The following opinion piece appears in edited form in The Tennessean and was reprinted in USA TODAY, Yahoo! News, The Coloradoan, The Star Press, and heraldmailmedia.com. The original version is posted here for full context and access to the embedded links to online sources. It was written on 8 May 2019.
The escalating confrontation with Iran provides President Trump and hawkish members of his administration a convenient one-two punch: an international crisis in the Persian Gulf that distracts from a constitutional crisis inside the Beltway, and a means of bypassing the Senate’s meager attempts to rein in the Trump administration’s assertion of executive war powers.
First, to the dueling crises. Congress and the president appear to be locked in a slow-motion showdown over Democratic legislators’ demands for documents. Together with the findings of the Mueller report, the subpoena showdown is turning up the heat on President Trump. In moments like these, an international crisis can do much to divert the attention of the media and the public.
Enter the international crisis with Iran. Iran is a legitimate threat to U.S. interests; there is no doubt of that. But Iran’s war-making capabilities pose no immediate threat to the American homeland. Regional in its reach, Iran has worked to frustrate U.S. ambitions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and it has supported dangerous militia groups like Hezbollah.
Now that “credible” (if mysterious) intelligence of Iranian plans to attack U.S. forces has come to light, the Trump administration has responded with a demonstration of military muscle. The carrier strike group and bomber task force sent to the Gulf region “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests… will be met with unrelenting force,” according to national security advisor John Bolton.
Bolton added that the U.S. is “fully prepared to respond to any attack” but “is not seeking war with the Iranian regime.” Skeptics may be forgiven for thinking that the opposite is true and that the U.S. has been spoiling for a fight with Iran for months.
For their part, Congressional opponents of expansive executive war powers have suspected as much since September 2018, when they introduced a bill seeking to block federal funding of war against Iran without Congress’ express approval.
At that time, the bill was in direct response to some tough talk from White House officials about Iran’s connection to Shia militia bombings in Baghdad and Basra. Since then, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have taken steps that appear to pave the way to armed conflict with Iran. These steps include: Bolton’s widely reported September 2018 request to the Pentagon for military strike options against Iran; the State Department’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization; Pompeo’s assertion (against expert assessments) that Iran is connected to al Qaeda; and the related suggestion that a presidential decision for military action against Iran may be covered under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), the nearly 18-year-old blank check issued by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Eager to regain some semblance of control over foreign wars, Senators last month reintroduced the stalled “Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act,” and the House is in tow. Congress’ intended purpose is clear: to “limit the use of funds for kinetic military operations in or against Iran.”
But the revivified bill has little bite. Its prohibitions are rendered toothless by three exceptions: an imminent threat to the U.S., a need to rescue endangered U.S. personnel, or “a sudden attack on the U.S., its territories or possessions, or its Armed Forces.”
With the Wall Street Journal reporting that “new U.S. intelligence showed that Iran drew up plans to target U.S. forces in Iraq and possibly Syria, … [and] may be seeking to target U.S. forces in Kuwait,” it’s no wonder that the administration would be proactive in deploying additional forces to the Gulf as a deterrent.
But it’s also significant that the new intelligence pinpoints “U.S. forces” in the Gulf region as the intended targets of Iran or its proxies. Should the White House use military force against Iran, the Journal’s description of the intelligence inoculates the Trump administration against public criticism. After all, what self-respecting American would speak out against protecting U.S. troops abroad?
Even more important, the new intelligence cited by the administration conveniently sidesteps the Senate’s attempt to corral the commander-in-chief. The language is unmistakable, and fits cleanly within the exceptions noted in the Senate bill. If the White House wants war with Iran – to protect our troops, to divert attention, or both – Congress poses little more than a speed bump, and administration officials have made the moves necessary to roll right over it.
The views expressed are those of the author and the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other individuals at Middle Tennessee State University. All rights reserved.