President Trump lawfully killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military leader. This is true regardless of whether Soleimani was planning an imminent attack against the United States. Politicians who insist otherwise are misleading the public.
Soleimani was not an imminent threat. He was worse: an active threat. Soleimani had been executing armed attacks against the United States and its allies for years. He was responsible for the deaths of 600 American soldiers in Iraq and countless civilians around the world. He plotted to bomb Café Milano in Washington, DC and assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador “even if doing so would cause mass casualties” of 100–150 American civilians.
The United States may lawfully kill enemy combatants like Soleimani. This is a matter of responsive self-defense: the most fundamental principle in international law.
The right of responsive self-defense applies because Iran and its paramilitary proxies repeatedly commit armed attacks against the United States and its allies. It does not matter whether the United States or Iran issues a declaration of war — and Iran’s constant “Death To America” chants certainly do not suggest a state of peace.
In recent months, for example, Iran attacked commercial ships, shot down U.S. aircraft, and bombed U.S. allies. One of Iran’s paramilitary groups killed a U.S. citizen and even besieged the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The next day, at Baghdad airport, the United States fired a drone-based missile at Soleimani, who was riding in a convoy with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the same paramilitary group that had just attacked Americans. Two birds with one drone.
Yet media and politicians harp on whether Trump knew of a specific and “imminent” attack by Soleimani in the future. That question is a red herring.
Imminence only matters in the context of anticipatory self-defense. Anticipatory self-defense occurs when neither party has yet attacked the other. This standard would apply today if, hypothetically, Trump sinks a Canadian ship docked across the Niagara river: he should show that he dealt with an imminent threat. But this is irrelevant to military operations against parties already attacking the United States.
Likewise, when the United States killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 — a decade after 9/11 — it did not matter whether Bin Laden was planning an imminent attack, or whether the United States was at war with Pakistan. The United States could kill Bin Laden regardless.
Some politicians are misrepresenting the United States’ legal and moral authority to defend itself.
Comparing the killing of Bin Laden to that of Soleimani, CNN’s chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour, said, “Qassem Soleimani was at the height of his power when he was taken out. Unlike Osama Bin Laden, who was a forgotten, you know, nothing burger, sort of hiding in a villa in Pakistan.”
Tragically, the United States waited until after Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorists murdered 3,000 American civilians in the 9/11 attacks before resolving to kill him.
But the United States had the right to kill Bin Laden — and even the opportunity — years before the 2001 terrorist attacks were “imminent.”
In 1993, Al Qaeda terrorists bombed New York’s World Trade Center for the first time. Then, in 1998, they simultaneously bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania — with assistance from Iran.
President Clinton could have stopped 9/11 if only he responded to these lesser attacks by killing Bin Laden. Instead, Clinton passed on the opportunity.
Months after the 1998 embassy bombing, the United States learned Bin Laden was in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and developed a plan to bomb him. But Clinton declined to strike for the sake of nearby Afghan civilians. So, in 2000, Al Qaeda proceeded to bomb the USS Cole, before committing the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Thankfully, on New Year’s Day 2019, Trump finally killed Jamal al-Badawi, the leader of the Cole attack.
Yet some politicians insist the United States must brace for an imminent armed attack before it kills enemy combatants. Or that 535 members of Congress must debate the issue and vote in agreement before the president can act.
These politicians misrepresent the United States’ legal and moral authority to defend itself. Many are just trying to score political points against the president.
To that end, they are “ignoring and injuring national security and other vital national interests to obtain an improper personal political benefit.”