The Soleimani Incompleteness Theorem

Why anyone who tells you what will happen next is lying

Happy 2020, one and all!

The new decade is coming on hard and fast.

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As is my wont, I entered deep hibernation after the Christmas feast, slathering myself in rejuvenating skin creams, putting on thick woolen socks, crawling into bed, and shutting down my metabolism. My heartbeat and respiration were barely perceptible and my body was at near-ambient temperature when the phone rang. I stuck out an irritated paw to silence it, then saw it was my brother.


“Mischa.” I was confused. It was far too early in the year to see my shadow.

His voice was urgent. “What do you think about Soleimani?”

“Soleimani? What did he do?”

“We killed him.”

I was stunned for a few moments as I took this in. “Holy shit.”


“Holy shit! I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

Everything you’ve heard since about what this means is nonsense.

We don’t know and we can’t know what this means, or what will happen as a result. I’m about to prove this, just as Gödel proved the limitations of any formal axiomatic system capable of modelling arithmetic. (Well, perhaps I won’t prove it in precisely that way, but really, my argument is airtight.)

The things you or I would need to know to begin making an informed guess about what will happen next are the most closely-held secrets in the world, held by the most skilled secret-keepers in existence. The more relevant the information is to predicting what happens next, the less likely you, I, your neighbor, or any television talking head is to know it.

Let me illustrate what you and I don’t know.

1) We do not understand the US foreign policy decision-making process.

If we did, we wouldn’t have been so surprised by this. It’s fair to say that no one, but no one, saw this coming.

2) We do not understand what the US seeks to achieve, or how.

I suspect the only person who knows what end state Donald Trump desires is Donald Trump himself, and he may not know, either. There’s no way even for those closest to him to guess. If the reporting we’ve seen so far about how this decision was made is correct (and I don’t know—and can’t know—if it is), Pentagon officials were as surprised by his decision as I was.

No one but Trump understands why he did this; no one but Trump knows what he’s seeking. Does he hope to re-establish deterrence? To begin a war with Iran? If the latter, to what end—what are our war aims? Does he hope that Iran retaliates in some outrageous way, boosting American support for a larger, costlier conflict? Or does he believe this will shock the regime into caution and quiescence?

What kind of Iranian retaliation would move him to climb further up the escalation ladder? Would any attack on Americans or our allies prompt him to execute his most recent threat to target “52 high-value sites” in Iran?

Is Iran dealing with the Trump who ordered Suleimani whacked, or the Trump who did nothing when Iran struck the Abqaiq oil facility, taking out five percent of the world’s energy production? Are they dealing with the Trump who thinks the region is nothing but “sand and death,” and who wants to withdraw American forces from it as quickly as possible, with no concern for the consequences? With the Trump who has for the past three years allowed US deterrence to erode to the point that Suleimani sincerely thought we’d stand by passively as his proxies stormed our embassy? Or with the Trump who retaliated for the death of an American by killing 25 PMUs in in one strike, droned Suleimani, and sent the 82nd Airborne to Kuwait? Are they dealing with the Trump who says, as he did two days ago, that he doesn’t seek Iranian regime change, or the Trump who just changed the regime? Is he the Trump who says, “We did not take action last night to start a war,” or the Trump who took action to start a war?

I don’t know—and neither do you.

3) We do not understand what constraints on US behavior will be imposed by Congress and the US public.

The rally-round-the-flag effect and the immense satisfaction everyone (but Colin Kaepernick) takes in Soleimani’s demise has for now boosted Trump’s popularity. How quickly would this evaporate, or reverse itself, if it became obvious that we’ve committed ourselves to a massive and bloody war?

If Iran retaliates against American civilians on American soil, in some kind of terrorist spectacular involving massive civilian casualties, I have no doubt Trump’s popularity would temporarily soar. There would be wide public support for a pulverising war against Iran, and our aim would be the regime’s unconditional surrender.

But any American adversary with half a brain knows this isn’t the way to fight Americans. The key to winning a war against America is to draw us into fighting a protracted, draining, and expensive insurgency, over a period of years. The overwhelming lesson of the post-9/11 period is that sooner or later, we will get tired of it and leave.

If Americans suspect they’re being sucked into a protracted quagmire, will they turn on Trump?

Would Trump even consider pursuing a course of action that he believed to be right for American national security, but unpopular?

What effect will this have on the election? Who will be our next commander-in-chief? How will he (or she, but I doubt it) conceive of this conflict? What will he imagine our policy aims to be? Who will control Congress? Given our fanatical partisan division, will Congress permit the president—whoever he may be—to carry out his aims, whatever they may be?

We have no idea.

4) Who’s making the decisions in Iran, and what is the emotional state of the decision-makers?

Do you know? If so, how? If human nature is anything to go by, we may surmise that soon there will be a savage internal battle to fill the power vacuum where Soleimani used to be. Ismail Qaani has been nominally appointed to his role, but can he truly replace him? It’s hard to see how. How is he going to handle the pressure? Does he have the ability to command the respect Soleimani did? Does he have the reputation and the mystique? (No.) Does he know what Soleimani knew? Soleimani had the respect of every politician in Iran—the Supreme Leader, the Judiciary Chief, the Foreign Minister Mohammad, the clerics. He was tight with Assad, with Nasrallah; he had close relations with Hakan Fidan, and with Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan leaders. Does Ismail Qaani even have the password for Soleimani’s e-mail?

The regime has a lot to worry about. Like Trump, it’s benefitting from a short-term rally-round-the-flag effect. But this too is apt to evaporate as the implications of a wider conflict fully dawn on Iranian citizens.

Who else will emerge as a key decision-maker? What state of mind is he in? Was he terrified by Soleimani’s assassination? Or blindly enraged? Is he in a rational and calculating frame of mind, or does he want to shed as much blood as possible, as quickly as possible, no matter the cost to him or the regime?

Did he love Soleimani, personally? Is he grief-stricken and demoralized? Have the recent protests in Iran disheartened him? Is he, perhaps, quietly having doubts about the Revolution? Might he lose his nerve? Is he a patient calculator or a hothead? Is he old and demoralized, or young and hungry? How is his relationship with God—is he keen to be a martyr, or might his faith be fraying?

Since we don’t even know who we’re talking about, we obviously don’t know the answers to these questions. They can’t be known.

It’s very unlikely that anyone knows who will emerge at the top of the pile after this regime-reorganization. It may not even be clear yet that there will be a power struggle. Perhaps only as I type this is ambition gathering among men upon whom it is slowly dawning that Soleimani no longer stands between them and the throne.

5) What do Iranians want? What do Americans want?

We probably do know this: Despite the temporary rise in nationalist passions, the great majority of Americans and Iranians have no special eagerness to kill each other, nor to die fighting each other.

This could change, if either side carries out atrocities on the other’s soil. Trump’s threat to target precious Iranian cultural sites suggests he might have exactly that in mind. Or he might just be threatening. Trump says a lot of crazy shit. Would the US military carry out such an obviously illegal order?

I don’t know, and neither do you. (I suspect not, however.)

The IRGC Quds Force and their intelligence services have global reach. They could certainly target American civilians if they wished. That would be stupid and self-destructive, which the regime so far doesn’t seem to be. But perhaps all their cunning died with Soleimani. Who knows?

On the other hand, Iran may decide to retaliate against people the American public doesn’t much care about, or to attack shipping in the Gulf, or sabotage Saudi oil refineries. How would we respond to that? Beats me: Trump has so far been entirely inconsistent.

Perhaps they will harass us with cyber-attacks—or perhaps they will harass us in cooperation with Russia, or China, confusing us about who’s screwing us up?

They may, despite the perfervid oratory, simply continue their decades-old strategy to patiently evict us from a region that they believe, correctly, we no longer wish to inhabit. If there’s anyone left in Iran now with any strategic acumen, they would see clearly that carrying out a terrorist spectacular on US soil, or against a US embassy, would just be stupid. Bleeding us slowly, as they did in Iraq, is the obvious way to go. It works.

Or they may go really big. Could they imagine this is the time for a regime-change war of their own? Or a massive chemical or biological attack on our soil, perhaps? American elections are open for meddling. The whole world has seen how effective that is. Perhaps they might imitate Russia’s efforts to divide, demoralize, and confuse us?

How likely are each of these scenarios? How apt are we to respond to each of them, and in what manner?

I don’t know and neither does anyone. If anyone in Iran knows, they are definitely not telling me. Not only do we not know, these are the things we are least likely to be able to figure out.

This means the people who are insistently sharing their opinions and predictions about this with you are talking smack.

We truly don’t know.

Armed with this insight, go have yourself a good laugh at everyone on television—or Facebook—who is telling you, insistently, that he does. He (or she) is a demonstrable fraud.

Free Association

Before the New Year, I asked people who follow me on Twitter to free associate and tell me the first five words that came to mind in response to the question, “How would you characterize the past decade?”

Some of the responses seemed disingenuous—they didn’t sound like spontaneous human thoughts, but slogans. (Or perhaps my interlocutors didn’t understand what I meant by “free association.”) Others sounded more sincere. This is what they said:

  • technology, disordering, pornography, radical individualism;

  • Centralized institutions, decentralized communications networks;

  • Everything going to the wall;

  • Institutional degradation, creeping totalitarianism, lies;

  • Complete confusion, successful reprogramming of culture;

  • Change, disorder, discontent, protest, and sectarian;

  • War, dictatorship, turbocapitalism, greed, overtourism;

  • goofy, memes, apathy, random, sad;

  • Hope. Change. Fear. Confusion. Love;

  • end of the neo-liberal paradigm;

  • Doomed divided prosperous social inconsistent;

  • post truth populist identitarianism kanye;

  • smartphones populism arab spring social media activism;

  • Financial and moral bankruptcy de-stabilisation;

  • Compassion, Backlash, Whiteness, Corruption, kittens;

  • Miedo profundo y esperanza aprovechada;

  • Solipsism there are no others;

  • Smart phones become brain-adjunct;

  • Breaking News replacing real news;

  • Ugh, okay, fine, really, eh;

  • The death of pop;

  • America lost its damned mind;

  • Mendacity, ignorance, folly, arrogance, and vice;

  • Grandchildren cancer stability relationships fat;

  • Credit crunch fallout broke democracy;

  • Everything has turned to shit;

  • The death of shared truth;

  • Chaos, confusion, joy and sadness, prosperity;

  • Social-justice madness; political polarization;

  • We are a divided nation;

  • People just can’t get along;

  • Complete confusion, successful reprogramming of culture;

  • Everybody went fucking bat shit;

  • Luck, grim, hunger, obesity, kids play;

  • Institutional degradation, creeping totalitarianism, lies;

  • Loss of rationality and truth;

  • Stagnation, fear, incompetence, dogma and debt;

  • Descent into a feral state;

  • post truth populist identitarianism kanye;

  • America became afraid of future;

  • Anti-social — Anti-democratic — Neo-racism — Correctness — Self-absorption;

  • Trump Obama catastrophic collisions occurred;

  • peace war ok dogs twitter;

  • Shock despair kids future imposter;

  • unpredictable unique populist nationalist deterioration;

  • Social media outrage elite withdrawal;

  • Misinformation. Tribalism. Veneration. Acquisition. Conspiracy;

  • cultural fragmentation national dumbererness Authoritarianism;

  • Polarization, incivility, voyeurism, and negative thinking;

  • Brexit, Trump, refugees, recession, disinformation;

  • Disinformation, privacy breaches, fascism/nationalism is back, climate crisis, dystopia on horizon;

  • Solipsism, miopia, despondency, tribalism, and relativism;

  • Anger lying fear trouble danger;

  • Immigrants, Big tech, Trump, climate change;

  • Pain, frustration, worry, angry, sleeep

  • unpredictable unique populist nationalist deterioration;

  • Self-destruction of the West.

The words that came to my mind were these:

  • Chaos lawlessness breakdown blood cruelty.

The first words that came to my mind were negative, and strikingly so, like almost everyone else. (I wonder if I missed the obvious one: “prewar.”)

It seems the past decade was not a good one.

On reflection, the word that seems best to describe my sense of things is entropy. Order breaking down. Systems breaking down. Civilization, and all of its structures and disciplines, falling into chaos. Things that mankind has worked so hard to build collapsing. Coherence undone. Meaning unmade.

Compared to the other decades I’ve lived through, this was the worst. Not personally—not whatsoever; it’s been wonderful for me, personally. My life is full of love and good health. But I’ve never before felt this kind of abiding dread and pessimism for humanity. Nor do I seem to be alone in feeling this way. Is it just the Zeitgeist? Will humanity look back on the decade as “The Age of Irrational Dread,” secure in the knowledge that ahead of us lay a golden era? How rational is it to evaluate the past decade as a ghastly one?

The enduring catastrophe of the decade, a stain that will be remembered for centuries, was the failure of the Arab Spring, and above all, the complete destruction of Syria, its ancient cities, and its peoples—as the world, and all of the institutions we had built to ensure this would never happen again, failed serially to contain the disaster.

When the war in Syria broke out, I thought it unimaginable that the world would fail to respond. Obviously, I knew very well that the world had failed to respond to murder on this scale before. But this was different, because this was the first such catastrophe in the age of social media. We saw, or could see, every child bombed to smithereens, every starved and tortured civilian begging for the world’s help. No one could possibly say, “We didn’t know,” or “We didn’t understand.”

I hadn’t known that humanity was capable of watching this, in real time, and deciding that it just bored us. I couldn’t have known. Humanity had never had this opportunity before. The very real optimism I felt, at the beginning of the decade, about the Internet’s potential to connect people was wholly misplaced.

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I won’t hide my satisfaction in Suleimani’s death. He had it coming. He was a monster. I have no idea what will happen next, and like anyone sane, I’m afraid. I don’t think anything we do now will help Syrian civilians, and it may well spell catastrophe for Iraqis. I’m worried, of course, for my friends in Israel, and worried for Americans in the region, both our troops and civilians. Perhaps it will begin a process that ushers in a more benevolent regime in Iran—but more likely it won’t.

I wish his death had seemed a principled punishment, not an impulsive Trumpian spasm. I wish we had shown some resolve before half a million Syrians were slaughtered, not after.

But if I had to go with my instincts, I’d say, “It is good that at last the Iranian regime has seen a hint that we might seriously object to their behavior.”


“Full of wonderful sensory details ... sizzles with passion and reverence for flavor and spice” - Kirkus Reviews

If I’ve succeeded in convincing you that you have no control over your destiny but that things look mighty ominous, tune it all out with my friend Judith’s delightful, completely apolitical novel.

Judith lives in Israel and is probably eying the gas masks and taping the shelter right about now, but she’s lived there for a long time and has become highly skilled in the art of compartmentalization. Among her many techniques for “just not thinking about it and being happier that way,” she tunes out the news by writing novels set in Colville, New York.

Judith and I met at Oxford, at a seminar on the politics of the Middle East. We became friends that term, walking back from St. Antony’s college to Holywell Manor on the leafy Banbury Road, marvelling at the other students’ eagerness to attribute all the ills of the region to Israel. This struck as both not only as obviously malign, but stupid. The seminar was full of academics who took pride in the sophistication of their understanding of international relations, and they were often right to do so. Their eagerness to see Israel as vastly more significant than it was, or could be, struck us both as intellectually weak. We found this more depressing than the bigotry.

But this is immaterial. We’ve been friends ever since. Please meet Judith.

She recently sent me Soup to Nuts, the latest in a series of novellas centered around Colville. I had things to do and didn’t mean to read it all in one sitting, but I opened it, just to see how it began, and before I knew it, I was on the nuts.

Judith, as you’ll see if you read the book, has a naturally fluent voice. She’s incapable of writing an awkward sentence. The book is light and frothy as fennel foam, and goes down just as easily.

Enter another friend from Oxford, whom I’ll call the Delightful Miranda. The Delightful Miranda went on to become an exclusive, high-powered New York literary agent. She was the only one of us who wound up becoming exclusive and high-powered. After I finished Soup, I urged Judith to show it to the Delightful Miranda, thinking maybe Miranda could get it in front of Netflix.

The Delightful Miranda is now so exclusive that neither of us could figure out how to reach her. Her old e-mail didn’t work. Her office, obviously keen to discourage unsolicited submissions, has no presence on the Internet. Clearly her contact information was now a closely guarded New York secret, known only to the New York literary elite. (I’ve never been to the Delightful Miranda’s office, but I imagine it’s kind of like this—except they sell trade paperbacks instead of clothes.)

Somehow, Judith figured out how to break the Irony Curtain and land an e-mail on Miranda’s desk. Miranda was delighted to hear from her, and agreed to read the book—which she did on almost the same day. I assume that like me, she meant only to look at the first paragraph, but found that it was going down so easily that she couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Miranda’s reaction was disappointing.

“She loved it,” Judith wrote to me,

—she said it was “flawless” and “perfectly paced” and said she didn’t have a single editorial note in the whole book, which is unheard of for her. But she thinks it’s largely unmarketable because it’s so sunny and optimistic, and the prevailing mood these days is anything but. I suggested that in gloomy times people might actually want something light and cheerful to cheer them up, and she said it’s possible that that’s true, but she doesn't believe Soup will ever be anything other than a small book with nowhere to go, really, in the marketplace—because not only is it anachronistically optimistic but it is not an “identity” story, and apparently these days if it’s not an identity story it's doomed right out of the gate.

This is further evidence of my thesis that consumer demand, not the industries that respond to it, drives our culture of rage, pessimism, division, and identity politics. Our demand for hopelessness is so acute that literary agents can’t even imagine how they could make money by selling a book that’s not miserable. And of course, it’s a downward spiral. The more the market rewards this demand, the more hopeless consumers become. The sense of doom becomes self-fulfilling.

If you’d like to break the doom loop by reading a comic novel that’s not fixated on identity, I commend Soup to Nuts to your attention. You’ll learn just as much from it as you will by reading today’s news about what Soleimani’s death means.

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