By launching an airstrike against Iran-backed militia groups in Syria on Friday morning, Joe Biden became, by my count, the eighth president in a row to order a military strike in the Middle East or North Africa—a run dating back to Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated Iran hostage rescue attempt. He’s also the third in a row after Barack Obama and Donald Trump to come to office pledging to extricate the U.S. from costly Middle East conflicts and concentrate on other foreign policy priorities. He may find it similarly difficult to do so.
The strike—the first ordered by Biden, anywhere in the world—killed one person and injured several others. Administration officials said it was a response to recent militia attacks in Iraq, in particular a Feb. 15 rocket attack on the airport in Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which killed a civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he was “confident” that the U.S. had hit back against the same Shiite militia—Kataib Hezbollah—that carried out the strike in Erbil, though the group has denied responsibility.
It’s not quite clear what the legal basis was for the strike. The Trump administration dubiously argued that previous strikes against Kataib Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies were justified under the 2001 post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force against terrorism and the 2002 authorization for military force in Iraq—which would be a pretty thin legal basis for an attack on an Iranian-backed militia in Syria two decades later. The Pentagon and the White House National Security Council have not responded to requests for clarification.
The Biden team has made it very clear that they want to avoid getting bogged down in the Middle East. A recent Politico story quoted one Biden adviser saying the region is “not in the top three” of its foreign policy priorities, which are the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere. Biden has ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and is reviewing arms sales to the Gulf, and he waited a month before calling any leader in the region. His first major foreign policy speech notably did not include the words Israel, Palestinian, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, al-Qaida, or Islam. The Pentagon is currently conducting a review of U.S. overseas military commitments, and all indications are that it will conclude that the Middle East is not the strategic priority it used to be.
The urge to deprioritize makes sense. U.S. military interventions in the region since 9/11 have been long, costly—in lives and money—and only seem to produce more violence. America’s emergence as a major energy producer—and, hopefully, an impending shift away from fossil fuels—has reduced the importance of the region’s oil reserves. As attacks by groups like ISIS and al-Qaida in the West have declined in recent years, so has the U.S. public concern about jihadi terrorism, which was strikingly absent as a major issue during the 2020 campaign. These days, the most pressing violent extremist threat is much closer to home. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shortsighted efforts to turn Israel into a partisan issue in the U.S. mean we’re likely to hear a lot less about it when Democrats are in office, and Biden has not suggested he has any ambitions of forging an “ultimate deal” for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Still, the region’s conflicts have already occupied, and will continue to occupy, more of Biden’s attention than he would probably like. Efforts to resuscitate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have proved to be as tricky as many feared, with Iran continuing to edge away from the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear program. If the U.S. now gets into a tit-for-tat cycle of retaliation with Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, it will only further complicate those efforts.
But it’s not easy for the U.S. to simply walk away. Today also saw the release of the intelligence community’s report on the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which concludes that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination. Biden has spoken with the crown prince’s father, King Salman, in an effort to soften the blow, but there’s sure to be more fallout. Biden will also soon face an unenviable decision on Afghanistan (not a Middle Eastern country, though U.S. engagements in the two regions are very much linked) between keeping U.S. troops deployed beyond the current May 1 withdrawal deadline or allowing the country to be overrun by the Taliban. The Obama administration’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and then Obama’s decision to order troops back to the country in 2014 after the emergence of ISIS are no doubt weighing on the president’s mind.
The strike on Friday was a perfect example of how U.S. involvement in regional conflicts is perpetuated. Both Iran and the U.S. seem to be trying to establish some credibility as they inch toward resuming talks on the nuclear deal, though more violence risks derailing the process entirely. Iran stepped up its use of proxy attacks against U.S. interests and allies following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 and the ensuing “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign the administration waged against the regime, which nearly led to an all-out war at the beginning of last year.
But, of course, this story doesn’t start with Trump. Iran-backed Shiite militias attained their current level of influence after the emergence of ISIS, when Iraq’s military collapsed, and fought alongside U.S. forces against the group. Before that, the militias waged a bloody insurgency against U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. You can take the story back further—to the ’90s, the ’80s, the ’50s—if you really want to.
It can seem at times like the real U.S. strategic priority in the Middle East is cleaning up the messes left behind by previous strategic priorities. The cycle’s not over yet.