Friendly reminder that we’re only talking about the imminence of the threat posed by Soleimani because that’s a prerequisite for self-defense, which is always lawful. But Trump wouldn’t have needed to claim self-defense here if he had gone to Congress at some point to ask for authorization to target Iranian military officers. He could have done that 13 months ago, before the new Democratic majority was seated.
But there were prudential and procedural reasons for why that would have been difficult. Procedurally, he would have somehow had to overcome a Senate filibuster, which was next to impossible even with a Republican majority. And prudentially, it might have been a step too far towards aggression for Iran, with whom Trump was still hoping to hold nuclear talks at the time. The president was eager until recently to restore diplomacy. “I’m seeking authority to kill your top soldiers” would have … complicated that message.
Forced, then, to decide between (1) maintaining a hands-off policy towards Soleimani absent legal authorization and (2) killing him and then finding a creative argument for why it was lawful, the White House chose door number two. Pompeo was pressed in an interview this morning about the imminence of the threat in this case and replied, “There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks being plotted by Qassem Soleimani. We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real.” Which led to some head-scratching. You would never say in a case of individual self-defense, after all, that you didn’t know exactly when and where the threat would come. The attack is already upon you. You can’t go to your enemy’s house ahead of time and kill him because you had reason to believe he’d come for you “soon.”
But does that analogy work in foreign relations? Pompeo was asked again about “imminence” at a briefing this morning. Yes, he insisted, a threat can be “imminent” even if the particulars aren’t known.
Pompeo insists the ideas that Soleimani presented an "imminent" threat but the administration doesn't know when or where he planned to strike are "completely consistent thoughts." pic.twitter.com/7LDFR7zcVU
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 10, 2020
Good enough? Not quite yet:
CNN correspondent asks Pompeo what his definition of "imminent" is after he says he doesn't know when Iran's "imminent" attack was supposed to happen. pic.twitter.com/W69YMqsuEp
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) January 10, 2020
His answer reminds me of the terror alert system instituted after 9/11, which we spent a good decade or so wrestling with before it was phased out. If you’re of a certain age, you remember it well: The feds would report a “significant increase in chatter,” sometimes with ominous references to airplanes and airports, sometimes not. They’d ground some flights, urban PD would mobilize, the PSAs instructing you to say something if you see something would begin anew. That sounds like the sort of thing Pompeo’s describing here. No specifics, but the amount of activity around Soleimani and the fact that he allegedly met with the supreme leader for approval of some sort of operation was hair-raising enough for U.S. intelligence that they concluded he needed to be preempted, whether or not that fit comfortably within everyone’s definition of “imminence.”
Reaching back to the analogy of individual self-defense, you can’t go to your enemy’s house to kill him just because you have information that he’s planning to kill you. But if you’re awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of his voice on your front lawn, can you go to the window and lawfully shoot him before he’s tried to enter? Harder call. But not clearly unreasonable.
Of course, it would be easier to believe that Trump’s actions in this case weren’t unreasonable if Mike Lee and Rand Paul hadn’t left the briefing a few days ago plainly unimpressed by the lack of specific intelligence they’d been offered. Or if it hadn’t been reported recently that Pompeo was talking to Trump for “months” about killing Soleimani. Was the recent threat truly “imminent” or were Trump and Pompeo looking for just enough cover from vague intel reports they’d received to justify doing what they’d wanted to do all along?
Here’s another not-great detail about the strike circulating today, via the WSJ:
The way the strike was handled has drawn scrutiny from Democrats and some Republicans. Critics say the decision was hasty, considering the risk of all-out war. They also question whether the intelligence that prompted the action was as clear-cut and alarming as the White House has said, and see the move as doing little to further U.S. interests in the region.
Mr. Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said.
We took out Soleimani so that Trump could shore up support on impeachment?
And to think, Democrats accuse him of placing his personal political interests above the country’s national interests in the Ukraine matter.
I don’t buy it, though. Trump could have replaced Mike Pence with Soleimani on the 2020 ticket and Senate Republicans still wouldn’t vote to remove him. (Lindsey Graham: “It’s a bold choice that shows the president’s commitment to racial and religious diversity.”) And the hawks in the Senate who were most keen to see Soleimani liquidated also happen to be some of the most ardent Trump supporters in the chamber. There’s nothing the president could do to alienate Graham or Tom Cotton or Marco Rubio, etc, including declining to target Iran’s top terrorist. The people he needs to worry about are the squishes, the Susan Collinses and Lisa Murkowskis — precisely the sort of people who’d be anxious about a sudden escalation with Iran. I don’t see how killing Soleimani achieves anything for him with respect to a trial whose outcome is already assured.
One more detail on the “imminence” question. WaPo is out with a scoop today:
On the day the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, U.S. forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.
The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.
If Soleimani needed to be killed immediately to stop an imminent threat to U.S. forces, why did a top officer tasked with overseeing war in another theater need to be stopped on the same day? See why an AUMF targeting Iranian military officers might have been useful here?