On Monday 28 June, United States President Joe Biden authorized airstrikes against two Iran-backed militias in Saudi-Arabia and Iraq. This was in response to recent attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq. While there were no U.S. casualties, Biden’s administration has shown that they want to deter both lethal and non-lethal attacks, resulting in this airstrike response. Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State mentioned the airstrikes, commenting “[W]e took necessary, appropriate, deliberate action that is designed to limit the risk of escalation, but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.” Iraq is trying to stop these tensions to no avail, as they are between two of their strong allies, the U.S. and Iran. That being said, one of the attacks occurred on Iraqi soil, which resulted in their stern comments towards the U.S. government, saying these airstrikes were a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security.”
The New York Times reported on this conflict, commenting that “the Pentagon said Monday that the overnight airstrikes were meant to send a message while avoiding escalation.” But Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said the U.S. was “disrupting the security of the region.” Not only does this affect Iraq as they face airstrikes on their soil, but also the current negotiations regarding the Iran Nuclear Deal, the ending of “forever wars,” and removal of U.S. troops in the region.
The Biden Administration rationalized these airstrikes as a proportional response to a threat by Iranian-backed militias and said they were used to de-escalate conflict. But as CNN reports, in response to these airstrikes, Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shia militia group in Iraq, wrote a message that made them seem far from de-escalating tensions. They wrote “[T]his crime will not go unpunished, the decision for revenge has been taken, and the American enemy will see death with his own eyes. An eye for an eye and what is coming is severe.” The airstrikes authorized by Joe Biden’s administration was retaliation against attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, but since there were no casualties, the response seemed quite extreme. Despite its attempt to de-escalate tension, it resulted in the aforementioned message from Kataib Hezbollah.
The Washington Post reports these recent strikes display that Biden’s administration has a lower bar for retaliation than the Trump administration. These airstrikes could have unintended consequences, as they may interfere with President Biden’s promises to remove all troops from Afghanistan. While Afghanistan was not involved in this conflict, these continued airstrikes that The Washington Post describes as “tit for tat strikes,” could elongate the removal process and keep U.S. personnel in other countries within the Middle East. Conflict in Afghanistan is designated as the “forever war.” It begs the question if continuing these easily provoked airstrikes is only setting up U.S. military troops for more long term and unending conflict in the area, creating a different “forever war.”
In the case of long term conflict, there is also concern that President Biden’s administration is committing acts of war without a proper war declaration from Congress. Senator Chris Murphy spoke to Reuters, pointing out “[I]f Congress had a hard time authorizing military action against Iranian-backed militias, it would largely be because our constituents don’t want it. And that’s what’s missing from this debate.” The concept of military action barring approval from congress became a larger point of contention following the 9/11 attacks in New York City. The 9/11 terrorist attack led to the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which authorized President George Bush to invade Afghanistan and Iraq in each respective year.
These bills allow presidents to have much greater power when it comes to acts of war without needing Congressional approval. For instance, NPR reported a comment made by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who noted that former President Donald Trump used the 2002 authority as justification for an airstrike against an Iranian target in Iraq last year. Since the Iraq War has been over for almost a decade, the 2002 authorization and its use as a primary justification for military action, has lost its vital purpose. Biden’s actions could be a continuation of these presidential actions that Congress is currently trying to end, as the House votes to repeal the 2002 AUMC.
Alongside these conflicts, the Biden administration is still actively trying to work on the Iran Nuclear Deal. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, the deal is a landmark accord that was created in 2015. It is explained that “[U]nder its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.” While President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018, President Biden is looking to mend relations and have them return to it if Iran ensures nuclear compliance.
Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s newly elected president, is more willing to comply with the deal than his predecessor, according to CFR. Therefore, Joe Biden’s administration should focus on the diplomacy involved with this deal, and try to keep airstrikes to an absolute minimum. While they say there is necessity in sending a message against interfering with U.S. personnel and troops in the region, the particular airstrikes they were responding to did not result in any casualties. Therefore, it is more important for President Biden to focus on rebuilding trust following the 2018 departure from the Iran Nuclear Deal, rather than continuing this “tit for tat” mentality. Although the administration claims these actions were intended to deter future airstrikes, reactions from both the Iraqi government and Iranian-backed militia groups paints an angry and hostile image.
The airstrikes authorized by the Biden administration are just a small part of the more complicated aspects of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. While President Biden promised to remove troops from Afghanistan by September 2021, he also implemented harsher retaliations, sending airstrikes even when there were no U.S. casualties. As reported by The Washington Post, these are Biden’s second military strikes in Syria since February. This leaves Congress wary of Biden’s actions and fuels the ongoing debate regarding “forever wars,” continued military action in the Middle East, and what warrants approval from congress.
While the House of Representatives votes to repeal AUMF 2002, AUMF 2001 is still in place and NPR reports that “some say if the 2001 measure is repealed, it must be replaced.” All of this is in light of a new conservative Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, and a strong push to reach a good place with the Iran Nuclear Deal. While all of these events can create a messy situation with different motives for every country and a desire for distinct outcomes, the deal could arguably be the most important factor in this larger puzzle. It could create long lasting peace and limit the number of nuclear weapons in the world. Therefore, President Biden and his administration should focus on seeing this deal through for the betterment of relations with Iran, the rest of the Middle East, and the world.