Home/Daniel Larison/Starting an Illegal War on a Whim

Starting an Illegal War on a Whim

President Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com, European External Action Service/Flickr

The Washington Postreports on how Pompeo pushed for the Soleimani killing for months before this past week:

Pompeo first spoke with Trump about killing Soleimani months ago, said a senior U.S. official, but neither the president nor Pentagon officials were willing to countenance such an operation.

Pompeo has been one of the main advocates for the administration’s hard-line Iran policy, and in this instance he got his way in the end when the president ordered the assassination. The Secretary of State’s enthusiasm for pushing the U.S. and Iran closer to war is a good reminder of how much Pompeo loathes the diplomatic work that his department does and how terrible he is at his job. Pompeo owns the war more than most members of this administration. The fact that Pompeo was agitating for such an attack long before the last ten days shows that Iran hawks inside the administration have simply been seeking a pretext for this killing and will use any opportunity they can find.

Both the Post report and the AP’s account of the decision confirm that Pompeo’s claims that the assassination was intended to prevent an “imminent” attack is not true:

Lawmakers left classified briefings with U.S. intelligence officials on Friday saying they heard nothing to suggest that the threat posed by the proxy forces guided by Soleimani had changed substantially in recent months.

The AP report supports that:

A congressional aide briefed by the administration on Friday said officials offered compelling details about Iran’s intentions and capabilities, but not about the timing of the supposed attacks on Americans.

Likewise, The New York Timesreported over the weekend that intelligence didn’t support the claim of an “imminent” attack:

But some officials voiced private skepticism about the rationale for a strike on General Suleimani, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years. According to one United States official, the new intelligence indicated “a normal Monday in the Middle East” — Dec. 30 — and General Suleimani’s travels amounted to “business as usual.”

That official described the intelligence as thin and said that General Suleimani’s attack was not imminent because of communications the United States had between Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and General Suleimani showing that the ayatollah had not yet approved any plans by the general for an attack.

As I said Saturday, the lack of evidence for an “imminent” attack strips this action of any semblance of legality. This is not merely academic, but goes to the heart of the president’s overreaching and abuse of power in matters of war. Modern presidents have gotten into the habit of starting and joining wars and then eventually telling Congress that there is a war going on. As a country, we have watched the constitutional limits on presidential warmaking erode and practically disappear over the last twenty years. The current occupant has simply ignored Congress on the rare occasion when they have mustered sustained opposition to illegal U.S. involvement in a foreign war. Between presidential usurpation and Congressional abdication, we find ourselves in a situation where the president orders the assassination of a major regime official from another country more or less on a whim and Congress is left to find out about it on the news. Members of the president’s club are more likely to know about his major national security decisions than the Congressional leadership is, and there is no longer even a pretense of respecting the requirements of the Constitution.

The administration has attempted to justify the assassination by comparing it with the killing of Japanese Adm. Yamamoto by American forces in 1943. Besides being part of an arrogant tirade described by my colleague Kelley Vlahos, this comparison unintentionally shows how Soleimani’s killing was neither legal nor justified. Yamamoto was an officer in the armed forces of a government that had directly attacked U.S. territory, and the U.S. and Japan were in an open state of declared war when American planes shot him down. An action taken during a constitutionally declared war against a government that was engaged in open hostilities with our forces has nothing in common with an unauthorized drone strike taken against a state that the U.S. is not at war with (no matter what some deranged pundits may say to the contrary). The U.S. did not take this action in self-defense, but chose to commit an act of war that was unnecessary for American security. The assassination also sets a number of disturbing precedents for attacking officials from other countries that exposes U.S. and allied officials to much greater risk than before.

Nothing could be more repugnant to our republican system of government than an unaccountable decision by the executive to commit an act of war without the knowledge or consent of the governed. Americans and Iranians will pay the price of a decision that was taken by a lawless president. We will be living with the consequences of the president’s arbitrary and illegal decision long after he is out of office.

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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