US politicians divided on Soleimani killing along party lines

Trump has used the Soleimani killing as a cudgel against leading Democrats as well as his Democratic presidential opponents.
Sunday 19/01/2020
Opposing views. US Representatives Pramila Jayapal (C) Ilhan Omar (L) and Mark Pocan, at a news conference on the killing of Qassem Soleimani, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, January 8.   (AP)
Opposing views. US Representatives Pramila Jayapal (C) Ilhan Omar (L) and Mark Pocan, at a news conference on the killing of Qassem Soleimani, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, January 8. (AP)

The killing of Iranian al-Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani and the retaliatory strikes on Iraqi bases housing US service members, injuring at least 11, have become part of the political debate in the United States.

While the fault lines are predictable — those supporting US President Donald Trump hailed the strike on Soleimani while those opposed to him see it as a dangerous provocation, done without congressional approval — polling indicates that most Americans are worried about a war with Iran.

Not surprising, Trump used the killing of Soleimani to show he is tough and resolute when it comes to protecting Americans. He has tried to show that his actions were the “anti-Benghazi” — a reference to the 2012 incident in Libya in which the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed by terrorists, for which the Republicans have long accused the Obama administration, without merit, of failing to go to their aid.

Trump has also used the Soleimani killing as a cudgel against leading Democrats as well as those seeking the party’s nomination to oppose him in the 2020 presidential race. At a political rally January 14 in Wisconsin, Trump charged that the Democrats are “outraged” that he “took out a terrorist.”

Democrats accused Trump of distorting the truth. By and large, Democrats argued that Soleimani was indeed a “bad” person who had American blood on his hands but added that Trump has not thought through the consequences of his actions, which could lead to war with Iran, and that such an action should have been vetted with Congress.

Presidential contender Bernie Sanders, for example, acknowledged that Soleimani was a “bad news guy” but contended that, once the United States starts to claim the right to assassinate officials of a foreign government, “then you’re unleashing international anarchy.”

By practice in recent decades, the president is supposed to consult with the so-called Gang of Eight in Congress on any major intelligence operation. Those members include the Republican and Democratic leaders as well as the chairmen and vice-chairmen of the intelligence committees. Trump did not do so and implied, if he had, Democrats would have leaked the operation to the media

When members of the Trump administration did give a classified briefing to the Gang of Eight — after the operation — as well as to other members of the US Senate, many said they heard nothing concrete about an imminent threat to the US Embassy in Baghdad as Trump and his high-ranking officials had claimed.

The situation was further muddled when Trump gave an interview to Fox News, which is supportive of the US president, in which he claimed that Soleimani was plotting an attack on “four” US embassies.

Members of Congress, regardless of political party, understand that the president must act unilaterally and immediately when there is an imminent threat to the United States and US personnel abroad but, because the briefings they received did not indicate an attack was imminent, many, including some Republicans, charged that the president’s actions were wrong and unconstitutional.

The Democrat-led House of Representatives passed a non-binding war powers resolution on January 9 that would force the president to seek consent from Congress before taking any new military action against Iran.

The vote went along party lines, though three Republicans joined the Democrat-led effort. In the Senate, a bipartisan and binding war powers resolution was introduced by Senators Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, and Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah.

In a January 15 opinion article in the Washington Post, the two senators emphasised that “we should not be at war with Iran unless Congress authorises it” and put their colleagues on notice that, if they are unwilling to have this debate, “how dare we order our troops to courageously serve and risk all?”

It is unclear if the Republican-controlled Senate will pass this resolution because most Republicans in that chamber are in lockstep with Trump. However, the resolutions in both the House and Senate reflect the misgivings of the American people.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll taken after the Soleimani killing and the Iranian retaliatory strikes stated that 56% of American respondents said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the situation with Iran. In addition, 52% of those asked said the Soleimani killing made the United States “less safe.”

To the question about the United States and Iran becoming involved in a full-scale war, 73% of respondents said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about that possibility.

Trump campaigned in 2016 about his desire to get the United States out of endless wars in the Middle East and scored many points against his Republican rivals and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, for wanting to stay involved militarily in the region. Trump instinctively knew that most Americans were tired of spending so much blood and treasure in the Middle East.

However, in his latest move to show he is tough and resolute against Iran, he rekindled the American people’s fears. Although the same poll showed that 43% of those asked said they approve of Trump’s handling of the Iran situation, that is not enough to carry him to victory in November.

Of course, if there are no further strikes between the United States and Iran, his approval percentage might rise but the volatility of the situation makes that a very risky proposition.