The Case for Killing Qassim Suleimani 1

Last week, our military and intelligence services brought justice to Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s terror mastermind. President Trump ordered General Suleimani’s killing after months of attacks on Americans by Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq. These attacks culminated in a rocket strike that killed an American and wounded others, then the attempted storming of our embassy in Baghdad. The first attack crossed the red line drawn by the president last summer — that if Iran harmed an American, it would face severe consequences. The president meant what he said, as Mr. Suleimani learned the hard way.

Mr. Suleimani’s killing was justified, legal and strategically sound. But the president’s critics swarmed as usual. After the embassy attack, a Democratic senator declared that the president had “rendered America impotent.” Some Democrats then pivoted after the Suleimani strike, calling him “reckless” and “dangerous.” Those are the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who also described Mr. Suleimani — the leader of a State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization plotting to kill American troops — as a “senior foreign military official.” Senator Bernie Sanders likened America’s killing of a terrorist on the battlefield to Vladimir Putin’s assassination of Russian political dissidents.

Some Democrats seem to feel a strange regret for the killing of a monster who specialized in killing Americans. The linguist his proxies killed on Dec. 27, Nawres Hamid, was merely his last victim out of more than 600 in Iraq since 2003. His forces have instigated attacks against our troops in Afghanistan. He plotted a (foiled) bombing in Washington, D.C., and attempted attacks on the soil of our European allies. He armed the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon with rockets to pummel the Jewish state of Israel. And he was greeted moments before his death by a terrorist responsible for the bombing of our embassy in Kuwait in 1983.

Some of the president’s critics will concede that Mr. Suleimani was an evil man, but many complain his killing was unlawful. Wrong again. He was a United States-designated terrorist commander. As I have been briefed, he was plotting further attacks against Americans at the time of his death. The authority granted to the president under Article II of the Constitution provides ample legal basis for this strike. Furthermore, those who accept the constitutionality of the War Powers Act should recall that Congress’s 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force very much remain in effect and clearly cover the Suleimani operation. This will be a relief to the Obama administration, which ordered hundreds of drone strikes using such a legal rationale.

American forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, and they have every right and authority to defend themselves. This legal act of self-defense was not only proportionate — it was targeted and brilliantly executed, causing essentially no collateral damage.

So the killing was justified and legally sound. It was also strategically sensible. If Iran’s anemic response on Tuesday is any indication, the Suleimani strike has already restored deterrence — and our troops in the region are safer for it. To put it simply, the ayatollahs are once again afraid of the United States because of this bold action, which is forcing them to recalculate their odds. In 2019 alone, Iran’s violent provocations included mining ships in the Strait of Hormuz, downing an American drone and threatening the global economy by striking Saudi oil facilities. President Trump chose restraint at the time but promised ferocious retaliation in the event of American casualties. The mullahs must have thought that he was bluffing. Now they’re compelled to face the reality of America’s vast overmatch of their forces.

The weeks and months ahead will tell whether the Islamic Republic is successfully deterred — but it has been deterred in the past, for example, when Ronald Reagan sank much of the Iranian Navy in 1988. (It has never successfully been appeased, and President Barack Obama’s attempts to buy off Iran with his nuclear deal only fueled the regime’s imperialism and regional campaign of terror.) Iran is not 10-feet tall. In fact, it’s a weak, third-rate power.

Because of this administration’s maximum-pressure campaign, the regime manages an economy trapped in a deepening depression. To remain in power, it must mass murder its own people, which it did as recently as November. If maximum pressure is maintained, the ayatollahs will eventually face a choice between fundamentally changing their behavior or suffering economic and social collapse. They may also choose to lash out in a desperate bid to escape this logic, perhaps by making a break for a nuclear bomb. Such impulses must be deterred or, if recklessly pursued, halted with swift and firm action, as the president promised on Wednesday.

This tough-minded approach is not a distraction from America’s competition with more serious adversaries like China and Russia, who watch our actions closely in the Gulf for signs of commitment and resolve. Our long-term challenge with China, in particular, directly involves the Middle East’s energy resources, to which access remains critical for our allies in the Indo-Pacific, and indeed for China itself — regardless of important strides in America’s domestic energy production.

The future of our Iran policy is a critical part of our success in the global competition that will determine the character of this century and the safety of the American republic within it. And recent events have shown we are up to the task.

Tom Cotton (@sentomcotton) is a Republican senator from Arkansas.

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