2020, Foreign Affairs

There’s a Soleimani Trap Waiting for Democrats at the Iowa Debate

January 14, 2020
Not pictured: Admiral Akbar. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Some of the Democratic reactions to the killing of Qasem Soleimani is playing into the hands of Donald Trump and could produce a backlash among the very voters Democrats will need in November. Especially at Tuesday’s Democratic debate, the candidates should be careful

In the days since the attack, some Democrats have questioned whether or not Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the United States. This is not a ridiculous question and President Trump has provoked questions with his shifting explanations of why America targeted Soleimani when they did (including the president’s claim that four U.S. embassies were targeted in an active Soleimani plot).

In a perfect world, we would have a commander-in-chief trustworthy enough to allow the public to ask reasonable questions about decision-making processes and the rules of engagement. But we do not live in a perfect world—we live in a world where an impulsive demagogue is standing for reelection in 10 months.

Democrats ought to deal with this world as it is, not as they wished it were.

The fact is: the United States—indeed the world—is better off with Soleimani dead and a good case can be made that in the current situation, the decision to launch the attack that killed him might have also been made by Barack Obama.

President Obama was not loathe to target individual terrorist leaders, even absent an imminent threat. And Obama targeted not only foreign-born terrorists, but even killed a U.S. citizen, Anwar al Awlaki, in 2011 and, in a separate drone attack a few weeks later, Awlaki’s 16-year old son. Awlaki was born in New Mexico and practiced as an imam in the U.S., including at a Virginia mosque attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers, before moving to Yemen to help lead al- Qaeda.

While there was media criticism of the Awlaki killing it was muted compared to the round-the-clock coverage following the Soleimani strike, and focused more on Awlaki’s American citizenship than on whether his killing was justified by evidence of an imminent attack. The same could be said of Obama’s decision to launch the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

The analogies here are not perfect: Neither Awlaki nor bin Laden were state actors and thus the killings were less complicated as matters of geopolitics. But the Trump administration had already declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds force terrorist organizations, marking Soleimani as a legitimate target.

The Soleimani mission itself was brilliantly executed. He was traveling with another high value target, Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, at night on an empty road from the airport, guaranteeing there would be little or no collateral damage in the attack. Soleimani and al-Muhandis, who are drenched in the blood of Americans and our allies, behaved as if they were untouchable by U.S. forces stationed at the Victory Base Complex that surrounds the Baghdad airport. It was a gross miscalculation on their part, and had we not taken advantage of the opportunity, who’s to say that being able to operate with such impunity in the shadow of an American base wouldn’t have further emboldened Iran?

Donald Trump has done very little to earn the benefit of the doubt from the American public. He can’t control his impulse to take credit for others’ heroic actions when things go right, or cast blame elsewhere when things goes awry. He refuses to give credit to his predecessors by admitting when his own policies are simply a continuation of previous American policy. And most significantly, he lies, constantly, even when the truth is sufficient.

By claiming that four U.S. embassies were in Soleimani’s crosshairs before he was killed, Trump has created yet another cycle of reporting on his administration’s misstatements. But by making process-criticisms about the Soleimani killing, Democrats are giving the public an excuse to believe that, if given control of the White House, their party will lack the will to take decisive action against America’s enemies.

President Obama understood—as did President Bush—that there are times when the commander-in-chief has to act based on real-time intelligence. Democrats who refuse to acknowledge this obvious truth make it more difficult for some voters to be confident that they can keep America safe.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is a former Reagan White House official and director of the Becoming American Initiative.