What Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria Say About U.S.-Middle East Policy | Opinion

By now, you've heard about the Biden administration's most recent U.S. military operation in Iraq and Syria. Responding to an alarming series of sophisticated drone attacks from Iran-sponsored Shiite militias in Iraq, President Joe Biden authorized limited precision airstrikes against three separate militia facilities spanning both countries in what the Defense Department hopes will send a "clear and unambiguous deterrent message." Those militias, unfortunately, didn't get the message—hours after the U.S. strikes, U.S. forces in eastern Syria were targeted with rockets. Thankfully, U.S. troops in the area were able to escape casualties.

If you believe the Biden administration, the events of the last two days are under control. The military strike was both legal and appropriate, the president and his aides insist. Sooner or later, the tit-for-tat exchange will end, and deterrence will be restored.

Case closed, right? If only it were that simple.

Let's focus on the legal aspects first. The White House would have us believe that as commander-in-chief, the president has the constitutional authority to use force at its discretion—protecting U.S. troops overseas being one of the chief carveouts. True, there are certain extraordinary circumstances when presidents have the right to use military force without congressional approval. U.S. forces under immediate hostile fire is one of them. The War Powers Resolution is quite clear on this point. U.S. troops deployed anywhere in the world always have the right to protect themselves, which is why nobody was particularly concerned when the U.S. military responded to the militia rocket attacks in Syria with counter-battery fire.

There is a legitimate question, however, as to whether the U.S. strikes against Shiite militia targets in Iraq and Syria last Sunday can be considered acts of self-defense. The Biden administration clearly thinks so, which is why the president's Article II authority under the U.S. Constitution was invoked shortly thereafter. But was this strike really about self-defense? It's equally plausible that the U.S. airstrikes on June 27 were about deterring future rocket and drone attacks on U.S. military positions in Iraq, activities that are not expressly covered under the War Powers Resolution or indeed under Article II. Some of the administration's allies on Capitol Hill seem to take issue with Biden's interpretation of his own war powers, for good reason—in the post-Cold War era, multiple administrations have chipped away at Congress' domain in this vital area. Article II has undergone a kind of metamorphosis, in which the executive branch now deploys it as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card to the normal constitutional process of coming to Congress for authority. The latest U.S. airstrikes reconfirm what we all know to be true: Presidents have a far more expansive definition of their own power than what the U.S. Constitution tolerates.

The legality of the strike is not the only element of this story ripe for scrutiny.

President Joe Biden speaks during an event
President Joe Biden speaks during an event. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Pentagon claims that the strikes on Shiite militia facilities will instill a sense of deterrence over those who seek to harass U.S. troops in Iraq with rocket fire. Unfortunately, claiming deterrence and actually re-establishing it are two entirely different things. The Biden administration can use the word "deterrence" in press releases all it wants. But unless Shiite militias like Kata'ib Hezbollah and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada start believing that the risks of targeting Americans are higher than the benefits, deterrence is nothing but an empty buzzword. Just like the U.S. airstrikes last February on the same militias didn't stop the rockets from flying in the months since, it's highly unlikely this latest round of airstrikes will either. Rather than deterrence, U.S. forces are more likely to face an escalatory spiral, where multiple rounds of fire are exchanged and opportunities for deescalation become more precarious.

Above all, Biden's latest military action exposes the hot mess otherwise known as Washington's Middle East policy. The U.S. foreign policy establishment likes to think they have a clear, concise, intelligent framework through which the U.S. achieves its objectives in the region. In reality, though, U.S. military deployments in the Middle East are dictated by inertia, habit and stale thinking rather than a clear understanding of U.S. interests.

There are approximately 50,000 U.S. troops stationed across a constellation of military bases in the Persian Gulf, a decrease from the 80,000 servicemembers deployed in the Middle East during the latter end of the Trump administration but still far more than what is required to safeguard the two principal U.S. interests in the region: defending against anti-U.S. terrorism and preventing significant, long-term disruptions to the flow of oil. The U.S. force posture in the Middle East is still very much trapped in the thralls of the Carter Doctrine—a Cold War-era policy designed to prevent a peer competitor like the Soviet Union from gaining control of the Persian Gulf (and its oil resources). Needless to say, the Soviet Union has been six-feet under for 30 years and no near-peer rival—not China and certainly not Russia—has the power, prosperity, or frankly interest in being the region's hegemon. It's about time Washington catch up to the present reality and discard the Carter Doctrine into the history books alongside the Soviets.

Today, U.S. forces in Iraq are in the absurd situation of ducking and weaving from rockets set off by militias that are technically part of the official Iraqi army—the very army U.S. troops are tasked with training and advising. If this isn't strategic myopia, I don't know what is.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.