. Gen. Soleimani was a formidable adversary, who had inflicted much harm on the United States and its allies and would have inflicted much more. His demise, while infuriating to supporters of the Iranian regime and its ambitions to dominate the region, could not have been more gladdening to the U.S.'s Sunni allies. The jury is still out, but Mr. Trump’s entire national security staff seems to have agreed with his decision.
Leaders, like other human beings, are responsible for their decisions and for the foreseeable consequences of these. The downing of Flight 752, however, doesn’t fall into either category, any more than had that of MH17. Mr. Trump could and did foresee that the Iranian regime would retaliate for the killing of Gen. Soleimani. Having proceeded nonetheless, he took appropriate steps to counter and limit that retaliation. He could not possibly have predicted that it would include the downing of a Ukrainian airliner.
In fact, the Iranians did retaliate, with their Jan. 7 rocket attack on two U.S. bases in Iraq. Iran initially claimed that the attack had killed at least 80 Americans; the Pentagon insisted that every soldier was alive and accounted for. (It has since emerged that Iran had scored a direct hit on one barracks but that God was smiling on the Americans and no fatalities resulted.)
And that has been that. Neither party has wanted further escalation (not right now, anyway) and neither has launched further attacks. In this both have behaved responsibly (for now). It was only on the mistaken supposition of another such American attack that Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops launched the fatal missiles. Evidence suggests that they fired them without observing either the precautions with which modern anti-aircraft systems are equipped or others that common sense required.
It was the absence of these basic precautions that was responsible for the dreadful outcome. Given the sophisticated design of the systems, even had the Americans launched a cruise missile that day, the Iranians would still have had no excuse for shooting down a civilian airliner. Yes, conditions were tense, but so what? People who claim this as an excuse for transferring the blame to Mr. Trump must know nothing about soldiering.
It is precisely the tensest situations in which soldiers must know how to perform and for which their superiors must train them. Even in the heat of combat, state of the art artillery units practise triple fail-safe targeting. If the Iranian military is remiss in such things it has no one to blame but itself, as its own enraged people recognized immediately.
The world is chock full of horrific events that can’t be blamed on Mr. Trump. This one neither followed from his decision nor was a foreseeable consequence of it. The claim that he has the blood of Canadians on his hands is not only sloppy, but slanderous. Yes, I’ll gladly join you in blaming Mr. Trump when warranted. But it just plays into his hands to assail him with outrageous calumnies.