White House

All about the AUMF

President Trump answers questions about impeachment and Iran during an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., January 9, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

This is an excerpt from episode 185 of The Editors.

Rich: MBD, the slow holiday news cycle ended emphatically about a week ago when news came in, on I think Friday evening it was, that we had taken out Qasem Soleimani in a precision drone strike, and there immediately were war fears and worries about the downsides. Worries about the downsides were legitimate enough. The trends about the onset of World War III were kind of ridiculous, but everyone was on pins and needles waiting to see how Iran would respond. Then we got, the other night, a response that was deliberately calibrated not to provoke a further reaction from the United States. In his White House speech yesterday, Donald Trump kind of pocketed what he had gained and an increased deterrent effect from this attack and said the Iranians are standing down or basically back to the status quo. It’s ongoing low-level warfare and a major contention over their nuclear program. What do you make of it?

Michael: Wow. There’s a lot to say about this. I am, like I think actually most people on the right these days, extremely skeptical or outright opposed to a full-on war with Iran. I support, though, what the president did, with a couple of caveats, just that I am paying attention to the senators who are complaining that the briefings have been really shoddy and bad. We don’t know if Iran might respond more with a proxy attack that’s a little bit more deniable in the future.

Having said that, I think the president’s thinking was exactly right. About a year ago, as Iran started stepping up these provocative acts through its proxies against American allies or American forces after we pulled out of the Iran deal, the Washington Post reported that through diplomatic channels, the president and Mike Pompeo had said, “If any of these result in the death of even a single American, you can expect a vigorous response.” Then, a few weeks ago, Iran kills an American contractor and wounds three servicemen, and this is the response.

The reason you have a military is to punish people that hurt your people and to deter others from hurting your people. Trump took a limited, targeted action against a responsible military target in Iraq who had commanded and shaped proxy forces in Iraq who had killed Americans, was a just target, a proportionate response, as in proportionate to the end he sought with it, and it looks like the early returns are he got exactly what he want, which is establishing escalation dominance and deterrence. This is exactly what a military is for. This is exactly what a Jacksonian foreign policy would look like.

If it is true that . . . The Intercept published a leak of Iranian cables in which senior government officials were saying that some of them thought Soleimani was out of control and too aggressive, and that, in fact, his actions were keeping America in Iraq longer than they wanted us to be, and also happens to be longer than I want us to be, if Soleimani’s removal from the scene makes it easier for America to have a dignified exit from the Middle East that Donald Trump keeps talking about, I think this is a huge win for the president.

I’d like to see the exit in the exit strategy, but overall, I thought the attack was justifiable. I thought his statement at the White House was great. Everything in between that, all the tweeting, was horrible. Going after Iranian cultural sites and all that stuff is actually a war crime, and it’s a crime against human history. We want to see those cultural sites have a better custodian in the future than the Iranian government as it exists now. It undermines what he’s doing. It makes it hard for Boris Johnson and others to support him, which they did very cringingly.

I’d like none of the tweeting, but just exactly what that was, a deliberate, limited, well-targeted, well-chosen strike against someone who deserved to be hurt, both for strategic reasons and for America’s honor, for the honor and morale of our troops that are in the Middle East. It’s important to do that work, and it should be done. Some people are going to say, “Oh, well, they just killed one of our contractors, and we killed this really important general.” Well, that inequality of station should not matter to Americans at all.

Rich: Jim, I think Michael is right, that this was a limited, very deliberate attack with a very specific purpose. It was still stunning. We’ve all absorbed it now almost a week later, but when I first saw the chyron, I literally could not believe it. It was just beyond my imagining that anyone would target this guy because he had been considered off-limits for so long, and he was so central to the regime. Also, to Michael’s point, there was increasingly a brazenness to his behavior, not just fomenting all these civil wars and proxy wars around the Middle East, but just showing up on the ground like he’s going to stay at the Holiday Inn Express at Baghdad and plan this attack on U.S. forces and then pick up his briefcase and fly off to Damascus again.

The point, and I think you have to give Trump credit for a lizard intelligence to understanding the dynamic of the conflict at this level, this was such a staggering blow that it apparently, as far as we can tell right now, sent the message that it was intended to get across, which is “Don’t kill Americans, and if you do, there’s going to be a serious price.”

Jim: Absolutely, Rich. In fact, as of this recording, you have to say things are going about as well as we could reasonably hope for, considering the audacity of this action. There’s no getting around the fact that Soleimani probably was the second most important figure in the entire Iranian regime, next to the Ayatollah. He had been responsible for all kinds of aggression against U.S. troops in Iraq. He, undoubtedly, had a demon’s résumé that made this easily justifiable. Again, there was this sense that striking back directly against the Iranian regime was thinkable, was off-limits, would just be too darn provocative. When we saw that news, there was that sense of “Oh, long term, this probably makes the world a safer place. You’re taking a very bad actor off the stage,” but also the sense that the Iranians were not going to take this lying down and they were going to respond in some way.]

Now I think you can safely say, or at least as of this recording, that not only did this send a strong signal to Iran by killing Soleimani; everybody up and down the chain of command in the Iranian military now knows the Americans can probably hit whoever they want to hit. We must have pretty decent penetration of their intelligence. Our intelligence community must know . . . We knew where Soleimani was going to be, exactly when, exactly where. This may have been helped by the Iraqis. You figure they may be helping us with some of that. Also, the response to the Iranian rocket attack a couple nights ago. According to the New York Times today, we had three hours’ warning, and everybody was able to get into the bomb shelters and all the necessary steps that were taken.

The really intriguing comment is that Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, actually had said this was probably the most likely response that the Iranians were going to generate. Now, maybe that’s spin or maybe that’s after the fact or something like that, but so far you would look at this and you would say, “Wow, America really knows what Iran is going to do, and we also know how to hit them in a way that really hits them hard.” Sanctions against Iran are great, but that makes it tough for the average Iranian on the street. This basically goes right up to the regime and says, “No, you at the top, you’re going to pay the price for these actions. It’s not going to be minimal; you will be a smear on the side of the road on the way to Baghdad International Airport.”

Right now, I’m marveling. This is going really, really well. I concur with everything Michael Brendan Dougherty just said about the president’s statements. The actions are terrific. The rhetoric is not. But that having been said, I think the president’s address the other morning was probably about as good as it got from Trump. So far, knocking on wood, crossing our fingers, saying prayers and all that, this went about as well as we possibly could’ve hoped.

Rich: Charlie, react to anything you’ve heard. Also, what’s your view of the legal status of this operation? There’s been a debate over whether it was a legitimate killing under the rules of war and effectively authorized through an attenuated train of reasoning, but a train of reasoning, by Congress, or whether it was an illicit assassination.

Charlie: Yes. I am convinced mostly by David French’s view that this was legal because the AUMF is still in force in Iraq, but I think that raises a number of important questions even if David is correct. Let’s leave aside for a moment whether this was a good idea or not. There’s certainly a case here that Trump got this right on the merits. But if we are relying on an instrument that was passed by Congress in 2002, ’03, that was used to justify an invasion and subsequent war that has largely been written off as a mistake, isn’t that a problem? Doesn’t that say something about Congress?

It was interesting watching the reaction to this. Some people said we’re about to see World War III. Some people said Trump wants a full-scale war, perhaps to distract from impeachment. Some people said this is Jacksonian in nature, Michael Brendan Dougherty among them. Some people said this is a continuation of America’s role as the global policeman. Whichever one of those is true, we have not debated it as a country. We don’t know what to make of this. We don’t know how it fits in with our strategy because we don’t have a strategy. We’re not sure whether we want to be assassinating people or killing them in self-defense, however you see it, and we’re not sure what price we would be prepared to pay if those actions escalated into something else.

Congress has no idea. The American public has no idea. This is just not a conversation that we have, and I think that’s an enormous problem. Even if this was legal, and I’m open to the idea that, for once, it was, it’s not good enough, is it, to say, “Well, if you squint, the law we passed 17 years ago covers it”? I think we have to go back to the drawing board and look at what we want to achieve in Iraq as regards Iran and the Middle East in general, rather than rely on enabling acts from almost two decades ago.

In this case, I think the more important question than whether it was legal is why was it legal. Do we want it to be legal? Do we wish to hand over to the executive branch, not just Donald Trump, this cannot be a question that is only asked when a Donald Trump is president or when a person from a particular movement or party is president, do we want to hand over to the executive branch a blank check to take these sorts of decisions which could then escalate? Is that what America and America’s Congress wants? I don’t think we know the answer to that. That’s what scared me far more than the idea that this would devolve into World War III, which I don’t think was ever going to happen.

Rich: I think that a train left the station, though, a very long time ago, as soon as Congress basically gave the president a standing military. Given the free rein the president has as commander in chief—

Charlie: Well, I don’t—

Rich: . . . you would see these sorts of operations. Going back, George Washington, as soon as he had troops, he fights an unauthorized war against Indian tribes. Thomas Jefferson, as soon as he has a navy, sends them to the Barbary pirates—

Charlie: No, no, no, no—

Rich: He subsequently goes back and gets authorization. We’ve, what, declared war five times in our history? And have had many, many more conflicts than that. Congress does have power in these sort of cases. We saw it in Vietnam. We saw it in the Mexican-American War towards the end. We even saw it in Iraq somewhat. Congress can cut off the funding.

Charlie: Sure, but Congress can also repeal the AUMF, or next time it passes an AUMF, it can write in a sunset clause so that it’s forced to debate it again. I think the point I am making is that if one argues that the legal basis for this attack was that the United States military has the right to defend itself, it was in a country that Congress had authorized it to be in. It was being threatened by a force within that country; therefore, it took preventative or retaliatory action. That’s fine, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether the United States should still be in that country in the first place, which is a debate we simply haven’t had.

We won’t get bogged down in this, but the Barbary pirates affair I read very differently than you, just for what it’s worth. I think that the real break in Congress’s use of its power to declare and control warfare came after the Second World War, not in the early days of the republic.

Rich: MBD, Charlie mentioned your argument that this was a Jacksonian action, which I wholly endorse. This was why I think both sides that were freaked out about this were wrong, because the left was all of a sudden acting as though it was George W. Bush circa 2003 again, and Tucker Carlson is arguing that Trump had been taken over by the neocons, whereas Trump never pledged: “I’m not going to kill bloody-minded terrorists with American blood on their hands.” In fact, during the campaign in 2016 when he made some of his most fulsome statements against our various commitments and alliances around the world, he also said, “I’m going to bomb the s— out of ISIS,” which you can’t do without having some presence in the Middle East. I see this very much in keeping with that kind of thinking and that sort of attitude rather than a departure from it.

Michael: Yeah. Listen, I’m sure listeners have figured it out. I’m a dove. I’m a bit of an isolationist at heart. But first of all, the argument that World War III was imminent is ludicrous. Iran has no friends. It has no fair-weather friends. It gets limited support from Russia when Russia can get more out of it than it loses, but beyond that it’s a pretty friendless country, even in the Middle East. Its most important ally is Bashar al-Assad, who is busy. So that is ridiculous.

Two, what I liked about this was its limited, targeted nature at a responsible agent who has authored the deaths of American troops in Iraq, and it was done in Iraq under the AUMF. This is a very different approach than saying we’re going to respond to terrorism by utterly transforming the political and social culture and structure of the society that generated the terrorists. This is a much more limited, realistic mission.

Deterrence is a part of keeping the peace. There is peace through strength. I’ve found myself in disagreement with friends and colleagues in the cause of peace over this now. I can see a little bit where they’re coming from, where they would say that this skirmish began, really, when the United States withdrew from the Iran deal, then Iran stepped up its provocations, and now we’ve had to respond, and that American foreign policy has been subject to drift since we pulled out of the Iran deal and it’s drifting toward greater and greater conflict.

I see that. I do see that as a danger, but this is another way of ending it, which is just reminding the Iranian regime, which I take to be a rational one despite its revolutionary origins, I take it to be a rational one interested in its own survival, and one that needed to be reminded that Americans are willing to respond in defense of their interests and are willing to keep their word. Yeah, I thought this is exactly what a Jacksonian foreign policy looks like. This is the best of what you could’ve expected from Trump, and particularly the pivot at the White House remarks to saying, “We want a better future for Iran as well.” That’s exactly right.

Rich: Jim, do you think this moves the needle politically one way or the other, or like everything else, it’ll be kind of absorbed and forgotten a month from now?

Jim: It’ll probably be absorbed a month from now, but having said that, you’ll probably see some aspect of the Trump campaign focus on four years ago, he said he would destroy ISIS, and ISIS is largely gone. al-Baghdadi is gone. Soleimani is gone. This will be a part of the president’s argument.

There’s two other thoughts that came to mind as I was listening to you guys. First of all, maybe this is a bit on the premature side, but that Ukrainian airliner that went down outside Tehran the night of the Iranian rocket response, nobody knows exactly why it is, but a lot of folks who study aviation are saying the most likely scenario, experienced pilot, well-maintained jet, is that this was some sort of anti-aircraft attack from the Iranians, believing they were detecting some American incursion and they couldn’t differentiate between the passenger jet and a foreign fighter jet, and that’s what caused the plane to go down.

There’s video floating around of the plane appearing to be in flames before it went down. You’re not going to get that from a routine engine failure or something like that. This would be the second time in a couple years we’ve seen a passenger jetliner go down because of Russian air-defense systems. I think probably anybody who’s bought a Russian air-defense system in the last couple years is probably wondering if these things are worth it.

The second thing is that our big fear now, next month, the month after that, is going to be some sort of Iranian response through a proxy group, but I wonder if now, after this, Iran’s traditionally deniable attacks probably aren’t that deniable anymore. If, God forbid, a truck bomb goes off outside some U.S. embassy somewhere in the Middle East, or really anywhere in the world, a lot of people are going to say, “Yep, that’s probably Iran.” Now, could it be somebody else? Could it be what remains of al-Qaeda? Yeah, it could be. But Iran has got to let some time go by because, if not, God forbid there’s another attack on Americans, everybody is going to say, “Okay, that’s Iran’s response. Time to go after these guys.” It will end up being that escalation that they seem to think they didn’t want to generate from the rocket attack the other night.

Rich: Charlie Cooke, exit question to you. The Soleimani killing was the first step towards a peace deal, a negotiation with Iran, the first step towards a more intense conflict, a first step towards the same old confrontation with Iran?

Charlie: I think it was probably the lattermost, the same old confrontation with Iran. I think it fits neatly within Trump’s wheelhouse, given that he simultaneously, when running for president, said that he didn’t want to get involved in foreign wars and criticized the Iraq War, but sounded hawkish at times, said he was going to bomb the out of people and so forth. This is on-brand. He’s not well set up to change our relationship with Iran as a result.

Rich: MBD?

Michael: I tend to think it’s the same old confrontation. Maybe it’ll go through a cooling period after this. I want to raise the very faint possibility that the Iran deal is revived in the mode of NAFTA, slight amendments, reinstated, and Trump claims to have made a much, much better deal. I just want to put that out there as a longer-shot possibility. We won’t get all the demands Pompeo made when we left, but maybe Trump is going to try to push this one pretty far.

Rich: Jim Geraghty?

Jim: After the 2020 elections, whoever is president will extend another feeler to Iran about coming back to the negotiating table, either Trump or a Democratic replacement. Whether that actually leads to something dramatically different than the old Iran deal is another story, but eventually you will see . . . The number of people on both sides who don’t want to see this escalate and would like to get towards something that is less confrontational will push it in this direction, but not until after 2021.

Rich: I think it’s the third option. It’s basically the status quo. But I will say I think eventually a negotiated outcome with Iran is more likely than all-out war with Iran.

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