Trump on Soleimani: We took action last night to stop a war, not to start one

It’s a great line.

Think Iran will buy it?

An unnamed State Department official made a similar point to reporters today, emphasizing as Trump did in the clip below that this was a defensive action by the United States:


“Deescalation” is a hard sell when you’ve just incinerated Iran’s second-most powerful official but Drew McCoy took a solid crack at it in this tweet. One strategy to deter provocations is to ignore them for years on end and hope they stop as relations improve. Another strategy is to turn around and swing a two-by-four at the enemy’s head. The latter may have a clarifying, and therefore peacemaking, effect about the potential price of further provocations.

Long-term. Probably not short-term.

We’re still waiting on the media to flesh out what sort of intelligence the White House had to make them believe killing Soleimani was urgent. Killing him at any point would have saved lives, of course, but everyone from Trump himself to Mike Pompeo to lower officials has been at pains today to suggest that we knew something about Soleimani’s plans that made inaction infeasible. Politico is reporting this afternoon that Trump gave the military the green light to kill him some time ago — although when, exactly, is unknown. Something was afoot earlier this week at Mar-a-Lago, but is that because Trump didn’t issue the order until this week or because the military didn’t have a good opportunity to target him until this week?


As rocket attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq intensified over the last two months, the president had granted the Pentagon extraordinary latitude: The U.S. military had his permission to kill Soleimani the next time it had an opportunity to do so, according to a senior defense official who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“We had authority before the strike to take that action,” said the official, who wouldn’t say how recently Trump gave the Pentagon that authorization—whether it was hours, weeks or even months earlier. As recently as New Year’s Eve, the president was telling reporters that he didn’t want war with Iran…

“We’ve known every minute of every day where Soleimani is for years—there’s no moment of any given day where five or six intelligence agencies can’t tell you where he is,” a Republican foreign policy hand said. “It’s been one of his talking points: The Americans can find me any time, they just don’t dare hit me.”

Right, that was the most shocking detail of last night’s airstrike. We caught him just after his flight had arrived in Baghdad, after he’d been greeted by one of the local militia leaders. The man was operating openly, completely convinced that he was untouchable. Which he was, until he wasn’t.

It’s hard to believe Trump issued the order to kill him months ago given his interest in diplomatic talks with Iran. The president’s obviously been hoping for a summit with Rouhani a la the ones he’s held with Kim Jong Un and has declined to respond harshly to previous Iranian provocations in the interest of making it happen. He doesn’t want war, reportedly even deriding his hawkish advisors privately for their belligerence towards Iran. And he doesn’t want to complicate his reelection message, which will focus on the roaring economy and the dearth of new foreign-policy messes, by ending up in a bloody tit-for-tat with Iran. If the military had standing orders for months to kill Soleimani, they could have upended all of that in a moment. It must be that he issued the order only recently, probably after the assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last week. Like I said here, he seems to have been resolved to turn this into the “anti-Benghazi.” And since Iran had showed no interest in talks so long as U.S. sanctions remained in effect, the risk that killing Soleimani would spoil diplomacy between the two countries was minimal. What diplomacy?


Chuck Schumer complained today that Trump doesn’t have authority for a war with Iran, which isn’t quite the same as saying that he didn’t have authority to target Soleimani. Did he?

David French countered last night:

Does the 2002 AUMF that was passed to authorize the invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam still apply almost 20 years later to justify the killing of Iran’s supreme commander on Iraqi soil? The AUMF reads, “The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to—(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.” It wasn’t the threat “posed by Iraq” that we addressed last night, though (and it certainly wasn’t the “continuing” threat posed by Saddam). The president can act unilaterally to avert an imminent attack on Americans whether or not there’s an AUMF, but that’s Amash’s question. How imminent was the threat from whatever Soleimani was planning? So imminent that Trump couldn’t have gone to Congress at any point in the past six months, as tensions between the two countries increased, to say “I’d like legal authority to target Iranian military officials just in case this crisis deepens”?


Eh, the question is academic. Congress doesn’t want any accountability in matters of war. Let Trump do what he wants and they can either applaud or jeer from the sidelines as the fallout warrants after the fact. Thanks to Bush and Obama, the president can kill anyone he wants now.

Note that he says here at one point that he’s not seeking regime change. That’s his nudge to Tehran that he’s still available to talk, maybe even to reach a grand bargain with them, once they put aside their butthurt from this whole “insta-barbecuing your most important military commander” episode.

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