Did Donald Trump order a strike on Qassem Soleimani to protect Americans, or to prevent complete mullahcratic takeover of Iraq? Marco Rubio claimed that the Quds commander had plotted to overthrow the existing government in Baghdad to prop up a puppet to Tehran, one of four points of rebuttal offered by the Florida Republican on Twitter. That would certainly be interesting, but it’s an open question as to whether anyone could tell the difference:
4. At the direction of #Iran’s Supreme Leader,Soleimani was plotting a coup in #Iraq. He was corrupting/threatening politicians, exploiting Iraq’s resources & bringing a large military force loyal to him,in an effort to make Iraq a platform to attack the U.S. & our allies 2/2
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 3, 2020
That’s a little different from the disciplined self-defense argument that the Trump administration has been making since yesterday evening. Pompeo spent nearly ten minutes on CNN alone this morning hammering home the argument that the “imminent” action Soleimani was preparing had targeted Americans in the region, not the Iraqi government. In fact, the only part of the messaging from Pompeo about taking down governments was aimed at Tehran rather than Baghdad:
POMPEO: And, you know, as for the protests that you described, there’s no doubt the last vestiges of theocracy, the kleptocracy in Iran will continue to try and put down these uprisings from the people. They have jailed thousands, they have killed hundreds. It won’t surprise me if they try to continue to do that. But know this. The Iranian people understand that America is a force for good in the region. And I’m convinced that the support that we have provided to the people in Iran and the support we will continue to provide for the people in Iraq will work to protect American interests and make lives better for those people as well.
Regime change is back, baby! (But only in selected locations. Your mileage may vary.) If Rubio’s argument is legitimate, it seems strange that this is the first we’re hearing about it.
It’s not that a coup-prevention argument doesn’t make any sense, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of it. If you haven’t yet read Allahpundit’s analysis of the Iraqi celebrations at Soleimani’s demise, be sure to do so now. It’s beyond doubt that friction between Baghdad and Tehran had peaked recently, and that even Iraq’s Shi’ites had begun to chafe at the Iranian yoke. When Iranian toady Adil Abdul-Mahdi had to resign as prime minister, Soleimani and Ali Khameini might have thought that an outright coup would be the best solution. Even Moqtada al-Sadr was getting fed up, and that’s really saying something.
However, that still seems like a manageable problem rather than one requiring a flat-out coup, with all of the provocations and headaches that would entail. Thanks to the US withdrawal in 2011 and the Iranian militias’ work against ISIS/Daesh, the Baghdad government was already in a supplicant status to Tehran. The Iranians might have been annoyed that Abdul-Mahdi got the boot in part because of their heavy-handedness in Iraq’s internal affairs, but the next prime minister will have faced the same geopolitical realities that Abdul-Mahdi did. Iran is not only much larger and more powerful, but they’ve infiltrated Iraq so effectively that even semi-compliance is all Tehran really needs for its larger ends.
And let’s not forget that Iran and its militias played an undeniably large part in saving Baghdad from a radical Sunni takeover in ISIS that would have enslaved its Shi’ite majority all over again. Iran didn’t do that out of the goodness of its heart, of course, but does anyone believe for a hot second that the next PM in Baghdad won’t call Soleimani’s replacement if a similar threat arises? It’s not as if Americans have a great track record in sticking around, after all.
Anyway, the problem with this argument is that it undermines the legitimacy of direct presidential action. A president can order military action against the forces of another country without congressional authorization to protect American lives in acute and imminent jeopardy, at least arguably under the War Powers Act. That’s why Pompeo and the State Department keep using the word “imminent” when discussing the Soleimani threat. If the US needs to take action against a hostile state to protect another country, though, Congress would need to be involved in that decision at some level. Barack Obama ignored that with Libya, of course, but (a) that doesn’t make it legitimate, and (b) look how well that turned out. Democrats have already proven that they don’t feel the need to abide by the precedents set by Obama in judging Trump, which means that this could easily be fodder for another impeachment drama.
So far, Rubio’s the only one talking about this action as a coup prevention strike. Trump and his administration might be better off if that remains the case.
Update: Senator Rubio responded on Twitter to my post, and I’m happy to include it:
This wasn’t a coup prevention operation to determine governance of Iraq. Soleimani was actively plotting imminent attacks on Americans. But his coup plans are relevant because its end goal was to turn Iraq into a platform for future attacks on Americans. https://t.co/xY8VGDCvgL
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 3, 2020
Fair enough, but it’s worth noting that Trump, the White House’s surrogates, and especially the State Department are not emphasizing that angle at all. Nor, I suspect, will they when the issue of the War Powers Act remains a sticking point. Better to keep the focus on the imminent attack threat, which rests much more comfortably within Trump’s authority.