Commentary: Trump walks away clean from Soleimani fallout

Commentary: Trump walks away clean from Soleimani fallout

Doubts over legality, intelligence and impeachment didn’t keep the US president from claiming a big win, says an observer.

Investors have been cheered by a toning down of rhetoric between the US and Iran, with Donald Trump
Investors have been cheered by a toning down of rhetoric between the US and Iran, with Donald Trump saying Tehran appeared to be stepping back AFP/SAUL LOEB

SYDNEY: The US drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani dominated the political discussion in Washington last week. President Trump’s decision to target Soleimani – an escalatory move in the ongoing confrontation with Iran – was an unexpected development.

The conventional wisdom was that Trump’s domestic political challenges largely constrained his foreign policy choices. Trump had resisted prior calls to respond forcefully to Iranian provocations, including calling off a retaliatory air strike at the last minute in June.

Trump’s controversial withdrawal in October of the majority of US forces from Syria underscored his commitment to his campaign promise to end the “forever wars” in the Middle East.

READ: Commentary: The curious case of US presidents squandering power in the Middle East

It seemed reasonable at the beginning of last week, therefore, to question whether in the case of Soleimani the conventional wisdom on Trump was wrong.

The Trump administration’s initial messaging on the strike was muddled, but some members of Trump’s national security team were new and inexperienced, so it seemed possible the justification would be clarified over time.

READ: Commentary: As Iran-US drama plays out, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un takes notes

Further, the Trump Administration had designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) under US law last year.

This was an unprecedented move. Since the law’s creation in 1997, the FTO designation had been applied only to non-state actors.

U.S. President Trump delivers statement on situation with Iran at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Donald Trump is flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he delivers a statement after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 8, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Did this departure suggest some element of forethought or preparation for a legitimate strike?

In an interview with a reporter from Foreign Policy on the day Soleimani was killed, retired General David Petraeus appeared to support the strike by emphasising the need to re-establish deterrence in the region.

Was it possible that these comments reflected a change in the position of current US senior military leadership in light of some new intelligence or analysis?

AN IMPULSIVE ORDER

Over the course of the week, it became clear that the conventional wisdom on Trump was fairly accurate. Reporting on the dynamics leading up to and following the strike revealed a known quantity.

The administration’s messaging around the justification did not improve – or even settle on one approach. Officials talked about “imminence” and “deterrence”, traditional self-defence and existing congressional authorisations for the use of military force.

READ: Commentary: The thorny challenge of justifying strike on Soleimani

Democrats were unimpressed with the intelligence briefing administration officials provided – after the fact – to Congress. In a notable breaking of ranks, Republican Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, long-time opponents of foreign intervention, referred to the briefing as “insulting and demeaning.” 

Legal experts broadly agree that designating the IRGC as an FTO provided no additional legal cover for a targeted killing, on the basis that only the most aggressive interpretation of existing statutory authorities could justify the strike on Soleimani.

Flowers lie around portrait of Iranian Major-General Soleimani, who was killed in airstrike near Ba
Flowers lie around a portrait of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in an airstrike near Baghdad, at the Iranian embassy's fence in Minsk, Belarus January 10, 2020. (File photo: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Follow-up reporting, based on discussions with Trump administration officials, suggested that the President, still smarting from charges of weakness in the face of prior Iranian provocations, ordered the strike impulsively after watching Iranian-backed protesters attacking the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The protesters reminded him of both the 1979 hostage crisis and the 2012 Benghazi attacks, which he viewed as disgraceful episodes for US political leadership.

A DISTRACTION FROM IMPEACHMENT PROCEEDINGS?

When Iran bombed two US bases in Iraq five days after the strike on Solemaini, there was limited damage, with no American casualties reported.

In a speech to the American public, Trump claimed victory for ridding the world of a bad actor, at no meaningful cost.

The short-term political victory appeared to satisfy the American president. It would surely appeal to his base of supporters and the hawkish members of the Senate, who had been angered by the Syria pull-out – and who would soon be acting as jurors in his forthcoming impeachment trial.

READ: Commentary: Will a US president facing impeachment manufacture a foreign policy crisis?

Trump’s decision to launch military attacks while impeachment proceedings loomed was reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s 1998 decision to launch air strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan during his own impeachment ordeal.

Clinton missed the target in Afghanistan – Osama bin Laden – and the “nerve gas” factory in Khartoum turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant. Clinton was accused of using military action to distract the public from his trial.

Some lawmakers on the left, including Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, have accused Trump of the same behaviour, but the charge carries less weight than it did with Clinton – in part because Trump’s impulse to put his own interests before national interests has become something of a given during the past three-plus years.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Warren speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Marsha
FILE PHOTO: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Marshalltown, Iowa, U.S., January 12, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

While Trump’s behaviour was hardly surprising, follow-up accounts suggest that the intelligence community’s perception of the threat posed by Soleimani and associated militia groups had shifted in recent months.

Senior military leaders reportedly did not push for the strike against Solemaini, but at the same time, there is some sense to the notion, in the absence of actual proof, that their resistance may have been moderated by bitterness towards Soleimani among those who fought in Iraq.

But CIA Director Gina Haspel, persuaded by intelligence on Soleimani’s efforts to organise proxy forces to remove US forces from the region, did argue in favor of the strike. She also accurately predicted Iran’s measured response to Soleimani’s killing.

READ: Commentary: Why Iran won’t seek direct confrontation with the US

The Washington Post confirmed that a second strike, authorised around the same time as the Soleimani strike, was carried out unsuccessfully against a top Iranian military official in Yemen.

The news of this additional strike further undermined the Trump administration’s assertion that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the US, for which it claimed “exquisite” intelligence.

It also suggests deep concerns about a coordinated effort among US adversaries in the region.

TENSIONS LOWERED FOR THE MOMENT

The threat remains, but tensions have been lowered for the moment.

Many of Trump’s critics will focus on how considerations that would have prevented former presidents from taking action against Soleimani – the vulnerabilities of US allies in the region, rules against the targeted assassination of foreign government officials, and unpredictable second- and third-order effects – are meaningless to Trump.

A protester holds up a placard, dressed as US President Donald Trump in Trafalgar Square during a
A protester holds up a placard, dressed as US President Donald Trump in Trafalgar Square during a demonstration against the threat of war on Iran, in central London on January 11, 2020 AFP/Tolga Akmen

But this is also a moment to acknowledge the consequences of Congress’s decades-long abdication of its powers in war-making.

As illustrated by the impeachment clause, the possibility of an American president behaving like a monarch was anticipated by the Constitution’s framers. A president acting without an effective check on his power was not.

Erin Hurley is an expert on the intersection between US national security policy and domestic politics. This article first appeared on The Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.

Source: CNA/el

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