It’s 2021, and the newly elected president wants to rebuild America’s role in the world as a champion of liberal democracy. Do foreign allies get on board? Do they accept that the Trump presidency was an aberration, or do they figure that a country that would elect him and then tolerate his behavior can never be trusted as a world leader again?
Part of the answer to that question depends on how, and if, Congress and the public respond to the shifting explanations from the White House for the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. It appears that the president is openly lying to the world about the reasons behind a US military action. Last week, he said that Soleimani was plotting attacks against four US embassies, but his own Secretary of Defense says he saw no evidence to support that assertion.
Dishonesty is the norm for Trump, and foreign leaders at this point surely know that. Americans are inured to his mistruths, too, from his falsehoods about the size of crowds to his charitable donations. But we can’t simply shrug off the president’s dishonesty when national security is at stake. A country that doesn’t insist that its military force be used in a defensible way, and looks the other way when its leader fabricates reasons to kill people, risks losing its moral standing and its ability to recruit allies to its cause when it needs them.
There is no doubt that Soleimani was a bad guy; that’s not in question. But for the US military to kill a military officer of a country with which it’s not at war is virtually unprecedented. The administration ought to have had an awfully good reason that it could show to the world, backed up with evidence. Instead, its explanation has shifted repeatedly. At first, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the action was a response to “imminent threats to American lives.” Pressed for details, he later said, “It’s never one thing. . . . It’s a collective. It’s a full situational awareness of risk and analysis.” The president said Soleimani was planning to blow up a US embassy, then that he was planning to blow up four embassies.
Members of Congress who attended intelligence briefings, though, said they heard no specific evidence that embassies had been targeted, and State Department officials said they weren’t warned of any imminent threats to embassies, which would have been a startling oversight if there had been. Then Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, gently walked back the president’s assertions on Sunday. “Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” he said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities. Now, whether they were bases, embassies — you know, it’s always hard until the attack happens.” Also on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he had not seen evidence of embassy attacks.
According to The Washington Post’s count, Trump has made false or misleading statements more than 15,000 times during his presidency. But the real problem for our country’s reputation over time isn’t the president’s dishonesty; it’s Congress and the country’s willingness to tolerate it, which reveals more about the robustness of our values and our political system than one man in the Oval Office.
With a few notable exceptions, like Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Republicans have maintained their wall of silence as the administration keeps changing its story. That’s inexcusable. At minimum, senior officials should be called to testify about the attack. Better yet, Congress should enforce the terms of the 1973 War Powers Act and insist on holding votes to authorize future use of military force by the president — not just in Iran but in any part of the world, regardless of the imminence of an attack. Bringing decisions about when we use our military into the public sphere, and making our elected representatives go on the record when they sanction attacks, will at least mean that the president’s rationales for war get more scrutiny in advance. American power, and the possibility of renewing it after the Trump presidency, will require the trust of our allies. The world is now watching to see whether this country cares why it strikes or wages war.