Trump officials already seem prepared to use the same flimsy excuse George W. Bush concocted to bring us to war

Trump officials already seem prepared to use the same flimsy excuse George W. Bush concocted to bring us to war
U.S. Department of Energy

We've been down this road before, and it doesn't end well for anybody.

Under President George W. Bush, the United States was convinced to go to war with Iraq based on false intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and his supposed ties to Al Qaeda. And according to a new report from the New York Times, Trump officials appear to be plagiarizing the past rationale for war as they ramp up tensions with Iran.

One of Trump's closest appointees has been telling Congress that the regime has links to the terrorist group, the Times found. And this is particularly important because legally, the administration could use the supposed ties as an excuse to go to war without Congress's approval:

Briefings by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, backed up by other State Department and Pentagon officials, have led Democrats and some Republicans to ask whether the administration is building a case that the White House could use to invoke the war authorization passed by Congress in 2001 to battle terror groups as legal cover for military action against Iran.

As tensions between the United States and Iran have surged, Mr. Pompeo has sought to convince Congress that there is a pattern of ties between Iran and the terrorist group going back to after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said.

There were not any ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and it's not clear there's any reason to believe the supposed links to Iran are any more substantial or convincing.

But in 2001, Congress authorized the president to use military force against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." This authorization is still technically in effect. So the administration may be tempted to use it to justify attacks against Iran, if it chooses it chooses to go to war, based only on flimsy claims that the regime is somehow tied to Al Qaeda. Under President Barack Obama, the authorization was cited to permit attacks against Libya, Syria, and ISIS — despite the fact that the group didn't even exist when the 9/11 attacks occurred.

The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved an amendment to a defense bill that would repeal the authorization and close this open loophole, but it is not expected to pass the Senate.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) was explicit in a comment to the Times about the administration's goals in linking Iran to Al Qaeda: “They are looking to bootstrap an argument to allow the president to do what he likes without coming to Congress, and they feel the 2001 authorization will allow them to go to war with Iran."

Brian Hook, the administration's top envoy to Iran, refused to say on Wednesday when asked in a hearing by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), whether Congress or the president has the power to declare war.

Lieu also asked Hook if the administration is planning on using the 2001 authorization to justify strikes against Iran, but he refused to answer directly.

"If the use of military force is necessary to defend U.S. national security interest, we will do everything that we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers, and we will comply with the law," Hook said.

It seems clear from multiple reports that President Donald Trump himself does not want a war with Iran. He campaigned on the idea that George W. Bush's involvement in the Middle East — and the Iraq War in particular — was a big mistake. And a new report on Wednesday suggested that Trump is trying to tamp down his administration's push for war.

But like the dubious claims about Al Qaeda, Trump shares another tie to the Bush administration: National Security Adviser John Bolton. Bolton was a part of the deceptive push for the Iraq War, and he clearly has his eyes set on rerunning the play with Iran. Without a confirmed secretary of defense in the adminsitration, Bolton is more empowered than ever. And he clearly has Pompeo on his side as he tries to pull the United States into another conflict.

And despite Trump's instincts, we may end up there anyway. The administration is already sending thousands of troops to the Middle East in response to Iran's supposed provocations. This is likely to cause Iran to escalate in its response, which Trump's advisers will claim is just more evidence of the regime's aggressive intent. It's not hard to see how the situation can spiral out of control, and Trump lacks the skill or foresight to stop it.

So whether he wants to or not, he may end up following the destructive path of George W. Bush. And his aides won't even have to print out new copies of talking points to justify it.

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