There’s no doubt that Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was a ruthless and violent leader, responsible for the deaths of thousands of people across the Middle East, including Americans. His death in Iraq last week in a U.S. drone attack, however, will have far-reaching and yet-to-be-determined consequences that we fear President Donald Trump doesn’t fully appreciate or anticipate.
That is why it is imperative that Congress fulfill its oversight responsibilities under the War Powers Act. Many presidents, including Barack Obama, have used military force without congressional approval. Recent presidents have also broadly interpreted the Authorization of Military Force, which gave the president wide leeway in using military assets to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A second law, passed in 2002 after the attacks, allowed military action in Iraq.
Given this history, arguments have been made that military action against Iran, which wasn’t directly involved in 9/11 but has long directed military and terrorist attacks in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, is covered by these two acts.
Congress has already rejected this argument. It must do so again.
Last year, lawmakers sought to constrain the president’s ability to go to war with Iran. The measure passed the House, with support from both Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree, and gained 50 votes in the Senate, including those of Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King. But it failed to get enough votes in the Senate to become part of a must-pass defense spending bill. Collins was one of only four Republicans to vote for the measure.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, has reintroduced the measure in the Senate. The House is slated to vote on a similar measure this week, which Pingree said she will support.
All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have stressed the need for Congress to reclaim its authority to authorize military force.
“It is important to reassert the Legislative Branch’s war powers authorities regardless of who occupies the White House,” Collins said in a statement to the BDN. “That’s why I supported an amendment to the Defense bill in June that would have required the President to seek congressional approval before committing American troops to a more sustained action — as envisioned by our Constitution. That amendment would have continued to allow the President to respond to emergencies created by aggression from any hostile nation, including Iran, and to repel an imminent attack by Iran or its proxy forces or any other hostile power.”
Given the current stakes and the remaining unknowns, a revised authorization of military force is not a solution on its own. It is, however, the clearest avenue for needed oversight of the U.S. response to developments in Iran, which so far, are troubling.
Maine’s representatives, especially King and Collins who serve on the House Intelligence Committee, have raised important questions about the situation in Iran.
Golden, for example, wonders how sending more troops to the Middle East squares with the president’s pledge to end “endless” wars.
“I see a lot of strategic downsides to this so far,” King said of the Soleimani killing.
It has empowered the authoritarian ruling regime in Iran. In November, thousands of Iranians took to the streets in dozens of cities to protest high gas prices, signalling unusual discontent with the government. The protests were brutally ended with hundreds of protestors killed by government forces. Just weeks later, after the killing of Soleimani, streets across Iran were packed by citizens mourning his death and vowing revenge. The government is likely to use this swell of support to further quash any attempts at reform.
With Iran’s attention now diverted away from fighting ISIS, the group has a free hand to spread its terror in the Middle East, King added.
On Sunday, Iranian leaders said the country would no longer abide by an international agreement that halted Iran’s nuclear development program, which means it may resume uranium enrichment.
We acknowledge that no one — not members of Congress, not the president, not the Iranians, not the talking heads on TV and social media, not this editorial board — really knows for sure what will happen next between the United States and Iran. But that uncertainty only underscores the need for Congress to reassert its war powers, and the need for Trump to engage with the legislative branch as Commander in Chief rather than Commander in Tweet.
The escalation of conflict between the two countries, especially with a U.S. president who claims he knows more than his generals and is prone to tweet threats to international leaders, is reason for a cautious and deliberative approach. That approach requires more consultation between the White House and Congress.