Over the weekend, the New York Times and the Associated Press both reported that the choice to launch the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani had been on a “menu” of options that top officials had presented to President Donald Trump for how to respond to recent Iranian-orchestrated violence against U.S. personnel in Iraq. According to the Times, “Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable”—and they were surprised that he chose this one.
What were these officials possibly thinking? After three years of Trump repeatedly upending traditional U.S. military and foreign policy practice on a whim, what made Trump’s aides so confident he wouldn’t take the most “extreme” course of action? Perhaps they took him at his word that he wanted to make peace with Iran and avoid endless wars in the Middle East. But this episode suggests that the people whose job involves analyzing the behaviors of foreign countries’ leaders don’t have all that good a grasp of their own.
The report also flatly contradicts the administration’s initial rationale for the strike: that it was “defensive” action necessary to prevent Soleimani from carrying out an imminent attack. Trump reiterated this official line in a statement from Mar-a-Lago on Friday. “Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” the statement read.
But subsequent reporting suggests there was no ticking bomb. The Soleimani strike was first raised not as a preventive measure, but as a response to an attack on a U.S. facility in Iraq that killed an American contractor a week earlier. Trump initially opted for one of the more “moderate” options, airstrikes against five facilities of the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah. According to the Times, he only opted for the more “extreme” step of killing Soleimani after he “watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad”—a scene that he felt was reminiscent of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, during the Obama administration, which he feared would make the U.S. look weak. It’s also not as if this idea came out of nowhere. According to the Washington Post’s reporting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a longtime Iran hawk, “first spoke with Trump about killing Soleimani months ago,” but the president wasn’t interested.
The timeline is a little murky, but in the AP’s account, officials prepared a “legal justification” and to “cite intelligence suggesting that Soleimani was traveling in the Middle East to put final touches on plans for attacks that would have hit U.S. diplomats,” but did so after Trump had ordered a strike on Soleimani, as they were learning they’d have an opportunity to take him out during his visit to Baghdad on Jan. 2.
Some reporters and lawmakers have since questioned just how solid that intelligence and how imminent the threat really was. And even Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley has conceded that it’s possible the attack in question “might still happen” even with Soleimani gone.* But more to the point, it would be quite a coincidence if it became a military necessity to kill Soleimani to prevent an attack at the exact time that the administration needed a justification for what officials viewed as a disproportionate response to a previous attack. A lot of comparisons have been made to the disingenuous pitch made for the Iraq war, but this behavior is beyond even those lies. It’s as if the Bush administration had started accusing Saddam Hussein of developing weapons of mass destruction a day after the U.S. invaded.
In any case, by the day after the strike, Trump had more or less dispensed with the prevention charade, tweeting, “They attacked us, & we hit back” as well as retweeting others blaming Soleimani (correctly) for the deaths of American troops in Iraq and (incorrectly) for Benghazi.
Soleimani has been considered a threat for some time. Two previous presidents as well as this president up until last week considered the risks of killing him greater than the risks of keeping him alive.
As with the legal rationale for the strike, Trump’s team may consider this needless quibbling. The point is that “we took a bad guy off the battlefield,” as Pompeo put it. Or as an exasperated anonymous State Department official told reporters, “Jesus, do we have to explain why we do these things?”
The problem, in a situation of military escalation as volatile as this one, is that misinterpretation and misread motives are already inevitable. If this was really done to prevent a concrete attack, the administration needs to present evidence. If Trump believes this was a proportionate response to last month’s attacks, and a means of deterring future ones, he should make that case. By appearing to be crafting his rationale on the fly, Trump makes it easier for Iran to portray this as a wholly unwarranted act of aggression and sidestep discussion of Soleimani’s own acts of violence.
If you can’t even define your own motives, the enemy will do it for you.
Correction, Jan. 7, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Mark Milley as the secretary of defense. He is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.