PORTLAND, Ore. — After President Trump’s remarks following Tuesday’s attack on U.S. forces by Iran, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said he is glad President Trump now appears to be choosing de-escalation rather than further military action.
He also said the Senate will decide Wednesday afternoon whether the President violated the War Powers Resolution by unilaterally approving the Jan. 3 strike that killed Major General Qasem Soleimani, a high-ranking Iranian leader. Soleimani’s death was seen as a major escalation of tension between the U.S. and Iran and likely inspired Tuesday’s attack.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for clarity and was conducted the morning of January 8, 2020.
After the President’s remarks, do you feel better, worse, or the same today compared to right after the attack in Iraq?
“I’m really pleased that there were no casualties from the Iranian attack on the Iraqi bases where our troops are housed. This creates an opportunity to de-escalate the crisis. I think President Trump is pursuing that de-escalation by pledging himself to further sanctions rather than speaking to further military action. This would be tremendous. There is absolutely no reason we should be at war with Iran. We’ve made egregious mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq at the cost of thousands of Americans killed, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of billions of dollars of American treasury lost. We cannot make that same mistake again.”
Your Senate colleague Jim Risch (R-ID), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told our partner station KTVB in Boise, Idaho that we are on a path to war. Are we?
“Well, if there had been casualties last night, I think the administration would have responded with further military action and that escalation could – very much be a war. This is gravely concerning. The way that the Trump Administration has acted has damaged all of our strategic objectives in the Middle East. We had Iranian citizens protesting against their government, now they’re protesting against us. We had Iraqis protesting against Iranian influences, now they’re embracing Iranian influence and voting to expel us from the country. We’ve interrupted the training of Iraqi troops fighting ISIS, we’ve given license to Iran to increase nuclear enrichment and we placed our citizens and our assets and our allies’ assets at much greater risk. We’ve damaged all of that. The administration now needs to start repairing the damage it’s caused by working to restore the relationship with NATO and rebuild the relationship with the Iraqi government.”
There are instances where the President can take unilateral military action. Why don’t you think this was one of those instances?
“The War Powers [Resolution] is designed when there’s an imminent threat. We’re going to have a briefing [Wednesday] afternoon as to whether there was an imminent threat. Initially, the Department of Defense and President indicated that there was. They’ve essentially backed off that more recently, but I’m looking forward to the detailed briefing. This is certainly an issue that requires a lot of trust and judgment with the President’s team, but they did not seem to exercise a lot of judgment in terms of examining the damage to our strategic objectives in the reason by the strategy that the President chose.”
If it’s determined the President violated the War Powers Resolution, is there any recourse Congress can take?
“The main action Congress could take is to block the President from pursuing any additional military activities against Iran unless there is authorization through an authorization for the use of military force against Iran. The President and his team have cited the 2002 authorization that was the authorization against Iraq. That was specifically aimed at Saddam Hussein. It’s certainly not applicable here. They’ve also implied the 2001 resolution against Afghanistan would apply. But that was very specifically [sic] – and the wording was ‘those who attacked us on 9/11.’ Certainly, Iran did not attack us on 9/11. So, to pursue war outside of immediate threat to American interest, the President needs to come to Congress for authorization. Congress could proactively emphasize that together by, for example, passing a resolution that I will introduce [Thursday] that explicitly says the 2001 and 2002 authorizations do not provide authority to go to war against Iran.”
What’s your message for Oregonians who support the President and his action against Iran?
“I visited 12 of our rural counties just last week and held town halls and what I heard was a collective interest in averting war. There’s not an appetite for war and there’s not an appetite for unleashing a nuclear program in Iran by eliminating the restrictions that were in place. I think that we now have a moment — President Trump has seized the opportunity to de-escalate by emphasizing sanctions rather than military action and that’s a positive for all of us.”
There is some talk that the President took the action he did because he was impeached.
“We’re all very aware that President Trump talked a lot about how Obama was going to launch a war to help himself in his election, so that is a theme that has been on the President’s mind is – how do you help yourself in your election and is that a strategy that this is useful? The impression of many who have already been briefed is there wasn’t a dramatic difference in the threat, there wasn’t an imminent threat in the nature that would have justified the timing of this. But I haven’t had that briefing and I’m going to withhold judgment until I do.”