Pentagon airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria are not only the first military action taken by President Joe Biden. They are a test of his broad pledge to pursue a foreign policy that is more cooperative and mindful of international partners than his predecessor's but still eschews the U.S. role as the world's police to focus on making life better for Americans, some experts and lawmakers say.
Biden on Thursday night ordered the airstrikes on multiple facilities at a Syrian-Iraqi border control point in southeastern Syria in retaliation for rocket attacks on U.S. targets in neighboring Iraq. The Pentagon identified the targets as a "number of Iranian-backed militant groups including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada." It called the airstrikes "proportionate" and "defensive" and said the airstrikes were taken after consultation with coalition partners and unspecified "diplomatic measures."
The military action comes as Washington and Tehran are locked in apparent stalemate over who should take the first step to revitalize a nuclear deal exited by the Trump administration; as Biden has vowed to recalibrate national security actions to favor the middle class; and as reporting from USA TODAY has revealed the voluminous scale of U.S. overseas military bases and counterterror operations two decades after 9/11.
"We are concerned that President Biden’s first instinct when it comes to regional security in the Middle East appears to be to reach for military options instead of diplomacy," said Ryan Costello, director of The National Iranian American Council, an organization that seeks improved relations between Washington and Tehran.
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"Biden wanted to respond to the incident in Iraq," said Max Abrahms, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University, "but he wanted to do it in a way that didn't seem too heavy-handed ... the more fundamental question that needs to be asked, and isn't, is what are Iranian militias doing in Iraq? The answer is they are there partly because the U.S. toppled (Iraq's former president) Saddam Hussein."
First airstrikes under Biden: US bombs Syria facilities used by Iran-backed militia
Abrahms said that the Biden administration is trying to balance the instincts of veteran national security officials and diplomats such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken – Obama administration-era officials who have long gravitated toward military interventions and regime change from Syria to Venezuela – with "the zeitgeist of the American citizenry, which has moved over the course of the Trump administration."
He described this "zeitgeist," which is backed up by polling, that shows many Americans are most concerned about economic and security threats closer to home, as "a more limited role for the United States in the world, a greater delineation of where our vital interests lie and a skepticism of a democracy-promoting agenda."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters he was "confident in the target we went after. We know what we hit."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, said the airstrikes killed at least 22 pro-Iranian fighters, wounded many more and destroyed several trucks carrying munitions. Some Iranian media reported a similar death toll, although they did not cite the source of their information.
Earlier this month, a civilian contractor from the Philippines working with the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq was killed in a rocket attack on U.S. targets. Several others were wounded in that assault, including a National Guard solider and four American civilian contractors. Iran denies any involvement or ties to the Feb. 15 assault near Erbil.
A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility.
Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that have targeted U.S. personnel or facilities in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the U.S. to the brink of a war with Iran. The Pentagon later assassinated senior Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.
The U.S. has about 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in a statement that the "American people deserve to hear the administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress. Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Defense Department briefed congressional leadership before the airstrikes and that there will be a full classified briefing next week. She called the action "pursuant to [the president's] Article II authority to defend U.S. personnel."
"The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks on facilities and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks," she said Friday. "As a matter of international law, the United States acted pursuant to a threat of self-defense as reflected in Article 51 of the UN Charter. The strikes were both necessary to address the threat and were proportionate to the prior attacks."
Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that Biden's airstrikes marked the fifth consecutive time a U.S. president has ordered such strikes against targets in the Middle East.
"There is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization. We need to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate," Khanna said, noting that it was action taken under the "broad, outdated" Authorization for Use of Military Force law (AUMF).
AUMF is legislation that sprung from President George W. Bush's "global war on terror" and the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. That 2001 authorization has been stretched to target militant groups in Syria, Kenya, Pakistan, Philippines, Somalia and beyond, according to research by Stephanie Savell, a defense and security expert at the Costs of War project at Brown University's Watson Institute. USA TODAY reported this week, based on Savell's research, that from 2018 to 2020 the U.S. military was active in counterterrorism operations in 85 countries, either directly or via surrogates, training exercises, drone strikes or low-profile U.S. special operations forces missions.
"I spoke against endless war with Trump, and I will speak out against it when we have a Democratic President," Khanna said in his comments to CNN.
Adnan Tabatabai, the founder and CEO of CARPO, a German-based think tank that specializes in issues that affect the Middle East, said in a Twitter post that when "policymakers in #Tehran (and elsewhere) argue that nothing really changes with a new (U.S. president), this is what they mean." Tabatabai was referring to the airstrikes by successive U.S. administrations that have targeted Iranian interests in Iraq.
However, the action also received some bipartisan support.
“Today’s airstrike demonstrates President Biden’s resolve to prevent Iran from targeting America’s personnel and allies with impunity," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said, "The commander-in-chief has a responsibility to protect Americans at home and abroad" and that Biden was "right to respond."
Jennifer Cafarella, a national security fellow at The Institute for the Study of War, a policy research organization in Washington, argued – also on Twitter – that the airstrikes demonstrated "that the #Biden administration is not wholly overlooking #Iran’s malign & escalatory regional operations" as it finds a way to resume nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
"Much still remains to be seen, but this was a good step," Cafarella wrote.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Syria bombing: Biden airstrikes mark test of US role as world's police