That theory has now been overtaken by events as Trump and his team stumble through what is undoubtedly the biggest and most dangerous foreign policy crisis of his presidency. Regardless of the tactical benefits of Trump’s decision to kill Qasem Soleimani, the Trump administration’s inability to navigate the complicated aftermath of the strike or build domestic consensus for supporting its risky strategy is becoming increasingly clear.
The administration’s inconsistent messaging on the circumstances surrounding the strike, its lack of a plan for dealing with the fallout, and its insistence on politicizing the issue are all worrying signs.
The first sign that the administration had killed Soleimani without understanding the implications came late Thursday night, when the Pentagon sent out a statement confirming Soleimani’s death. The text said the Iranian general “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
Friday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN, “There was in fact an imminent attack taking place,” claiming there was an intelligence assessment to back that up. Pompeo also said he had “every expectation” that people “in Iran will view the American action last night as giving them freedom.” Judging by the thousands of anti-American protesters on the streets of Iran, that prediction now seems too optimistic.
On Friday afternoon, a senior State Department official expanded claims about the intelligence assessment, saying the killing of Soleimani was necessary “because the threat picture that the intelligence presented made very clear that in the absence of decisive action, hundreds of Americans would be killed.”
By Sunday, Pompeo was saying the imminence of the attack didn’t really matter. “If you're an American in the region, days and weeks, this is not something that's relevant,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
That Soleimani was engaged in planning attacks against Americans is easy to believe. But the administration’s ever-changing messaging and refusal to share its intelligence with the public have undermined its call for support of Trump’s action. It’s no wonder that congressional Democrats are now demanding Trump declassify its legal justification for the strike.
The administration further hurt its cause by attempting to blame the recent series of events with Iran on the Obama administration, making tenuous claims about how the Iran nuclear deal led to the crisis we are seeing today. That needlessly politicizes the issue.
“In 2015, the Obama-Biden administration essentially handed power to the Iranian leadership, and acted as a quasi-ally of theirs, by underwriting them, underwriting the very militias that killed Americans,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday.”
It’s true the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran didn’t address the kind of regional mischief Soleimani was responsible for. But referring to a U.S. administration as “a quasi-ally” of Iran’s leadership is inflammatory and partisan. The Trump administration decided to exit the deal, to ramp up maximum pressure and to try deterring Iran from responding. It must own that policy and the fallout. Blaming Obama three years into the new administration doesn’t pass muster.
The Trump administration also seems unprepared for the unfolding ramifications of the Soleimani killing. Axios reported that the Trump team is scrambling (and failing) to convince the Iraqi government to keep U.S. troops there, despite not consulting with them on the Soleimani strike in advance. Trump’s solution is to threaten our ally Iraq with sanctions “like they’ve never seen before.”
Trump is also trying to achieve escalation dominance by threatening Iran with devastation if it dares to retaliate. Over the weekend, Trump threatened to destroy Iranian cultural sites (a war crime) as Pompeo attempted to deny he said that.
Senior administration officials said last week the goal of the Soleimani strike was to “restore deterrence.” In other words, after months of Trump failing to respond to Iranian provocations, the administration needed to change Iran’s calculus by scaring the regime into submission. But as Iranian officials promise a vigorous and violent response, administration officials are now playing down the threats.
In the Friday briefing, a senior State Department official said of the Soleimani killing, “It was an act of de-escalation.” On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Pompeo said, “It may be that there’s a little noise here in the interim, that the Iranians make the choice to respond.” Pompeo has consistently told his international counterparts that he is committed to defusing the crisis, but there’s no real diplomatic effort to do so.
There’s sniping from inside the administration on the decision-making process, after Trump ordered the strike from Mar-a-Lago and reportedly left many officials out of the loop.
Trump and his team are asking the American people to trust them to carefully manage a crisis that is dangerous and complicated (which would be difficult even for an administration that is functioning effectively). The least they can do is share more information, get on the same page and stop treating the Iran issue as a political football.
“Jesus, do we have to explain why we do these things?” the senior State Department official said condescendingly to a reporter in Friday’s briefing on the Soleimani strike. The reporter’s answer: “Yes, you do.”