Biden in the quagmire
President Biden came into office promising a new way of doing foreign policy. His campaign said he would "repair the damage wrought by President Trump and chart a fundamentally different course for American foreign policy[.]" And he did start with a promising move — cutting off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's genocidal war in Yemen.
But now, barely one month into office, he's done just what Trump did early in his term: bomb Syria on a stupid pretext. U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in the eastern part of the country late on Thursday, supposedly against Iran-backed militias, in retaliation for hitting American forces with a rocket attack on February 15 in northern Iraq.
This move demonstrates the utter folly of keeping such a gigantic military footprint in the Middle East (and indeed in the rest of the world). American forces only inflame chaos in the region and pose a constant risk of touching off a serious war.
Now, this was a pretty modest strike by prior standards: reportedly just seven 500-pound bombs, as compared to the 59 cruise missiles that Trump launched in April 2017. But that only underlines the senselessness of Biden's move. Nobody can possibly believe this will make any serious change to either the tactical or strategic situation anywhere. It's just tit-for-tat feuding with Iran — in a fight that America started when Trump betrayed the U.S. promise to stick with the nuclear deal, and assassinated its prominent general Qasem Soleimani. Iran could very well respond in kind, going in circles with the U.S. like the Hatfields and McCoys — or things could escalate out of control, resulting in outright war.
Moreover, on any even halfway reasonable reading of the Constitution, U.S. treaty commitments, and U.S. law, this strike was blatantly illegal. Wars of aggression are forbidden in the United Nations charter, and according to the War Powers Act the approval of Congress is required for the use of force. As Adil Ahmad Haque writes at Just Security, "It cannot be lawful to use armed force on the territory of another State when it is clear that no armed attack by a non-State actor is ongoing or even imminent." Or as Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted in 2017 in response to Trump's cruise missile strike:
Also what is the legal authority for strikes? Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country.
— Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) April 7, 2017
Biden's legal team will probably cook up some argle-bargle "rationale" based on the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force passed in response to 9/11. But if permission to attack al Qaeda 20 years ago can justify this attack, it can justify anything. It's tantamount to saying "if the president does it, that means it is not illegal."
Establishment types in the foreign policy "Blob" often portray themselves as the steely-eyed custodians of national interest — the people who will make the tough decisions to keep Americans safe. So it seems a tough negotiation stance is part of the motivation here: "The airstrike appears to be part of a U.S. message to Iran that it cannot improve its leverage in talks by attacking U.S. interests," surmises The Washington Post.
But if we seriously consider the diplomatic situation, there is no reason whatsoever to treat this like a hostile negotiation. America had moved some distance towards defusing tensions with Iran under President Obama with the nuclear deal, only for Trump to breach it unilaterally and start gunning down top Iranian officials. More broadly, the U.S. is 20 years deep into a spree of deranged imperial bungling in the Middle East that has cost $6.4 trillion and counting, killed something like 800,000 people, and accomplished nothing except radically destabilizing the entire region. It would be profoundly idiotic to get entangled in another endless bloody conflict halfway around the planet. Putting it in terms the Blob might understand: The U.S. ought to concern itself with countries that actually matter to it — principally Canada, Mexico, India, China, and the E.U. — instead of burning up billions of dollars and getting lots of people killed bullying a minor power that poses no real threat.
The "tough" posture is not sensible or realistic; it is about a macho unwillingness to admit error. America should buy off Iran and get out of there. The truly smart, hard-nosed thing to do would be to rejoin the nuclear deal immediately, quietly apologize for the whole Trump thing, lift sanctions on the country, send over a gift basket of 40 million coronavirus vaccines, and start getting U.S. forces the heck out of the region.
But we see that is going to take some doing. A global empire has a logic of its own, and it militates towards prolonging conflict indefinitely. It will take determination on the part of President Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to break the cycle of mindless violence. So far I am not optimistic they are much interested in trying.