The Corner

National Security & Defense

We Can’t Trust the Media to Report Honestly on Iran

President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, senior White House advisors, and senior military personnel, delivers remarks from Cross Hall at the White House, January 8, 2020. (Shealah Craighead/White House)

It’s hard enough watching journalists blaming the United States for the Islamic Republic’s perniciousness or exaggerating the importance of “revered leader” Qasem Soleimani while minimizing the actions of the courageous Iranians who oppose the mullahs. Even before a pro-Iranian regime bias infected much of the institutional media, conservatives were reading outlets like the New York Times through a prism of skepticism. In general, though, one could trust that the underlying facts and framing were basically correct. The past four years have made even that impossible.

Take the Soleimani killing, for example.

In the newest iteration of the story from NBC News, we learn that after Iran shot down a U.S. drone this summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump’s then-national security adviser, tried to persuade Donald Trump to kill the Iranian terrorist leader. Trump, instinctively uneasy about escalating Middle East conflict, resisted the pressure. According to “current and former senior administration officials,” NBC News states, the president instead drew a red line: He would authorize the killing of Soleimani only “if Iran’s increased aggression resulted in the death of an American.”

Trump even tweeted, warning the mullahs that further violence would have repercussions.

Well, after subsequent escalations by Iran, and proxies attacked the United States embassy and murdered an American contractor, Trump followed through on his threat to take out Soleimani. Apparently Ali Khamenei did not take Trump literally or seriously.

The big problem with the NBC News account of the killing is that it conflicts almost entirely with the premise and tone of much of the earlier coverage, most notably an adjective-laden New York Times story published the day after Soleimani was killed, which claimed that Trump’s decision was extreme and impulsive:

In the chaotic days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, top American military officials put the option of killing him — which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq — on the menu they presented to President Trump.

The Times asserts that the plan to kill of Soleimani was objectionable, only placed in front of the president to make the other options more palatable. Trump, however, went for it, shocking everyone. (If eliminating a mass murderer and leader of a group designated by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is the radical choice, one wonders what the moderate option looked like. Maybe it entailed sending John Kerry to Paris with a bag of Swiss francs to hand Quds Force commanders?)

The New York Times piece goes on to create the impression that it was all done rashly: “Right after” the embassy attack, the Pentagon “drew up options” for the president. But NBC says Trump already authorized the killing seven months ago, with a well-defined trigger mechanism. And NBC reports that the secretary of state (and former CIA director) and the president’s national security adviser had already tried to persuade him to do it, and it was Trump who had initially curbed Bolton and Pompeo.

Pompeo, by the way, is the man whom CNN informs us had Trump’s ear since 2017 and has been on a “decade-long” crusade to kill Soleimani. “Long known as a ‘Trump whisperer’ for the relationship he’s cultivated with the President, Pompeo’s ability to sell such an aggressive Iran strategy to Trump — a conflict-averse President — is testament to his unparalleled sway,” the piece says.  Actually, Trump had already promised an aggressive Iran strategy during his campaign.

And wait, on Sunday the Washington Post reported that the president “first asked for options to kill Suleimani in 2017, but his national security team didn’t provide them.” Amplifying selective leaks from the State Department, the piece makes the claim that Trump had been gung-ho to off Soleimani, and there was no one left to stop him from acting on his worst instincts.

Even factoring in Trump’s mercurial behavior, it’s rather implausible that all these stories can be factually or narratively correct.

So let me posit this theory: Maybe Trump, after Iranian escalations and mass murder, finally adopted a long-term strategy of containment and deterrence that many in his political party have been arguing in favor of for the past 15 years. Maybe Trump brought up the possibility of killing Soleimani because it is one of many rational options any president should consider in the face of constant Iranian aggression. And maybe, instead of being bullied by his cabinet, Trump finally was given little choice by the Iranians but to pick this option.

After all, if Trump were the impulsive warmonger depicted in a New York Times piece, he not only could have taken out Soleimani in 2017, he could have reacted with deadly force after the Iranian face-saving missile attacks the other day. Maybe Trump stopped mollifying the Iranian regime, and maybe he believes that force reinstituted hard limits on Iran. I’m unsure why the administration needed to claim that Soleimani was planning specific imminent attacks. His existence was an imminent threat.

Now, I realize that theory, one that suggests Trump’s actions include some logical decision-making, doesn’t fit neatly into the media’s hysteria over President McCrazy. But it may well be true in this case. If there were a basic standard of reporting, rather than a tendency to spin everything into a scandal, the public would be far better equipped to decide.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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