President Donald Trump threatened to commit war crimes against Iran over the weekend, less than one week after he ordered the killing of one of its top military commanders in an airstrike in Baghdad. The assassination of Qassem Soleimani, who acted as an Iranian version of John le Carré’s Karla for more than two decades, sparked a chaotic backlash. Coalition operations against ISIS have halted, perhaps indefinitely, after Iraq’s parliament voted to expel all foreign troops. Tehran said it would remove all restrictions on uranium enrichment, scrapping one of the last remaining checks imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal.
What’s more, Iranian leaders and their allies have also angrily threatened some sort of retaliation against the United States. Trump offered some threats of his own in response. He wrote on Saturday:
Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!
Trump’s remarks are nothing short of monstrous. Besides intentionally killing or harming civilians, targeting a country’s cultural sites is among the least defensible acts that any military could commit during an armed conflict. No legal, moral, or tactical rationale exists that would justify bombing the ruins of Persepolis, the mosques and shrines of Qom, the museums of Tehran, or any other part of Iran’s ancient heritage. The threats alone confirm Trump’s unfitness for the presidency. The possibility that he will carry them out means the House should gird itself for the necessity of impeaching Trump a second time.
Campaigns of cultural destruction are a hallmark of history’s worst regimes. Nazi Germany went to great lengths to stamp out Polish cultural identity during World War II by burning down libraries, museums, and palaces wherever possible. Mao’s Red Guards did incalculable damage to China’s historical treasures during the Cultural Revolution. The Taliban drew international outrage in 2001 when it used dynamite and anti-tank weaponry to demolish colossal third-century sandstone Buddha statues in Afghanistan. More recently, ISIS militants carried out a wave of vandalism to destroy antiquities and archaeological sites throughout their territory in Iraq and Syria.
Trump’s threatened actions would easily rank alongside these crimes if they are carried out. History, after all, is merely a record of what’s survived: the documents and manuscripts that were preserved, the temples and monuments that weren’t destroyed, the names and stories that were remembered. We will never really know what we’ve lost over the centuries and millennia. All that each generation can do is to preserve what it has inherited and protect it from those who want to erase it for racial, ideological, or nihilistic reasons.
Intentionally targeting cultural heritage sites for destruction is a war crime. The U.S. is a member of the 1954 Hague Convention on Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which requires signatories to protect and defend those sites from destruction, theft, and looting. In 2016, the International Criminal Court sentenced Malian militant Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to nine years in prison for his role in the destruction of ancient sites in Timbuktu when a rebel group with links to Al Qaeda captured the city in 2012. The U.S. does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction, so Trump does not have to fear being hauled to the Hague if he follows through on his threat against Iran.
That his threat would be a war crime is unlikely to dissuade Trump from carrying it out. He campaigned on the principle that he would either order war crimes to be committed or else give U.S. soldiers more latitude to commit war crimes themselves. Over the past year, Trump intervened in the military-justice system on behalf of multiple U.S. soldiers who faced charges for war crimes to give them more lenient treatment or clear them of wrongdoing. Among them were Edward Gallagher, a top Navy SEAL who was accused of murdering civilians by multiple soldiers under his command. Trump pardoned Gallagher in December; the soldier then joined him at Mar-a-Lago for the president’s New Year’s Eve party.
“They’re allowed to kill our people,” Trump told reporters over the weekend. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.” In short, he does not think that he should hold himself to higher standards than those of terrorists and dictators. The president’s disregard for moral constraint makes legal restraints on his war-making powers all the more important.
Amid the chaos of the past few days, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the U.S. is not actually at war with Iran—or at least it’s not supposed to be. Congress has never authorized the use of military force against the country. Polls show that most Americans would not support such a move, either. Neither the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al Qaeda nor the 2002 AUMF that greenlit the invasion of Iraq can justify it. Trump administration officials are largely asserting a bastardized version of self-defense to justify Soleimani’s assassination, claiming that he was personally orchestrating some sort of imminent attack on U.S. troops or citizens.
It’s indisputable that Soleimani helped plot attacks that took American lives throughout his career. But the White House has offered no public evidence to justify a cavalier airstrike against a top foreign military commander in what amounts to an aggressive act of war. What’s been reported about Trump’s decision-making process also suggests that the strike wasn’t driven by exigent circumstances. After Iran-linked protesters briefly breached security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad last month, Trump reportedly feared being portrayed as weak by the cable-news programs he constantly imbibes and chose the most extreme option presented to him by military planners.
It’s long overdue for the U.S. to rethink our indefinite and ill-defined wars in the Middle East—and the blank checks given by Congress to wage them. Many of the existing restraints require a certain amount of buy-in from the president himself; in other words, they do not actually restrain a president who does not wish to be restrained. Trump’s top foreign-policy advisers currently range from uberhawks who oppose any diplomacy with Tehran to yes-men who don’t push back against the president’s worse impulses. The separation of powers offers little refuge, either. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will vote this week on a War Powers Act resolution, which aims to block Trump from taking further action against Iran without lawmakers’ approval. It is doubtful it will pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
A fuller reining-in of those war powers may not be possible until the next president takes office. That leaves impeachment as the best remedy to check a rogue president. When the Ukraine scandal burst into view last fall, I argued that the House had no choice but to impeach Trump for his efforts to undermine the 2020 election with foreign meddling. If lawmakers took no action, it would effectively vindicate the president’s false assertion that he had done nothing wrong. The same reasoning applies now. On a practical level, House Democrats may not be able to stop Trump from waging an unconstitutional war against Iran or committing war crimes against its cultural heritage. What they can do is indict him for these crimes if he actually carries them out.