Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic representative and former CIA analyst focused on Shia militias, said in a statement that she’d seen friends and colleagues killed or hurt by Iranian weapons under Soleimani’s guidance when she served in Iraq. She said she was involved in discussions during both the Bush and Obama administrations about how to respond to his violence. Neither opted for assassination.
“What always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Soleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation, and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?” she said. “The two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means. The Trump Administration has made a different calculation.”
Read: The Soleimani assassination is America’s most consequential strike this century
Trump-administration officials have so far declined to specify what exactly prompted that calculation, though Trump said Soleimani was planning to attack American diplomats and military personnel. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told some reporters that “the risk of inaction exceeded the risk of action,” according to The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe.
The risks of action in other cases have restrained the U.S. from targeting military leaders—for instance, to hold on to the possibility of negotiations, or out of the belief, in Murphy’s words, that “such action will get more, not less, Americans killed.” But action is not unprecedented. “We have [in the past] gone after very, very senior military leaders; usually that would be kind of in the course of an ongoing war,” Waxman told me. During the Iraq War, a congressionally authorized state-on-state conflict, U.S. troops had a “deck of cards” of top most-wanted figures, including senior leaders in Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. During World War II, the U.S. killed the Japanese admiral who plotted the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But in both of those cases, the United States was in a formal state of armed conflict. More recently, as the U.S. has focused on fighting nonstate terrorist organizations, it has also gone after the leadership of those groups. Though Iran has since May staged a series of violent attacks against U.S. allies and interests in the region—culminating, in the past two months, in rocket attacks against U.S. or allied bases in Iraq and the death of an American contractor—no formal war has been declared. And when Soleimani was killed, he died on the soil of a U.S.-allied country, whose government then condemned the attack.
The State Department official conceded the risks in the background call with reporters. “We cannot promise that we have broken the circle of violence,” the official said. But without Soleimani, the official said, “if we do see an increase in violence, it probably will not be as devilishly ingenious.”