Trump's 'Ignorance' About International Law Is 'Extreme Even by U.S. Standards': Expert

The recent crisis with Iran—and the tit-for-tat military strikes that directly or indirectly resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people—have prompted questions about President Donald Trump's temperament and diplomatic skills.

The roots of the conflict stretch back decades, but Trump's time in office and his withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal—and subsequent Iranian activity have given the historic animosity a shot in the arm.

Trump and his supporters have claimed this month's brinkmanship as a win, at least in the short term. A notorious Iranian general has been removed from the battlefield with the loss of no American lives. The president avoided full blown war and as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "restored deterrence."

But the past month also raised questions about Trump's lack of concern for or even understanding of international law, according to three experts who spoke to Newsweek.

Both the U.S. and Iran justified their attacks by claiming self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations charter.

Ralph Wilde, an expert in international law at University College London explained, "The international law of self-defense is very narrowly constrained."

"The right to use force in self-defense—military action—is possible if an attack actually happens and you are defending yourself from it, which obviously is not the case here, because there wasn't something underway that they were stopping." Wilde added that there is also a lawful basis if the attack is imminent.

Iran's response to Soleimani's assassination was a barrage of missiles launched at two Iraqi military bases housing American troops.

This was clearly a retaliation and—according to John Bellinger III, an expert in international and national security law and a partner at the Arnold & Porter firm in Washington, D.C.—not permitted under international law.

Michael Doyle, an international relations expert who served as assistant secretary-general and special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, surmised, "You have a series of illegitimate attacks by Iran and a series of illegitimate responses by the U.S., in terms of international law."

Trump and his senior aides have argued that killing Soleimani was necessary to stop imminent attacks against Americans. The president told Fox News Friday that Soleimani was planning attacks against four U.S. embassies, but he did not elaborate or provide any evidence.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper then appeared to contradict the president, saying he had not seen proof of such plots. The administration has still not produced any evidence that Soleimani's assassination stopped an imminent threat.

"In the view of the U.S. Government, an action in self-defense against a potential attack would be permissible under international law if the plan for an attack was well-advanced but still some time away," Bellinger explained.

President Barack Obama's administration used this standard in hundreds of drone strikes against Al-Qaeda members, for example.

Under U.S. domestic law, the president has more latitude to use force. Under the Constitution, the president may use force without congressional authorization if he determines that it is in the national interest, even if not to prevent an imminent threat.

Doyle simply told Newsweek that the administration's Soleimani explanation has been "exposed repeatedly as fictional."

But none of the pressure seems to bother the president. Trump said Sunday "it doesn't really matter" if there was a legal basis for killing Soleimani "because of his horrible past!"

The U.S. has, for now, avoided an open war with Iran though the debate over Soleimani's killing will rumble on. But the strike plays into larger concerns around Trump's respect for—and understanding of—international law.

The administration has shown itself willing to flout global rules where politically expedient. Last year, for example, his administration recognized Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and dropped its opposition to Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank—both illegal under international law.

Trump also "did not even try" to justify military strikes against chemical weapons facilities in Syria—launched to punish President Bashar al-Assad for reportedly gassing his own people—Bellinger, who also served as a State Department and National Security Council legal adviser under George W. Bush, said.

Trump signalled his aversion to international law while on the campaign trail, speaking in favor of torture and threatening to kill the families of suspected terrorists. He now threatens illegal action from the Oval Office, promising to hit Iranian cultural sites and respond disproportionately to provocation from Tehran.

Bellinger noted that most senior government officials in past administrations and lawmakers from both parties "have been less concerned about compliance with international law—especially regarding the use of force—than European counterparts, who are more steeped in international law."

"Trump's ignorance about international law governing the use of force is extreme even by U.S. standards," Bellinger told Newsweek.

While past U.S. administrations have at least tried to justify flouting international law, Trump "has seemed to delight, both as a candidate and as president, in ignoring and even ridiculing international law," Bellinger added.

Wilde noted that in one sense, Trump's disregard of the law is a continuation of American policy. Though he warned against "exceptionalizing" Trump, Wilde added that the president's conduct in the Iran crisis has been "remarkable."

"Instead of making ridiculous legal arguments but staying within the boundaries of the law, the implication of the tweets is, 'We're not going to follow the law,'" Wilde explained.

"In my 25 years, working in international law, I have not seen much evidence of states doing such a thing," Wilde said. "But there is a question, of course, as to whether President Trump knew that what he was threatening to do would be illegal," he added.

Doyle described Trump as "such an anomalous figure to be president of the United States or any other democracy that it throws a lot of the normal understanding of appropriate behavior out the window."

"There is a quality of obliviousness that the president repeatedly exercises with regard to international law," Doyle continued. "So that when those begin to use legal is less credible than it might be for any other leader that we could imagine as the head of a democracy."

No administration is monolithic, and some statements from officials like Esper and Pompeo have tried to walk back some of Trump's more bombastic threats. Still, Bellinger suggested, it is difficult for aides to reign in a president so sure of himself and so dismissive of criticism. "The tone is set at the top," he said.

Trump and the U.S. government will likely not face any legal repercussions for violating international law. Still, such actions have a wider effect. In a lecture at the Supreme Court in 2016, Bellinger cautioned against the argument that global opinion is not important because foreigners cannot vote for an American president.

"Other countries do 'vote for us' by deciding whether to cooperate with us on intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic, and military matters," he said. Under Bush, for example, some of America's European allies were reluctant to share intelligence for fear that the information would be used to break international law.

Wilde said international law remains a "very inadequate legal system...The enforcement mechanism is the reaction of other states in the international community. And that does count sometimes."

At home, too, legality—or at least the appearance of legality—can be helpful. If Trump did indeed assassinate Soleimani seeking a boost in the opinion polls as some have claimed, it would help the president to be able to say he did so legitimately.

"The desire to appear within the framework of law is clearly something that's worth rhetorical effort on the basis of the president," Doyle said. "He wanted to present himself as a law abiding political leader, knowing that the ethos, the culture of legality is relatively deep within the American public."

Ultimately international law does matter, even if powerful states like the U.S. can ignore it when it is inconvenient, Bellinger said.

"Most governments still try to abide by international law requirements regarding the use of force. By ignoring these rules, President Trump sets a bad example for other countries and contributes to the breakdown of international order."

Newsweek has contacted the White House and the State Department for clarification on any evidence supporting Soleimani assassination, and a for response to suggestions that Trump acted in contravention of international law.

This article has been updated to clarify comments made by Ralph Wilde and John Bellinger III.

Donald Trump, international law, ignorance, Iran, crisis
This file photo shows President Donald Trump alongside First Lady Melania Trump at the College Football Playoff National Championship game on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Chris Graythen/Getty Images/Getty