On Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper made a breathtaking disclosure during an interview on CBS’ “Face The Nation.” Esper revealed that he hadn’t seen the underlying intelligence that supposedly justified last weekend’s drone strike on Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.
The significance of this? Donald Trump has claimed that the strike stopped an “imminent” attack on at least four American embassies. But if what Esper told host Margaret Brennan is to be believed, he never saw the evidence which supposedly justified such an extreme action. Lest you believe this is snark, watch here.
Esper told Brennan that he “didn’t see” specific evidence of a threat against the embassies. However, he said, he shared “the president’s view” that the Quds Force, the crack unit of the Revolutionary Guard commanded by Soleimani, was going to attack the embassies.
So let’s get this straight, Mark. At best, you have told the American people that you are incompetent. At worst, you may have tacitly admitted that the intelligence justifying such an extreme action may not even exist. After all, since most of the intelligence community ultimately reports to you, and you were responsible for issuing the orders to carry out the strike, it strains credulity to believe you didn’t see the intelligence. And if there was intelligence and you weren’t briefed on it and didn’t demand to be briefed on it, Mark, you did not do your job.
It’s staggering in and of itself to suggest that the best-case scenario in this situation is that Esper is incompetent. But if an expert in international law is to be believed, it may not matter. He argues that even if Solemani was planning an imminent attack on American interests, the drone strike may have still been unlawful.
Gabor Rona is a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, the former international legal director of Human Rights First, and a former legal adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross. On Saturday, he wrote a column for NBC News’ op-ed vertical, Think, about the legal ramifications of Iran’s shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger jet. Iran maintains that the shootdown was a tragic accident. Both the United States and Canada, which lost a number of their nationals in the shootdown, appear to accept this explanation.
Rona doesn’t think it’s that simple. He argues that even if it the shootdown was an accident, it would still breach international law if Iran failed to take “sufficient precautions to make sure the target was a military object.” However, Rona believes the United States isn’t innocent in this affair either, as suggested in a question posed in the lede:
Would the 176 souls who perished on that plane still be alive had the United States not sought to kill Gen. Qassem Soleimani?
At the outset, the White House claimed it was acting in self-defense against an imminent threat from Soleimani. However, Rona notes that a nation can only use force to defend itself against an imminent threat if the threat is “so direct as to provide no option but the use of force.” He believes that the Soleimani strike wouldn’t meet that standard even if there was an imminent threat, since “he has been replaced and his forces can still act.”
So if you accept Rona’s argument, even if there was rock-solid evidence of a planned Quds Force attack on embassies, we would not have the right to target Soleimani in the manner that we did. Seen in this light, it makes Esper’s claim that he didn’t know of any such intelligence even more breathtaking. After all, Esper was quick to knock down any talk of targeting Iranian cultural sites, saying it ran counter to “the rules of armed conflict.”
Well, Mark, if you’re so conscious of the rules of armed conflict, what’s your response to Rona’s concerns? After all, you can’t dismiss the possibility that the Soleimani strike may not have been legal.
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