President Trump’s strike of choice
Late in the evening of January 2, following a U.S. military strike targeting Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, President Trump 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.
This past week, the Senate and House met for classified briefings on Iran with high-level administration officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel. Following the briefings, senators on both sides of the political aisle excoriated the briefers as evasive and the briefing as insufficient. Sen. Mike Lee (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 Murphy (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 Esper 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 Paul (R-Ky.) will support the resolution, asserted that the administration’s argument that Congress should not debate war powers was “insane” and insulting.
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 Harris (D-Calif.), a foreign policy adviser to Sens. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) and a senior policy advisor to UN Ambassador Samantha Power during the Obama administration.