While Democrats criticised US President Donald Trump for keeping Congress in the dark and taking a unilateral decision with far-reaching consequences, Republicans are backing the assassination with celebratory zest.
The news of Iran's renowned general Qasem Soleimani’s death quickly sparked controversy after it was announced by the US Defense Department on Thursday late night, justifying his killing partly because he “orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months.”
But reactions within the US were divided and caused an uproar along party lines as Republicans praised Trump, while Democrats cited the illegality of the strike given that Trump failed to notify Congress of the strike which could be construed as an act of war against Iran.
The strike itself marks a dramatic escalation by the Trump administration, who had stated for months his desire to withdraw from the Middle East.
After declaring that the US was “locked and loaded” for attack in September 2019, Trump uncharacteristically declined to respond militarily to destructive strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure that was pinned on Iran. He also stepped back moments before a planned strike in retaliation for a US drone being shot down.
This seems to have changed in recent days, according to the administration’s ramped up rhetoric. Earlier Thursday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned that the United States might take preemptive action if it received warning that Iran or its proxy forces were planning further strikes on U.S. interests in the Middle East.
“We’re prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region,” Esper said. He also warned that Washington had “indications” of additional Iranian provocations, effectively confirming that the escalation was only the beginning of a drawn-out US-Middle East inflamed crisis.
Soleimani's killing came days after Iranian-backed militias attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad amid violent protests, itself a reaction to a US airstrike on Sunday that killed 25 Iran-linked Hezbollah fighters in Iraq.
The US claimed that the airstrike on Hezbollah was in retaliation for the recent killing of a US military contractor at an Iraqi military base.
America in uproar
Ahead of 2020 Presidential elections, this could prove to be a pivotal foreign policy issue, with many construing the killing of Soleimani as risking unpredictable escalation with Iran.
Trump continues to endure scathing criticism at home, with US critics including analysts, Senators and Representatives worrying the strike could lead to an entirely new regional war in the region.
“A president who vowed to keep the United States out of another Middle Eastern war has in effect just issued a declaration of war,” says Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group.
He continues on Twitter, “A strike that the administration claims was intended to deter Iranian attacks is almost certain to trigger far more of them. Qaaem Soleimani’s death is undoubtedly a very serious blow to Iran. But it also is a very serious blow to any hope for regional de-escalation.”
“Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question,” says Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Twitter. “The question is this – as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”
Iraqi TV also reports that the Soleimani strikes killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed Iraqi militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
President Trump meanwhile, did not make any statement but posted a pixelated image of the American flag on Twitter without any text.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a statement Thursday night from the presidential campaign trail that no American would mourn General Soleimani. But Mr. Biden questioned the wisdom of the strike, which he called “hugely escalatory.”
“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox, and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy and plan to keep safe our troops and embassy personnel, our people and our interests, both here at home and abroad, and our partners throughout the region and beyond,” Biden said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly criticized the military strike, asking Trump administration to immediately brief the Congress on "this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the Administration.”
“We cannot put the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions. Tonight’s airstrike risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence,” she continued.
Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East expert at Rand Corp, clarified that the killing won’t make much of a difference, even if it sent a strong message.
“It won’t lead to the collapse of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Iran’s network of non-state allies,” says Tabatabai.
The White House traditionally notifies senior members of both parties in the Senate and House of Representatives ahead of major military action.
The War Powers Resolution requires the US president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer confirmed that he was “not given advanced notice” of the strike, says a senior Democratic aide speaking to AFP.
But this is only part of a larger issue, as several Democrats have warned of Congress’s constitutional role being eroded in making decisions about war have over the first three years of Trump’s administration.
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders denounced President Donald Trump late Thursday night for giving the order to Soleimani, also calling the move a "dangerous escalation" bringing the United States "closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren also tweeted that although Soleimani was responsible for the loss of American lives, "this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict. Our priority must be to avoid another costly war."
While Sen. Cory Booker admitted that Soleimani "is a person with American blood on his hands,” he emphasized that "this has been a deteriorating situation: A president that does not have a clear-eyed larger strategy to not only bring stabilization to the area but make Americans more safe."
Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican who defected to the Democrats over objections to Trump, tweeted emphasizing that the power to declare war remains only with Congress.
In a scathing statement, Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy said: "Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question. The question is this...did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?"
On the other side of the aisle, neoconservative Republicans were quick to support Trump without making mention of the possible declaration of war Trump had sent.
“For 23 years, he has been the equivalent of the J.S.O.C. commander, the C.I.A. director and Iran’s real foreign minister,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief government of the hawkish Basis for Protection of Democracies in an interview with the New York Times.
“He is irreplaceable and indispensable” to Iran’s military establishment.
But for the same reasons, Democrats and analysts warn that Iran is likely to respond with disproportionate intensity.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator steamed ahead in his usual support of Trump, tweeting, "Wow - the price of killing and injuring Americans has just gone up drastically. Major blow to Iranian regime that has American blood on its hands. Soleimani was one of the most ruthless and vicious members of the Ayatollah's regime. He had American blood on his hands. I appreciate President Trump's bold action against Iranian aggression. To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more."
Representative Lee M. Zeldin, New York Republican and Army veteran tweeted that the killing was more than justified.
“The days of rolling US senior leaders at the negotiating table & killing US soldiers on the battlefield w/impunity are over,” Zeldin wrote, adding that the strike was “very necessary justice served.”
For some Republicans, the issue was a no-brainer. Sen. Ben Sasse said, “This is very simple: General Soleimani is dead because he was an evil bastard who murdered Americans.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz called the death of Soleimani “welcome and long-overdue justice for the thousands of Americans killed or wounded by his Iranian-controlled forces across the Middle East.”
Few if any Republicans addressed the regional implications of Soleimani’s killing.
Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: “America does not and should not seek war, but it will respond in kind to those who threaten our citizens, soldiers and friends — as the President has long promised. De-escalation is preferable and possible — but only if our adversaries choose it.”
Barack Obama’s former National Security Council Director for Iraq, and current Democrat House Representative emphasized that the strike would most likely cause a “very serious backlash” from Iraqi leaders.
“This is something that is going to make it very difficult for our diplomatic presence there, our military presence there,” Mr. Kim said in an interview.
For the time being, Trump has made no further statement.
Richard Haass, president of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted that a war with Iran will be unlike anything seen before.
"The region (and possibly the world) will be the battlefield," he adds.