It’s been a big week for big reversals, as the Trump administration scrambles to manage the fallout after a strike last week that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. On Monday, the Pentagon distributed, then announced as false, a letter to the Iraqi government that would have ended, after almost 17 continual years, the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. On Tuesday, the president of the United States reluctantly walked back his threat to commit war crimes by bombing cultural sites in Iran.
“They are allowed to kill our people,” Trump said before reporters in the White House. “They are allowed to maim our people, they’re allowed to blow up everything that we have and there’s nothing to stop them. We are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage. And you know what, if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law.”
Though that last point could be contested — his career before politics suggests a businessman that does not like to obey the law — his comment is a major backpedal from his Saturday threat to strike 52 cultural sites in Iran, one for each of the Americans held during the hostage crisis following the 1979 revolution. Trump even doubled down on the threat, telling pool reporters on Sunday: “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs … And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.” As Human Rights Watch notes: “Article 53 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions specifically prohibits any acts of hostility against cultural objects, including making such objects the target of reprisals.”
Trump’s reversal on a topic he has expressed great interest in — by pardoning and campaigning with accused U.S. war criminals and threatening to commit war crimes as a candidate in 2015 — was likely influenced by pushback in his administration. On Monday, the Pentagon ruled out military strikes on cultural targets in Iran: “We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” said Defense Secretary Mark Esper. And on Sunday, CNN reported of “widespread opposition” within the administration to the president’s casual presentation of a situation that could make them complicit in a war crime.