The Imperial Presidency Helped Bring Us to the Brink of War in Iran

Trump is trying to drag us into war with Iran. We have to stop him — and the imperial presidency that so many Democrats continue to help expand.

US president Donald Trump speaks at the signing ceremony for S.1709, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 on December 20, 2019 in Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Tasos Katopodis / Getty

Yesterday’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, an illegal and reckless escalation of the US-Iran tensions Trump has deliberately stoked throughout his term, is a bit like Trump’s victory in 2016: nothing that came before should make us the least bit surprised it happened, yet the outcome is so alarming that you can’t help but feel shaken.

As experts have already pointed out, Soleimani’s killing has the potential to spark something very dangerous. Soleimani was one of the country’s most powerful military figures, the head of its elite Quds Force who essentially ran Iranian military and foreign policy in the region. A war hero labeled “a living martyr of the revolution” by Iran’s Supreme Leader, he was a hugely popular figure who was the subject of rhapsodizing state propaganda, and who had future political leadership possibly in his sights.

So there’s a high likelihood his death will prompt reprisals against, for example, the numerous US bases, embassies, and troops surrounding Iran, with many of the latter deployed in the middle of Trump’s attempts to incite a conflict with Iran in earnest last year. And those reprisals will prompt their own reprisal from Trump, and perhaps even serve as a pretext for the war the president’s been fumbling toward. The administration seems to have been trying all of last year to goad Iran into doing something, anything, that would justify a US attack on the country; this is their best chance yet. It’s not for nothing one expert called the idea of his assassination “a real act of war” in 2018.

A war with Iran would, of course, be another largely US-engineered calamity for the Middle East to add to the ever-growing list. The lesson should’ve been learned in the 2000s with Iraq. Far from a quick, easy war of no longer than five months — as George Bush’s defense secretary had predicted — Iraq swiftly became the “long, long, long battle” he denied it would ever be.

Not only did the military fail to stabilize the country in the power vacuum that followed, it faced a prolonged insurgency, unleashed a torrent of violent sectarianism and eventually civil war, helped produce the rise of an even more vicious terrorist organization in the form of ISIS, and, in the darkest of ironies, opened the door for Iranian meddling in the country — specifically, that of Soleimani himself. The conditions created by a foolish war against Iran would no doubt create the same kind of pretext for war against another state years later.

The US elite naturally learned nothing from this, launching another short-sighted war to depose Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with similarly dire, destabilizing consequences, which continue roiling today. The results were no prettier in Afghanistan, where the United States deposed the Taliban government, only to replace it with its own corruption-infused creation and remain trapped in the country for going on two decades fighting a seemingly never-ending battle. All three of these wars were also toxic for US global standing, fueling the anger that underwrites anti-American violence.

A war with Iran would be no different, nor would it produce the kind of quick and temporary public relations victory that regime change offered Obama and Bush in their wars. As a number of experts have outlined, Iran is a physically and populously massive country whose imposing physical geography makes it, in the words of intelligence firm Stratfor, a “fortress” that “is extremely difficult to conquer.” At the same time, it can strike back at the United States through regional proxies or cyberattacks all over the world. And the past two decades have, if nothing else, been a horrific reminder of the profound limits of US military power.

Unfortunately, reality has very little to do with Washington foreign policy, including under this president. It may well take a show of massive popular opposition to sway Trump away from pulling the trigger this year. After all, he won in 2016 by presenting himself, however dishonestly, as an antiwar candidate. Does he really want to go into the 2020 election facing down large protests against a protracted, unpopular war he started?

Kill the Kill List

But Soleimani’s assassination yesterday is significant for not just the worrying situation it’s thrown the world into, but what it says about the US ruling class.

The immediate cause of all this is, of course, the volatile, scandal-ridden, and deeply insecure man voted into the White House in 2016. But democratic institutions and, indeed, the US Constitution specifically, exist to serve as a check on unfit and even tyrannical leaders. Many prominent liberals, from Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, to former Obama foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes, to former Obama National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, are now rightly asking what the legal basis for Trump even launching such a strike was, given the Constitution explicitly gives war-making power to Congress.

The answer is the same flimsy legal basis that those figures now loudly announcing their shock and horror backed when it was their guy in the White House.

Barack Obama was elected in 2008 promising a break from the Bush foreign policy, after a wave midterm election that saw Republicans lose control of both houses of Congress in a fit of revulsion against Bush. But rather than follow through on his popular mandate once in office, Obama instead expanded the project of imperial presidency Bush had radically pursued. Perhaps chief among these was his broadening of the drone assassination program, extending it into a number of additional countries (with no congressional authorization, naturally), and institutionalizing it in the form of weekly White House meetings where the president and his advisers casually perused a “kill list” of suspected terrorists and picked which one should die by airborne robot.

At the time, commentators on both the left and the right pointed out that even if you trusted Obama himself to oversee this assassination program in a responsible, humane way (a contradiction in both theory and practice), in a democratic system where leaders and administrators regularly, sometimes dramatically, change, these extraordinary powers could fall into the hands of someone very different — a Richard Nixon–like, paranoid warmonger, for instance.

They were ignored. In fact, the likes of Rhodes and Vietor vehemently defended the drone program. Even Murphy celebrated the non-drone assassination of Osama bin Laden, because “Americans can sleep easier knowing that a man of true evil no longer walks this earth.” To their shame, even a large majority of ordinary liberals decided they were fans of drones when Obama was at the helm.

And then, like eight years’ worth of unheard civil libertarian warnings taking physical form, Donald Trump became president. With this latest frightening escalation, we’re not just grappling with a racist buffoon who rode a campaign of lies into the most powerful office in the world. We’re dealing with a scarily authoritarian system created and left in place by a complacent, visionless liberal establishment, one that has continued to blithely hand the man they regularly call a dictator-in-waiting greater surveillance powers and obscene military budgets.

We’ll soon find out if Soleimani’s assassination is just bad or completely catastrophic. But given the unaccountable, opaque, and destructive nature of the drone program created in large part under Obama, an incident like this was only a matter of time. If the drone program’s breathtaking human cost isn’t enough, then this should be a wake-up call to every Democrat and liberal who dismissed progressive critics of Obama’s foreign policy or considered the subject a distraction for eight years. The national security state must be reined in.