Targeting Soleimani: Trump was justified, legally and strategically

“If a war be made by invasion of a foreign nation, the President is not only authorized but bound to resist force by force. He does not initiate the war, but is bound to accept the challenge without waiting for any special legislative authority.”

So said the Supreme Court in the Civil War-era Prize Cases more than 150 years ago. It has been the law of the United States as long as there has been a United States. It reflects the venerable law of nations, derived from natural law and long preexisting our republic.

When there are forcible threats to the United States, the president has not merely the power but the obligation to repel them. In large measure, that is why there is an Office of the President. The Framers grasped, in a time of dire peril to the fledgling nation, that national security cannot be achieved by committee. A single chief executive, the president, was necessary to marshal the might of the nation with dispatch when America was under siege.

These are rudimentary principles. Alas, they obviously need restating in the wake of the attack President Trump authorized late Thursday that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), founder of its jihad-exporting Quds Forces and Tehran’s terror master nonpareil.

Soleimani was taken out near the airport in Baghdad, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chief of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq. The PMF make up one of several networks that Soleimani and the mullahs forged on the model of Hezbollah, their longtime terrorist faction in Lebanon — indeed, the outfit al-Muhandis directly led is known as the Hezbollah Brigades, or Kata’ib Hezbollah.

Soleimani and al-Muhandis were in the act of making war on the United States. Not just plotting it, though there was plenty of that going on, too. 

In late 2019, the Hezbollah Brigades, backed by Soleimani, carried out repeated attacks on U.S. coalition forces in Iraq. There were 11 attacks on bases housing U.S. military personnel in just the last two months. As the Defense Department has recounted, these included “a 30-plus rocket attack on an Iraqi base near Kirkuk that resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen and injured four U.S. service members” as well as members of the Iraqi security forces.

In response, American forces carried out missile strikes against Hezbollah Brigades targets in Iraq and Syria.

After vowing revenge, the jihadist militias stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Though foiled in the attempt to replicate the 1979 attack in Tehran, in which our embassy was breached and hostages were taken, the brigades — shouting the menacing Iranian refrain “Death to America!” — did significant damage. They burned the outer walls, checkpoint and reception area, smashed windows, and trapped hundreds of diplomatic personnel. 

The brigades left graffiti on the walls bragging about the participation of Soleimani and the “Popular Mobilization Commission.” President Trump warned on Twitter that Iran would be held accountable and would “pay a very BIG PRICE.” Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, scoffed in reply, “You can’t do anything.”

He may want to rethink that one.

It is worth bearing in mind that an attack on another nation’s embassy is, by itself, an act of war. Of course, Iran has done far worse, and Soleimani has been at the center of it all for decades. Our government estimates that he was responsible for the killing of more than 600 U.S. troops during the fighting in Iraq — and that represents just some of his anti-American operations, coordinating the networks that target Americans and our interests throughout the region.

Trump critics predictably hand-wring that an undisciplined president is careening us into war. Put aside that Trump has tried to avoid military confrontation with Iran (even as close advisers encouraged more aggressive responses to such provocations as the IRGC’s shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone in June). The president is trying to avoid a more drawn-out, costly war, not start one.

The inconvenient fact is that the revolutionary jihadist regime in Iran has considered itself at war with the United States for 40 years, however, and has prosecuted it throughout. Usually, it is a low-thrum affair, but there are sometimes major strikes, such as the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. airmen were killed. Most infamously, Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of anti-American terrorism. Without Tehran’s support, al Qaeda could not have evolved into the threat it became in the years prior to 9/11, when it repeatedly attacked American targets.

Soleimani was not “assassinated,” as some Trump critics maintain. He was an enemy combatant commander who became a combat casualty because of a righteous responsive strike, conducted while he was in the act of levying war by directing his forces.

Of course it is appropriate to be concerned about what happens next and whether the president and his advisers have thought through contingencies, even as they beef up forces in the region. It was legitimate for the president to act unilaterally, but lawmakers should now weigh in and be accountable. A congressional authorization of military force would strengthen the president’s hand. It would not require that force be used (or at least used to the full extent of the authorization), but it would show our enemies that our nation is ready to act in our defense.

The strategies of Trump’s predecessors were to hope that a committed jihadist enemy would come to its senses, hope that it would realize its purported interest in regional stability, and hope that by bribing it with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, ransom, and an industrial-strength nuclear program, we could de-escalate the conflict. 

President Trump’s strategy is to remove the enemy’s most effective military asset (who will not be easily replaceable), to demonstrate to the mullahs what can happen when resolve backs our exponentially superior capabilities and to continue squeezing the regime with punishing economic sanctions — as it is pressured by the increasingly restive Iranian people.

Peace through strength is the better plan.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, and a Fox News contributor. His latest book is “Ball of Collusion.” Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy.

Tags Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis Anti-Western sentiment Donald Trump Iran aggression Kata'ib Hezbollah Qassem Soleimani Quds Force US air strike

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