Home/Daniel Larison/A Lawless President and an Illegal War

A Lawless President and an Illegal War

Then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-KS, speaking at a rally in 2013. He faces a senate grilling for his secretary of state nomination today.Mark Taylor/Creative Commons

Former ambassador Chas Freeman has written an excellent op-ed spelling out the significance and implications of the Soleimani assassination:

In the new political order in the United States, in which the checks and balances of the separation of powers have been replaced by the separation of parties, the attack was politically expedient, despite its blatant violation of the clear language of the US Constitution [bold mine-DL]. These assassinations thus represented an extrajudicial execution that marked a further departure from constitutional government and the rule of law in the United States [bold mine-DL].

In foreign policy terms, this drone attack made no sense at all. It was not a deterrent to Iran so much as a provocation. It violated Iraqi sovereignty and the terms of the continuing US military presence in Iraq. It pushed Iraq further into the arms of Iran and invited the humiliating expulsion of US forces from Iraq, which the Iraqi parliament has now called for. It made every American in Iraq and elsewhere a target for murder or hostage-taking. It gave Iranian hard-liners everything they need to make a compelling case for building a nuclear deterrent.

The assassination demonstrated to the world the overt amorality of US policy and the indifference of the United States to the constraints of international law and comity, especially when the object of American hostility is Muslim. It was a strategy-free gambit, equivalent to beginning a game of chess with only an opening move in mind. It stands as a reminder to the world of the witless hubris and violence with which the United States now conducts its international relations.

Ambassador Freeman does a fine job explaining why Trump’s decision was illegal, wrong, and dangerous. It demonstrated once again that the president holds the Constitution and the limits it places on his office in contempt, and it sets a terrible example of executive overreach that future presidents will imitate if he is allowed to get away with it. It takes the U.S. back into the dangerous territory of using assassination against the officials of foreign governments. Karen Greenberg comments:

The killing of General Suleimani has taken the United States into new territory. For starters, General Suleimani, who led the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, wasn’t a nonstate actor — a basic premise of the targeted killing policy that was designed for members of terrorist organizations. He was a senior figure in a sovereign government’s military. The distinction is an important one. The policy of a war designed for nonstate actors has now slipped into a conflict between nation-states. In this regard, it resembles the assassinations that the presidential bans have sought to steer clear of.

We can see how the practices of an open-ended “war on terror” have corrupted our foreign policy and corroded our government’s respect for the law, and those practices are being put to use in starting a war with Iran.

The use of language has been corrupted as well. The administration claims that it is acting “defensively” when it is the one launching escalatory attacks that break the law and expose U.S. forces to reprisals. It claims to be “restoring deterrence” when it is committing an act of war that is practically guaranteed to invite retaliation. Administration officials claim that they don’t want to start a war just days after starting one. Secretaries Pompeo and Esper insist that the U.S. will abide by the law less than a week after they violated it. It’s no wonder that they can’t keep their stories straight:

It was a safe bet that Pompeo was lying about the “imminent” attack, and Pompeo’s inability to support that claim confirms what we already assumed. The president broke the law, and he and his officials have spent the last week lying to Congress and the public to cover up for that. He has led the U.S. into a new war without authorization and in violation of the Constitution, and if we value our constitutional system at all that cannot be allowed to stand.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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