Both men were deadly enemies of the United States and likely targets. Both were responsible for attacks on Americans throughout the world. Both were killed in foreign lands without the approval of the local authorities — bin Laden in Pakistan and Soleimani in Iraq.
But here the similarities end.
Killing bin Laden made a powerful symbolic statement about America’s resolve, and was a damaging blow to Al Qaeda, a small stateless terrorist group with which the United States was formally at war — duly authorized by Congress. It was an act carefully deliberated over many months that would not conceivably trigger a broader conflict. In contrast, killing Soleimani was a direct attack on a hostile nation-state, but one with which we are not yet at war. It was initiated by what appears to have been a presidential impulse, without consultation with Congress or allies. It was certain to prompt immediate retaliation and, quite possibly, war. It was precisely the kind of act feared by those who have opposed the concentration of war-making powers on the president alone.
“There is a large legal difference between the president using force in self-defense in an ongoing authorized conflict and the president initiating a conflict, not authorized by Congress, for largely non-self-defensive reasons,” Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith wrote in Lawfare.
In the years after 9/11, bin Laden was on the run. He moved from one hiding place to the next, as one by one the top members of his organization were arrested or killed, and as Al Qaeda itself, in its original state, was violently dismantled. The group’s “Sheik,” as bin Laden was known, ended up living on the upper level of a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, stepping outside only to take walks in the garden enclosed by the property’s surrounding walls. He had become an isolated figure, largely cut off from even his own followers.
Finding him was a years-long intelligence effort that ultimately pinpointed a suspicious man living inside that walled compound. In the end, Obama estimated only even odds of it being bin Laden. That uncertainty was one of the reasons he ordered Navy SEALS to raid the compound instead of targeting the man with a drone. Obama told me that he chose the raid because it allowed for positive identification, and for the albeit remote possibility of capturing bin Laden instead of killing him. The risk primarily concerned members of the SEAL team, who, if they were discovered by Pakistani defenses, might have had to fight their way out of the country, whether or not their target turned out to actually be the Al Qaeda leader. It could have turned into a difficult and embarrassing national moment.
As bad as that might have been, it pales by comparison with the potential consequences of Trump’s act.
There was never any doubt about the identity and location of Soleimani. He made little effort to hide himself, presumably because he understood that killing him would gain America little in the short term, and in the long term would undermine its own goals. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama chose not to pull the trigger, despite ample opportunity, for precisely that reason. No matter how tempting, Soleimani had become a figure revered by the Iranian faithful, second only to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Killing him would inflame the very anti-Americanism that established and undergirds the theocracy. It would be a gift to the mullahs.
The approach of every recent American administration, including Trump’s, has been to undercut the country’s religious rule by encouraging change and reform from within. Trump considered his predecessor’s efforts in this regard as too patient and accommodating. He has, accordingly, put more starch into it, pulling out of Obama’s 2015 nuclear accord, ramping up sanctions, repositioning troops, and unloosing a train of tough-guy tweets. But the hope remained the same, to force change from within. In recent months, widespread anti-government protests in Iran, triggered largely by sanction-induced economic hardship, have been cited as a sign that his tactics were working.
That hope would now appear dashed. Millions have taken to the streets in Iran to express their outrage. Even if it does not lead to a wider war, Trump’s assassination by drone — affording him a feel-good moment that plays well with his supporters — has likely done more to shore up popular support for the mullah regime than anything since President Carter’s failed hostage rescue mission in 1980.
When I spoke to Obama in 2012, he expressed misgivings about the ease with which he or any future president could remotely assassinate people anywhere in the world. He said, “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that we somehow can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems.”
Such is Trump’s wishful thinking. Obama never did succeed in developing a more robust procedure to regulate drone strikes. With this fateful decision, we can now see exactly why we need it.
Mark Bowden is the author of “The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden” and “Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam.” He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.