President Trump's strike of choice

President Trump's strike of choice
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Late in the evening of January 2, following a U.S. military strike targeting Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE tweeted an American flag. The tweet contained no words – just a pixilated image – presumably to convey a message of patriotism, bravado and, ultimately, responsibility for the strike. The tweet’s lack of words was uncharacteristic of Trump and the first sign that the administration may have lacked a clear single justification for the attack. One week later, it has become even more apparent that the killing of Soleimani may have been a strike of choice but not of necessity, because it may not have been responding to a specific imminent threat.

In the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, which Soleimani commanded, conducted proxy wars across the Middle East, exacerbating conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Soleimani oversaw these Iranian operations, as well as those targeting the U.S. military in Iraq, where more than 4,000 Americans have died since 2003. No one questions whether Soleimani deserved his fate or whether he had American blood on his hands — he did, and he was a reprehensible terrorist.

The question is whether the strike was justified by a specific imminent threat on U.S. forces or interests. All publicly available evidence, as well as the response of Congress, suggests it was not. 

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This past week, the Senate and House met for classified briefings on Iran with high-level administration officials including Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: Trump backs potential Microsoft, TikTok deal, sets September deadline | House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing | Facebook labels manipulated Pelosi video Top House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing Democrats subpoena top aides to Pompeo MORE and CIA Director Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelRussian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Top intelligence officials to brief Gang of Eight on Thursday MORE. Following the briefings, senators on both sides of the political aisle excoriated the briefers as evasive and the briefing as insufficient. Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTea Party rises up against McConnell's trillion relief plan Hillicon Valley: Twitter bans thousands of QAnon accounts | Bipartisan support grows for election funds in Senate stimulus bill | Senate committee advances bill to ban TikTok from federal devices Senators demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (R-Utah) said it was “the worst briefing” he’s received on a military issue in his decade serving in the Senate. Numerous senators confirmed that the briefers refused to provide Congress with the intelligence used to justify the attack. Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks Connecticut senators call for Subway to ban open carry of firearms Democrats optimistic about chances of winning Senate MORE (D-Conn.) said he was “deeply surprised at the lack of information presented by the administration regarding a specific imminent threat.” 

Having worked on national security issues in the House, Senate and the Obama administration, I can imagine the tension in the room when members of Congress were told by administration officials that – as Vice President Pence described it – they could not share the “most compelling” intelligence regarding the Soleimani strike without compromising sources and methods. Members of Congress have a security clearance that allows them access to classified information. The protection of such information, including sources and methods, is the very reason such briefings are held in a Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility (SCIF). There is little information the administration is unable to share with members of Congress in a SCIF, suggesting it intentionally withheld such information.

Contradictory claims by Trump administration officials regarding the justification for the Soleimani strike suggest there was no clear or credible imminent threat. In the eight days after the attack, Secretary Pompeo claimed it was justified by Iran’s past behavior and even the policies of the Obama administration. When asked about the imminence of such a threat, Pomepo clarified that “we don’t know precisely when, and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real.”

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response Democrats demand Esper explicitly ban Confederate flag and allow Pride, Native Nations flags Trump's revenge — pulling troops from Germany — will be costly MORE asserted that the strike was aimed at averting an attack in a matter of “days, certainly no more than weeks.” Vice President Pence tweeted a dubious claim tying Soleimani to 9/11, and President Trump made an unsubstantiated claim that Iran was planning to “blow-up our embassy” in Iraq.

The administration’s shifting narrative about the strike, obfuscation and refusal to consult with Congress prior to the attack laid the groundwork for the War Powers Resolution vote on Thursday, in which 224 members of the House of Representatives, including three Republicans, voted to rein in the president’s ability to continue military operations in Iran. Next week, the Senate might vote on a similar War Powers Resolution, which requires just 51 votes to pass. Sen. Lee, who along with Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMultiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19 Republican senators revolt over coronavirus proposal MORE (R-Ky.) will support the resolution, asserted that the administration’s argument that Congress should not debate war powers was “insane” and insulting.

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The Soleimani strike has had significant national security consequences. First, it precipitated an Iranian retaliatory attack on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. military officials. Further escalation has only been averted – for now – because Iran limited the proportionality of the strike and avoided U.S. casualties, but the situation remains extremely tenuous. 

Second, it led to an announcement by Iran that it would no longer adhere to the limits on its nuclear weapons program, effectively disavowing all limits set by the Iran nuclear deal on uranium enrichment. 

Third, the Iraqi parliament voted to kick U.S. troops out of the country, which, if implemented, would further undermine our efforts to combat ISIS and give Iran an unimpeded footprint in the region. If U.S. troops are forced out of Iraq, Soleimani’s goal in life – to rid Iraq of American leadership – would come to fruition, ironically as a result of his death.

In addition, the Soleimani attack directly led to the deployment of 3,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East. The brave men and women of the U.S. military are our most precious resource. Their abrupt deployment should be initiated only as a measure of absolute necessity. Sending additional troops to the region – forcing them to leave their families and risk their lives to defend our security – with no clear strategy is highly irresponsible and reckless. It underscores the extreme danger of a commander in chief who chose to initiate a conflict on a whim, without the threat of a specific imminent attack or the authorization of Congress. 

As Sen. Murphy concluded after the Senate briefing on Wednesday, “This appears to me to be a strike of choice by this administration.” It appears he’s right, and unfortunately, strikes of choice can lead to wars of necessity, whether intended or not.

Halie Soifer is executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), which is Jewish and Democratic organization that endorses Democratic candidates for elected office and advocates for progressive policy. She was a national security adviser to Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Biden should pick the best person for the job — not the best woman Trump adviser Jason Miller: Biden running mate pick 'his political living will' MORE (D-Calif.), a foreign policy adviser to Sens. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) and Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Thomas Isett Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Dr. Kate Broderick Making vulnerable children a priority in the pandemic response MORE (D-Del.) and a senior policy advisor to UN Ambassador Samantha PowerSamantha Jane PowerSupport swells for renaming Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to honor John Lewis after his death 'Obamagate' backfires: Documents show Biden, Obama acted properly 'Unmaskings' may be common — and that's the problem MORE during the Obama administration.