Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and State Department subordinates vigorously argued Friday that the justification for killing Iranian general and terrorist leader Qasem Soleimani was intelligence that an attack was “imminent.”

It is easy to understand why such a rationale would be advanced. An imminent threat would arguably obviate the need for a declaration of war from or even prior consultation with Congress. Exercising the right of self-defense, an established principle of international law, would satisfy allies and sidestep nasty questions about violation of an executive order in place with only minor changes since 1976 that prohibits assassination.

Aside from the legalities, as a political matter, polls have shown overwhelming opposition to a war with Iran. Casting the killing as defensive and urgent rather than an act of a war of choice would be one way to avert a public backlash. (If this reminds you of the Iraq War, you are in good company.)

However, there is substantial reason to doubt that there was an imminent threat. Soleimani had been plotting and directing operations for years to kill Americans and others throughout the region. “Imminent,” however, suggests something concrete and immediate. What’s the basis for that claim?

“There may well have been an ongoing plot as Pompeo claims, but Soleimani was a decision-maker, not an operational asset himself,” said Jon Bateman, who served as a senior intelligence analyst on Iran at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Killing him would be neither necessary nor sufficient to disrupt the operational progression of an imminent plot. What it might do instead is shock Iran’s decision calculus” and deter future attack plans, Bateman said.
In a conference call with reporters, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said Friday evening that the strike on Soleimani happened after he recently visited Damascus and was plotting to target U.S. military and diplomatic personnel.
“This strike was aimed at disrupting ongoing attacks that were being planned by Soleimani and deterring future Iranian attacks through their proxies or through the . . . Quds Force directly against Americans,” O’Brien said.

Was the killing aimed at deterring attacks in the future? Stopping a plot about to kill Americans? It strains credulity to believe that this move will de-escalate tensions as administration officials say they intended. The behind-the-scenes details do not make it sound as if this was based on specific knowledge of an imminent attack. It sounds — no surprise — like an effort to assuage Trump’s frail ego:

Officials reminded Trump that after the Iranians mined ships, downed the U.S. drone and allegedly attacked a Saudi oil facility, he had not responded. Acting now, they said, would send a message: “The argument is, if you don’t ever respond to them, they think they can get by with anything,” one White House official said.
Trump was also motivated to act by what he felt was negative coverage after his 2019 decision to call off the airstrike after Iran downed the U.S. surveillance drone, officials said. Trump was also frustrated that the details of his internal deliberations had leaked out and felt he looked weak, the officials said.

The need to mend the president’s ego is not an imminent threat. It’s not a legally or politically justifiable reason for plunging ahead with a highly provocative military action absent full consultation with Congress and a full exploration of the potential consequences.

Americans have every reason to be skeptical of anything and everything coming out of this administration. The president has lied more than 15,000 times on matters small and large. Pompeo misled the Congress and American people in suggesting there was not convincing evidence of Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the slaughter of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pompeo repeatedly misrepresented to Congress that progress was being made in talks with North Korea. Moreover, given Pompeo’s own fiery rhetoric that essentially demands regime change in Iran (if not using that term), it is logical to assume this was not a defensive action nor one intended to de-escalate violence. Pompeo needs to come before Congress and testify under oath.

In short, it is not unpatriotic, partisan or unreasonable to question the rationale given for action that escalates tensions and may usher in a larger war. One can maintain a tough stance on Iran and take strong exception to actions that have not brought Iran to the table (e.g., pulling out of the nuclear deal), isolated us from allies and provoked Tehran to lash out without a sane game plan to achieve the stated diplomatic end (a new deal with Iran).

This is a case in which we would wise to remember the lessons of the Iraq War and ask serious questions about the intelligence, planning, downsides and risks of military action. The decision to escalate military action against Iran, a country far more sophisticated in modern warfare (including cyber-terrorism) than Iraq, should prompt more caution, not less, than the decision to go to war with Iraq. Among the questions to be asked: Did the administration consult with Iraq to ensure the move would not trigger expulsion of U.S. troops in Iraq?

Finally, as many scholars have pointed out, we have reached the point in the executive branch’s unrestricted domination over military engagement in large part because Congress has not had the nerve to oppose presidents of either party. If Congress does not exercise its available powers of oversight and appropriations without a full accounting of Trump’s actions and his “strategy,” the fault for what follows will not be solely his.

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