Jan. 21, 2020
by Nathan Warf
On December 17, 1998, the New York Times front page carried the headlines “Impeachment Vote in House Delayed as Clinton Launches Iraq Air Strike” and “G.O.P. Splits Bitterly over Timing of Assault.” President Bill Clinton’s air strikes against Iraq followed the recommendation of his military advisors after Saddam Hussein had barred United Nations weapons inspections in the run-up to Ramadan. Republicans criticized the decision, with Senate majority leader Trent Lott saying the timing was “subject to question” and then-Representative Lindsay Graham pointing out that “[t]he trust level is low.”1
More than a decade later, as America prepared for the 2012 presidential election, Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that President Barack Obama would start a war with Iran in a desperate effort to improve his reelection chances. When the promised pre-election attack never materialized, Trump continued to predict that Obama would initiate conflict with Iran “in order to save face.”2
It is no surprise that political commentators are recalling the above events in the wake of President Donald Trump’s recent decision to target the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike. President Trump has been impeached and now awaits a Senate trial, which will take place while he campaigns for reelection. As Aaron Blake notes in The Washington Post, “Pollsters and political analysts often talk about a ‘rally around the flag’ effect that comes when the United States is attacked or launches new military campaigns.” Blake provides historical data to demonstrate that the “rally around the flag” effect typically boosts a president’s approval ratings, but this boost is usually short-lived.3
Trump’s critics will question the timing of his decision, just as Republicans questioned Clinton’s motives in 1998. For me, however, far more interesting than the timing is the decision itself as it is of questionable legality.
First, the Constitution vests Congress with the power to declare war.4 The War Powers Resolution, passed in 1973, says, “The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities.” Absent a congressional declaration of war, a president has forty-eight hours to transmit written notice explaining “the circumstances necessitating the introduction of United States Armed Forces” and “the constitutional and legislative authority under which such introduction took place.”5
President Trump delivered the formal notification to Congress on Saturday, January 4, the day after Soleimani's death, but took the unusual step of classifying the document, which leaves the country in the dark about the legal justification for the attack. The administration’s closed-door briefing on the matter left senators on both sides of the aisle far from satisfied. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) said that it was “probably the worst briefing” he had seen in his nine years in the Senate, adding that it was “insulting and demeaning” to the Senate.6 Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) argued that reliance on the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force for legal justification is “sophomoric and utterly unconvincing.”7 The 2002 AUMF gave authority to President Bush to use the military to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”8 The authorization had nothing to do with Iran, and it shouldn’t be interpreted to grant unlimited authority to presidents in perpetuity.
Second, as Oona Hathaway explains in The Atlantic, “International law would also require [President Trump] to seek the approval of the United Nations Security Council before resorting to force, unless the host state consents (which it did not) or the action qualifies for the express, but narrow, self-defense exception.”9 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately took to the airwaves to assure the world that the strike was intended to prevent an “imminent attack.”10 As with so many assertions made by the Trump White House, Pompeo’s claim must be taken on faith, as evidence was not forthcoming. Indeed, President Trump undermined his own administration’s attempt to provide cover by tweeting that, whether the Soleimani threat was “imminent” or not “doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”11 Pompeo's assertion that the strike prevented an "imminent attack" was further undermined when other administration officials admitted that President Trump authorized the killing of Soleimani seven months ago.12
In the days following the drone strike, President Trump turned to his favorite platform, Twitter, to issue threats to Iran. Seeming to flout the requirements of the War Powers Act, Trump contended that his tweets constituted notice to Congress of further potential military action. He then defied one of the fundamental principles of war by saying that the United States would respond to any Iranian attack “quickly & fully … perhaps in a disproportionate manner.”13 If this wasn’t bad enough, Trump went on say that fifty-two Iranian targets had been selected, including cultural sites.14 Our president is unaware of the content of international law, and he is dependent on others to restrain his natural inclination toward lawlessness. It’s reminiscent of candidate-Trump suggesting that the United States ought to fight terrorism by behaving like terrorists ourselves, saying that we should “take out” the family members of suspected terrorists.15
The drone strike prompted swift responses from both Iraq and Iran. The Iraqi parliament asserted their nation’s sovereignty by voting to expel U.S. troops, a move that threatens to further destabilize the region.16 Iran launched nearly two dozen missiles at American bases in Iraq. Fortunately, the attack did not result in any deaths, but tensions remain high.17 Now eyes turn to Congress to see if legislators will affirm their constitutional prerogatives and limit President Trump’s authority to wage war.18
May we pray that leaders exercise wisdom and restraint.
1 Eric Schmitt, “G.O.P. Splits Bitterly over Timing of Assault,” New York Times, 17 Dec. 1998. Gale OneFile: News. Accessed 7 Jan. 2020.
2 Aaron Blake, “What Trump said about Obama and war with Iran, and what it means now,” Washington Post, 3 Jan. 2020. Accessed 7 Jan. 2020.
3 Aaron Blake, “Trump thought war with Iran could help Obama. What about Trump?” Washington Post, 4 Jan. 2020. Accessed 7 Jan. 2020.
4 U.S. Const. Art. I, sec. 8.
5 “War Powers Resolution,” Sec. 3-4. 7 Nov. 1973.
6 Aaron Blake, “The most troubling part of Mike Lee’s broadside against the Trump administration’s Iran briefing,” Washington Post, 8 Jan. 2020. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.
7 Karoun Demirjian and Mike DeBonis, “Cracks emerge among Republicans over Trump’s handling of Iran crisis,” Washington Post, 8 Jan. 2020. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.
8 “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002,” 116 Stat. 1498, 16 Oct. 2002 (emphasis added).
9 Oona A. Hathaway, “The Soleimani Strike Defied the U.S. Constitution,” The Atlantic, 4 Jan. 2020. Accessed 7 Jan. 2020.
10 Veronica Stracqualursi and Jennifer Hansler, “Pompeo: Strike on Soleimani distrupted an ‘imminent attack’ and ‘saved American lives,’” CNN.com, 3 Jan. 2020. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.
11 Philip Bump, “Trump’s collapsing rationalization for the Soleimani strike as ‘imminent,’” Washington Post, 13 Jan. 2020. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.
12 Carol E. Lee and Courtney Cube, “Trump authorized Soleimani’s killing 7 months ago, with conditions,” NBCNews.com, 13 Jan. 2020. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.
13 Frank Miles, “Trump notifies Congress of warning after lawmakers said they weren’t informed about Soleimani strike in advance,” FoxNews.com, 6 Jan. 2020, Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.
14 David Smith, “Trump defends ‘war crime’ threat to target cultural sites in Iran,” The Guardian, 6 Jan. 2020. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.
15 Tom LoBianco, “Donald Trump on terrorists: ‘Take out their families,’” CNN.com, 3 Dec. 2015. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.
16 See Isabel Coles and Catherine Lucey, “Trump pushes Iraq, threatens sanctions after vote to expel U.S. troops,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 Jan. 2020. Accessed 16 Jan. 2020.
17 See Michael Safi, et al., “Iran launches missiles at Iraq airbases hosting US and coalition troops,” The Guardian, 8 Jan. 2020. Accessed 16 Jan. 2020.
18 Catie Edmondson, “Senates has votes to pass limits on Trump’s Iran war power, likely drawing a veto,” New York Times, 14 Jan. 2020. Accessed 16 Jan. 2020.