The drums of war: would the US really go to war over an unmanned surveillance drone?


Oh here we go. This morning we learned that Iran shot down a US surveillance drone, heightening tensions:

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone Thursday in the Strait of Hormuz, marking the first time the Islamic Republic directly attacked the American military amid tensions over Tehran’s unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.

The two countries disputed the circumstances leading up to an Iranian surface-to-air missile bringing down the U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737 jetliner and costing over $100 million.

Iran said the drone “violated” its territorial airspace, while the U.S. called the missile fire “an unprovoked attack” in international airspace over the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf and President Donald Trump tweeted that “Iran made a very big mistake!”

Trump later appeared to play down the incident, telling reporters in the Oval Office that he had a feeling that “a general or somebody” being “loose and stupid” made a mistake in shooting down the drone.

POLITICO reports, Trump fudges his red line as Iran takes out a U.S. drone:

[R]ather than further inflame tensions between the two countries, the president on Thursday appeared to give Iran a pass when it came to the regime’s latest provocation: the downing of a U.S. drone over international waters, according to the Pentagon. Rather than pointing his finger at the regime, Trump instead fingered a rogue actor inside Iran for the aggression.

“I imagine someone made a mistake,” he told reporters, speaking from the Oval Office. “We didn’t have a man or woman in the drone. It would have made a big, big difference.”

Even as the president’s friends and advisers in the administration and on Capitol Hill ratcheted up the rhetoric — Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) were both pushing Trump toward a military response, with Graham arguing on Twitter that “The only thing Iran and every other thuggish regime understands is Strength and Pain” — Trump has thus far remained immune to their pleas.

While President Trump has uncharacteristically expressed restraint, the Neocon war mongers in Congress have come unhinged. Sen. Lindsey “Stonewall” Graham (R-SC) was literally foaming at the mouth this morning, spittle flying, threatening that Iran needs to prepare for “severe pain” after it shot down a United States surveillance drone on Wednesday night. Lindsey Graham Says Iran Needs to Prepare for ‘Severe Pain’ After Drone Attack:

Here’s what Iran needs to get ready for: severe pain, inside their country,” said the Republican senator. “Their capabilities pale in comparison to ours. We’re not going to let them disrupt navigation of the seas, attack our allies and U.S. interests without paying a price. If they’re itching for a fight, they’re going to get one.”

Graham is not the only Republican senator ramping up his escalation toward Iran. Speaking with POLITICO this week, Senator “Tehran Tom” Cotton (R-AR) said there is little risk in launching a “retaliatory strike” against the regime.

“Whatever Iran thinks they can do to the United States or our security partners in the region we can do tenfold to them. One hundredfold to them,” Cotton told the publication.

If you could promise me that our “first strike” on Iran would be to drop these two raving lunatics out of a plane at 30,000 feet without a parachute — watch that first step! — I could back that move. But that’s never going to happen.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are sending President Donald Trump a different message: If you want to take any military action, you have to get congressional permission first. Vox reports, House Democrats vote to repeal 9/11-era law used to authorize perpetual war:

The House voted Wednesday to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was passed in the days after 9/11, and gave President George W. Bush the authority to go to war with al-Qaeda and any related organization. For the past 18 years, presidents of both parties have used this same 2001 congressional war authorization as justification for wars all over the Middle East.

The vote is particularly significant now, as Trump administration officials briefed Congress Wednesday on what they said are connections between Iran and al-Qaeda. Trump’s administration has been escalating tensions with Iran, leading to mounting concern on Capitol Hill that the administration is itching for war.

This is the first time the House has successfully passed a repeal of the 2001 AUMF since it was enacted. The provision was attached to a government funding bill for the Departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. It was an amendment brought forward by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who notably was the only House lawmaker to vote against the war authorization in 2001 — a decision some have hailed as prescient.

This bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate, where Republicans led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hold the power. No House Republicans voted for the funding bill. That said, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has fought against Trump on war powers already once this year — over the war in Yemen.

UPDATE: Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) told President Trump in a situation room meeting Thursday he needs to get congressional authorization before taking military action against Iran. Schumer: Trump must get congressional approval before any military action against Iran:

“I told the president that these conflicts have a way of escalating. The president may not intend to go to war here, but we’re worried that — and the administration may bumble into a war,” Schumer told reporters at Capitol Hill after the meeting.

“We told the room that the Democratic position is that congressional approval must be required before funding any conflict in Iran,” he continued. “One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into a war, a war that nobody wants, is to have a robust open debate and for Congress to have a real say. We learned that lesson in the run-up to Iraq.”

In his statement to reporters after the briefing, Schumer called on Senate Republicans to allow a vote on an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would prohibit funds from being used for military operations against Iran without explicit authorization from Congress.

The amendment is being sponsored by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who were on the Senate floor at the same time as the briefing calling for a vote when the National Defense Authorization Act is debated next week.

“It’s unfair to our troops to put them in harm’s way with Congress hiding under their desk not being willing to state yea or nay about whether we should be engaged in hostilities,” Kaine said.

Congress has been fighting Trump on war powers

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s administration have been notably vague about whether they have plans to use the 2001 war authorization to launch military action against Iran. Asked about it on CBS Sunday, Pompeo said “we always have the authorization to defend American interests,” but wouldn’t say if he was confident the 2001 AUMF would allow for the executive branch to launch military action in Iran.

But members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, have been increasingly wary of ceding war powers — which under the Constitution is granted to Congress — to the executive branch.

In April, Congress passed a historic War Powers Resolution, led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) directing Trump to remove troops involved in “hostilities” in Yemen, a Saudi-led war that’s killed more than 50,000 and left tens of millions in need of humanitarian aid. Trump vetoed it, citing his commitment to the US’s long-standing alliance with the Saudis.

Since then, Trump has escalated tensions with Iran and sidestepped Congress to unilaterally authorize $8 billion in arms sales, including to Saudi Arabia and its allies. It’s prompted a show of bipartisanship in Congress.

In April, a group of bipartisan senators led by Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2019, which would require Trump seek authorization from Congress before beginning any military engagements with the country.

In March, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN) introduced a bipartisan bill to repeal the 1991 and 2002 war authorizations against Iraq.

More recently, Young (R-IN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced a bill aimed at forcing legislators to vote on sending weapons and military aid to Saudi Arabia.

And in the House, Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Andy Levin (D-MI) have brought up the AUMF Clarification Act, to make clear that the Trump administration can use neither the 2001 AUMF nor the 2002 Iraq AUMF in order to justify military action in Iran.

Today, the Senate voted to block Trump’s emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE:

The Senate on Thursday passed three measures to block President Trump from using his emergency authority to complete several arms sales benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but fell short of the support needed to overcome a pledged veto.

Trump has cited rising tensions with Iran as justification for using his emergency powers to complete the deals.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and surprisingly Lindsey “Stonewall” Graham (R-SC), had filed 22 resolutions of disapproval against the sales — one for every contract the administration had expedited by emergency order, effectively sidestepping congressional opposition. But after weeks of negotiations, Senate leaders agreed to hold just three votes encompassing the substance of all resolutions seeking to block the deals.

Trump, according to congressional aides, would still have to issue 22 individual vetoes even though the Senate resolutions were bundled into three.

The first two resolutions, to prohibit sales benefiting Saudi Arabia and various Western nations, passed 53 to 45 with seven Republicans voting in favor: Sens. Susan Collins (ME), Graham, Mike Lee (UT), Jerry Moran (KS), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rand Paul (KY) and Todd C. Young (IN). Only five of those Republicans backed the third resolution, which sought to block several arms deals also benefiting Jordan, United Arab Emirates and others. It passed 51 to 45. Murkowski opposed that measure, and Lee was not recorded as voting.

The votes came just hours before the White House hosted congressional leaders — including the heads of the Senate and House committees overseeing the military, the intelligence community, and diplomatic affairs — for an Iran briefing.

The vote comes the day after a United Nations Report Finds ‘Credible Evidence’ to Investigate Saudi Crown Prince’s Role in Jamal Khashoggi’s Killing:

A United Nations special report has found “credible evidence” warranting further investigation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year — a conclusion that follows a five-month investigation into what the U.N. special rapporteur called a “deliberate, premeditated execution.”

In the 98-page report, released Wednesday, U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard called for bin Salman, often referred to by the initials MBS, and other top Saudi officials to be investigated for their role and asked the United Nations to demand a criminal investigation into Khashoggi’s killing, citing an “insufficient” response thus far from Saudi Arabia.

She said “there is no reason why sanctions should not be applied against the Crown Prince and his personal assets.”

“Indeed, this human rights inquiry has shown that there is sufficient credible evidence regarding the responsibility of the Crown Prince demanding further investigation,” she wrote.

Democrats and Republicans have been troubled by Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia, which has endured despite international condemnation of its leaders’ reported role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, and the kingdom’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war.

“I personally feel betrayed,” especially concerning Khashoggi, Graham said Wednesday during a confirmation hearing for Trump’s pick to serve as ambassador to the United Nations.

“There’s no amount of oil coming out of Saudi Arabia and there’s no threat from Iran that’s going to get me back on,” he added, referring to the status quo of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

As always, this is the problem:

Democrats have argued that any arms sales to Iranian nemesis Saudi Arabia and its allies would only worsen such a regional conflict, particularly in war zones such as Yemen that have already turned into proxy battles. But Republican leaders have repeatedly stated their opposition to efforts to scale back the United States’ defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including the arms sales — which makes securing a veto-proof, two-thirds majority for the resolutions a difficult endeavor.

Republican tribalism “trumps” the national security interests of the United States, human rights, the lives of our service members in the military, and basic common sense.

It oughta be a crime.