WASHINGTON ― The U.S. and Iran stepped back from the brink of war Wednesday, but some lawmakers were left with questions about the administration’s strategy toward Iran and whether or not the U.S. is safer for having killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed the House and Senate behind closed doors Wednesday, lawmakers were, for the most part, split on partisan lines regarding their concerns about Iran and whether the president’s actions were addressed.
“Without commenting on content, my reaction to this briefing was it was sophomoric and utterly unconvincing, and I believe more than ever that Congress needs to act to protect the Constitution’s provisions about war and peace,” said Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, who serves on the House committees on Oversight and Reform as well as Foreign Affairs.
The successive briefings happened as President Donald Trump indicated he would not respond militarily after no one was harmed Tuesday in Iran’s missile strikes on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. Congressional Democrats have been mulling measures to check Trump’s ability to wage war on Iran after he authorized a drone strike that killed Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reasserted Wednesday that the House would move forward with a war powers resolution to limit the president’s military actions regarding Iran. The resolution is led by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who is a former CIA analyst.
Democrats have largely been arguing Congress must reassert its power under the Constitution to decide when war is declared. However, administration officials and many Republican lawmakers argue the president was legally empowered by the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iran, and the president’s powers as commander in chief under the Constitution.
At least two Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, said they were so put off by Wednesday’s briefing and that they would support a resolution curbing Trump’s ability to act against Iran, offered by Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
An animated Lee said it was “insulting and demeaning” that the briefers asserted that congressional debate over the war powers resolution would embolden Iran.
“It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch of government ― I don’t care whether they’re with the CIA or the Department of Defense or otherwise ― to come in and tell us we can’t debate the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran,” Lee said. “It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional and it’s wrong.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued that no new authorization is necessary, as U.S. troops in Iraq can defend themselves under the 2002 war authorization for Iraq. “You may need one to invade Iran, you may need one for an extended campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, but you most certainly do not need one to prevent or counter attacks against Americans,” he said.
To Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, killing Soleimani "was profoundly important for keeping our country safe.”
“He had a long pattern of killing Americans ― according to the Department of Defense, over 603 servicemen and women ― and he took the life of an American contractor in the Middle East; he had directed an assault on the United States embassy [in Iraq]. We heard considerable testimony concerning an imminent threat to Americans that the administration acted to prevent by taking out Soleimani,” Cruz said.
Democrats said the briefers presented a case that relied on the past actions of Iran and Soleimani, but they were less convincing when suggesting his recent actions amounted to an imminent threat. Some lawmakers said the briefers declined to share detailed intelligence.
“I’m not convinced, based on what I heard, that the measure taken matched the threat,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. Thompson said he was disappointed the briefers gave no analysis of Trump’s options ahead of the strike or their potential second- and third-order effects.
“This was a wholly unsatisfying briefing, where there was 75 minutes where I was presented with no evidence about this threshold, imminence, and that’s very frustrating,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is currently running for president.
On the flip side, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said: “I am persuaded that we had strong intelligence that meant we had to take action.”
While lawmakers generally agreed the U.S. and Iran are taking a pause in conventional fighting to recalibrate their respective approaches to the crisis, Thornberry and lawmakers of both parties said Iran could attack again through its regional proxies, like Hezbollah.
“There have been some hopeful signs from what the Iranians have said and done, but I think all of us are cautious that while direct missile attacks from Iran may subside, using proxies may continue or escalate in some ways,” Thornberry said.
Still, other Republicans argued the president had successfully cowed Iran.
“Iran didn’t just take an off-ramp, they took a U-turn because they know they have no capability to fight against America, a technologically superior adversary,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who serves as the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Airland. “They also know they will no longer have deniability if they try to use their proxies in the region. If a single American is harmed, as the president has said, they will face consequences.”
At the same time, Democrats said that because of the Soleimani strike, Iran abandoned all limits on its enrichment of uranium. They also said the U.S. presence in Iraq ― which is vital to fighting the Islamic State group ― has fallen into jeopardy, and that a confrontation of some kind still looms.
“The question for me is: Are we better off or are we worse off? Are we safer or are we less safe,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who formerly worked at the State Department. “I don’t see any evidence, in terms of our national security interest, that we are in any way better off as a result of this. Iran is still engaged in all of the malign activities it was engaged in when Soleimani was alive, but it may be closer today to his central goal of expelling us from Iraq and the Middle East.”
Leo Shane III of Military Times contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.