President Trump’s pretext for killing Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani did not survive its first weekend. In each of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s stops on the Sunday-morning TV shows, he was grilled about his insistence that there was an “imminent” threat to Americans. He deflected, tried to scold the moderator, refused to say what it was and hinted that “imminent” did not really mean, you know, imminent.
Additional reporting further undercut the notion that the United States had to act instantly to protect against a concrete threat. President Trump was given a menu of options to retaliate against Iran, suggesting there was nothing specific regarding Soleimani’s activities. Trump’s choice from that list of options reportedly “stunned” the third-rate advisers who now populate his administration (who were foolish enough to offer a disastrous option).
By the way, the administration’s insistence that it was deescalating tension was belied by Trump’s threat over the weekend to hit cultural sites (a war crime) and Pompeo’s vow to strike Iran if it retaliated against U.S. personnel. This has all the earmarks of a rash, unjustified escalation of tensions that is far more likely to instigate an even more dangerous period of violence.
On CNN Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) underscored the administration’s failure to show evidence of an imminent threat:
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Look, I don't know what the president's motivation here is but I think it was a reckless decision that increased the risk to Americans all around the world, not decreased it.When Secretary Pompeo says that this decision to take out Qasem Soleimani to save American lives, save European lives, he is expressing a personal opinion, not an intelligence conclusion. Much like his opinion that leaving reneging on the Iran deal improved our security, the evidence has been to the contrary.And I think the evidence will be the contrary here sadly. I think it will increase the risk to Americans around the world. I haven’t seen intelligence that taking out Soleimani was going to either stop the plotting that’s going on or decrease [it]. And in fact we are already seeing serious strategic repercussions.The Iraqi prime minister now supporting — throwing American troops out of Iraq. The Iraqi parliament introducing new resolution to remove us in that country. That’s going to impede our fight against ISIS. That would be a real coup for Iran to force the United States out of Iraq.We're going to have to take our eye off the ball when it comes to fighting ISIS in Syria because we are not going to be able to, I think, protect a small number of forces there. So, either we're going to have to send more forces or have to withdraw the forces that we have. So strategically, I think, we have already seen setbacks and I don't know that we're going to see any improvement. Our security, I think quite the contrary we may see an increase risk of war with Iran.TAPPER: But you acknowledged as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs have said and others in the Trump administration have said that Soleimani was heading a plot to attack American interests in the region. That is accurate?SCHIFF: It's accurate but it's also true that Soleimani has been plotting against the United States for decades. The question is, did the plotting here rise to the level that requires his elimination from the battlefield and would that elimination stop the plotting or would it accelerated it or would it make the potential attacks to the United States great or not worse? And there I don't think the intelligence supports the conclusion that removing Soleimani increases our security.There's a big difference when our generals talk about potential plots in days, weeks or months between days and months. And particularly when you have someone like Soleimani who has been at this for so long. So the question is, why now? Is this going to increase or decrease the risk of war? And I think it is going to increase the risk of war with Iran.TAPPER: So some officials told “The New York Times” that the evidence that this attack was imminent was — quote — “razor thin.” Do you agree?SCHIFF: I don't know if I would use that characterization. I would say that there certainly was a lack of detail in terms of the plotting and I don't think we have sufficient guidance on either its imminence or the nature of the attacks to warrant taking out Soleimani. I don't think the intelligence supports the conclusion that killing a top Iranian official is going to either stop plotting or improve America's security.I do think it is likely to result in strategic losses. I think it’s going to result in potentially our being thrown out of Iraq, reducing our ability to fight ISIS. And additional plotting against the United States.
Republicans’ unsurprisingly have leaped to Trump’s defense based on little more than his word and the representations of subordinates who previously misled them. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who dismissed the administration’s misleading statements concerning Saudi Arabia’s killing of Jamal Khashoggi, demonstrated a shocking level of gullibility when it comes to a potential war with Iran:
MARGARET BRENNAN: But, Senator, Qasem Soleimani was responsible for directing mass murder. There aren’t a lot of people in this country mourning him. No one’s disputing that. But the idea of taking this to the level of escalation in a cycle that was already growing in threats of taking out one of Iran’s top leaders has many asking if the administration has a strategy in place to follow up so that there isn’t a cycle that further escalates.SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Yeah. You know I keep hearing that about the strategy. Here’s the strategy. We are there for an anti ISIS operation and to support the Iraqi government, by the way, at the invitation of the Iraqi government. The Iranians don’t want us there and they are threatening to kill Americans. The President of the United States has an obligation to protect those Americans. Soleimani was a threat. He was not there on a diplomatic visit. He was there on a terrorist mission.
Pressed to say what the threat was, Rubio insisted that he has been tweeting about it for months. That, of course, would suggest there is nothing different now, let alone anything imminent, that would justify a unilateral action without consent of Congress and without full consultation with allies, including Iraq. Now that Iraq wants to kick us out of the country and we have been forced to halt fighting against the Islamic State, one wonders why Rubio would continue slavishly supporting the president.
In sum, from all appearances, the administration on the spur of the moment decided that the best way to respond to ongoing threats from Iran, which arose since we left the nuclear deal with Iran and reapplied sanctions, was to take the most extreme measure, do so unilaterally and do so without really thinking through either the immediate or far-reaching consequences. The Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” has not driven Iran to the bargaining table, but it might pull us into a war.
This was a do-over for Trump’s failure to respond to the shoot-down of the U.S. drone — as David Petraeus, the retired Army general and former CIA director, astutely diagnosed in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “What has happened here, I think, is frankly, that we lost the element of deterrence. The component of deterrence that was seen as American will,” he explained. “Our drone — a $130 million drone is shot down, did nothing significant response [sic]. Five percent of the world’s oil production taken out of operation. Numerous attacks on shipping and then attacks on our forces. Ultimately, of course, killing an American and wounding four of our soldiers. So, ultimately, the — the president appears to have decided that it was necessary to take an action to shore up deterrence.”
In other words, Trump blew it last time and is now trying to make up for that blunder by choosing the most extreme measure presented to him, one that could instigate a war and already has stalled our fight against the Islamic State.
Republicans should be wary of backing Trump to the hilt. War with Iran is hugely unpopular among the American people, and even among Republicans, many of whom thought they were voting for the president who would exit the Middle East. Before blindly following the president over a cliff, Republicans might want to check back home and see if their constituents are up for a war, let alone one that seems to have been initiated under false pretenses.