Diplomacy is still the best option for dealing with Iran
John Bolton may have stepped down from the Trump administration, but the risk of an unconstitutional war with Iran has only stepped up. On Sept. 15, a pre-dawn drone attack hit two major Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, cutting the Kingdom’s oil production in half. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately blamed Iran, while President Trump tweeted that the U.S. is “locked and loaded depending on the verification,” suggesting military retaliation against Iran.
Regardless of whether the attack was carried out by the Houthis in Yemen, who claimed responsibility for the operation, or by the government of Iran, which the intelligence community believes was behind the strike, a military response is not only unwarranted, but illegal under international law, a violation of the Constitution, and counterproductive for our national security.
We must first remember the context: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are conducting a brutal war in Yemen. Two weeks before this drone attack on the two Aramco oil facilities, the Red Cross reported that a Saudi rocket killed 130 people in Yemen’s Dhamar prison. In its fifth year, the Saudi-UAE war against the Houthis in Yemen has helped to create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with roughly 14 million people living on the brink of famine and over 1 million cases of cholera, with an alarming 10,000 new cases each week. Congress has repeatedly passed legislation to halt our logistical support and arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition but has not mustered the votes to overcome the president’s vetoes. The House is trying once again within the context of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an effort the Senate should endorse. The United States ought not to be backing either side in this ongoing war.
Second, acts of revenge or retaliation are always illegal under international law.
While international law permits nations to act in self-defense against an armed attack – in other words, to halt and repel an actual or imminent attack and/or once an attack has occurred, to protect against future attacks by the same enemy – such action must be both necessary and proportional. We have no valid claim to be acting in self-defense in this case and are not obligated under any treaty or agreement to come to Saudi Arabia’s aid.
Third, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution makes it abundantly clear that only Congress has the power to declare war. The president can only use force without Congress’s approval under the Commander in Chief authority in Article II, to repel a direct attack against the United States. Congress has an obligation to guard its war powers and remind the president he has no authority to initiate a war with Iran, the Houthis, or anyone else in response to this attack on Saudi oil infrastructure. The House has already passed a measure, as part of the NDAA, to prohibit the use of funds for an unauthorized war with Iran, and the Senate should accept this provision as part of the final agreement that goes to the president’s desk for signature.
Finally, as we commemorate the 18th anniversary of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that authorized the war in Afghanistan and has been used to justify 41 military operations in 19 countries, it should be painfully obvious that war is not the answer to the global challenges we face. It is dangerous and deceitful to suggest that the United States can simply launch a few air strikes without causing unnecessary civilian death and destruction or risking all-out war. Diplomacy may be difficult and messy, requiring the kind of patience, skill and flexibility that is in such short supply in Washington. But it is the only way that is likely to succeed in achieving our aims at an acceptable human, financial and moral cost.
Diana Ohlbaum is the Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (fcnl.org). Hassan El-Tayyab is FCNL’s legislative representative for Middle East policy.