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Wisdom must prevail in Iran conflict

In this Dec. 26, 2018, file photo, President

In this Dec. 26, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visit with members of the military at a dining hall at Ain al-Asad air base, Iraq. Iran struck back at the United States for the killing of a top Iranian general early Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, firing a series of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops in a major escalation of tensions that brought the two longtime foes closer to war. Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

The expected retaliation from Iran began Tuesday night when rockets landed at multiple military facilities in Iraq. The attack, for which Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps quickly took credit, came amid tensions spiked by the U.S. killing of the Guard's former commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The group promised more severe action to come. There were no reports of damages or casualties as this was written.

But the focus now has shifted to how the United States chooses to respond.

This is a critical moment for President Donald Trump and his administration. We hope that calmness, wisdom and proportionality prevail. And we hope that the White House and other arms of the government, which have yet to speak with one voice and deliver one message during this crisis, are clear with the American people about what happened, how they respond, and why.

Caution and restraint will be critical. Taking unilateral action to stop more attacks and keep U.S. and coalition troops out of harm's way is certainly justifiable. But war does not have to be inevitable. Escalation, especially if motivated by a desire for payback against Iran, requires that Congress be consulted to help determine whether that is wise and, if so, to devise a path forward. That was not the case in the killing of Soleimani when the required notification of congressional leaders did not occur.

Before the ramping-up of hostilities Tuesday night, we were concerned about the Trump administration's mixed messages regarding Iran, from the conflicting reasons it offered for killing Soleimani to Trump's threat to attack cultural sites in Iran, a war crime, to the insistence that the administration did not want a war with Iran even as Trump and officials in Iran exchanged inflammatory rhetoric. 

We also were concerned about the consequences, some unintended and apparently unforeseen, of Soleimani's death. After months of anti-government protests in Iran, which Trump rightly welcomed but which resulted in government forces killing hundreds of protesters, the country seemed more united than ever in grief and anger against the United States. Iran announced it will abandon the last vestiges of the 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump violated by reimposing sanctions on Iran, by enriching uranium beyond the treaty's restrictions, increasing the likelihood it will build a nuclear weapon. Hopes for diplomatic solutions to Iran's nuclear ambitions — and, possibly, to the antagonism between the two nations — seemed to have evaporated even before Iran's ballistic missiles landed Tuesday night.

Our concerns now are even deeper. The moment calls for steadiness from a president prone to erratic behavior. And it calls for the reassurance of Americans who have been uneasy, certain that Iranian retaliation was coming but unsure of how it would be delivered — by an attack on military bases, diplomatic posts or oil facilities overseas, or via cyber attacks on an electric grid, financial services or travel systems closer to home.

Now that the retaliation has begun, we must be wise in our response.
— The editorial board