NBC: Trump OK'd Soleimani strike as an option seven months ago -- if an American got killed

NBC: Trump OK'd Soleimani strike as an option seven months ago -- if an American got killed

And … so? NBC News reports that the option of killing Qassem Soleimani had been on the table for months prior to last week’s strike on the Iranian Quds force commander. Donald Trump initially okayed the idea in principle only if Soleimani’s operations resulted in an American death, but that he would have to give the order when the time came.

And … so?

President Donald Trump authorized the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani seven months ago if Iran’s increased aggression resulted in the death of an American, according to five current and former senior administration officials.

The presidential directive in June came with the condition that Trump would have final sign-off on any specific operation to kill Soleimani, officials said.

That decision explains why assassinating Soleimani was on the menu of options that the military presented to Trump two weeks ago for responding to an attack by Iranian proxies in Iraq, in which a U.S. contractor was killed and four U.S. service members were wounded, the officials said.

The timing, however, could undermine the Trump administration’s stated justification for ordering the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3. Officials have said Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, was planning imminent attacks on Americans and had to be stopped.

A missile strike on a compound in late December that killed an American contractor turned out to be the last straw; Trump had vetoed a plan to take out Soleimani after Iran shot down a drone strike last autumn. As such, this sounds like a story that will interest the media and the Beltway establishment a lot more than it will Americans in general. Among the rest of the US, it’s the “killing an American” that matters more than whether more killings of Americans were planned. Soleimani and his allies had targeted and killed hundreds of Americans over the last couple of decades and maimed many more along the way.

There’s even less here than meets the eye. Soleimani has been a potential target in every administration since Ronald Reagan. Some of the criticism of the strike even notes that Trump’s predecessors had the same choice but thought the risks weren’t worth the reward of decapitating Iran’s security forces. It’s clear that the Pentagon has gamed out a Soleimani strike for a very long time, so the news that it was a potential choice in the Trump administration is hardly news. Neither, now, is Trump’s receptivity to it — even though it took over two years before Trump became receptive to it at all.

Part of the reason for this story is the administration’s argument in favor of it. They argue, unnecessarily, that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on Americans when he was killed. White House officials kept up that argument over the weekend:

Senior administration officials declined Sunday to confirm President Trump’s assertion that four U.S. embassies had been targeted for attack by Iran, while saying that Trump’s “interpretation” of the threat was consistent with overall intelligence that justified the killing of a senior Iranian general.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said of intelligence reports. “What I’m saying is I share the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies,” Esper told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“What the president said is consistent with what we’ve been saying,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We had very strong intelligence that they were looking to kill and maim Americans in American facilities in the region.”

Even with the United States’ “exquisite intelligence,” it is difficult “to know exactly what the targets are,” O’Brien said. He added that it was fair to anticipate a future Iranian attack “would have hit embassies in at least four countries.”

That would have made Soleimani a legitimate target, but he was already a legitimate target. Soleimani was quarterbacking an ongoing attack on the US embassy in Baghdad when he was killed, and traveled to Baghdad illegally (in violation of UN travel sanctions) while the attack was ongoing. Embassies are the sovereign territory of the country that own them, which means Soleimani was committing an overt act of war against the US. Trump does not need congressional permission to respond to an attack on American territory, even if that response is to destroy the command and control assets running the attack elsewhere in the same city where the attack is taking place.

Why doesn’t the administration make that argument? That’s unclear, especially since the attacking forces were literally writing “Soleimani is our leader” on the walls of the US facilities. Perhaps they don’t want to get into a legal fight over Soleimani’s status as leader of those forces, but does anyone really doubt that Soleimani was running them — especially while traveling with Iraqi Shi’ite militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at the time, who would have also been a command-and-control asset?

The White House would have been better off making that argument, especially since it carries a message that would resonate with most Americans: Attack our embassies and you will pay a very steep price. It’s the lesson that we failed to teach in 1979. It’s time that the Iranians learned it and learned it well, and not just the Iranians either.

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