The debacle that ensued saw the Taliban take over a feeble state that had been propped up for close to two decades with U.S. resources. Biden and his allies still defend what transpired, anchored in a conviction that the American public wanted to end the longest war in the country’s history and that the chaotic collapse in Kabul was an outcome already set in motion by the mistakes of Biden’s predecessor.
Whatever the merits of that claim, this weekend Biden plunged once more into the sprawling battlefields of the post-9/11 era. The United States and a number of Western allies launched strikes on dozens of targets belonging to Iran-affiliated militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The wave of attacks was billed as a response to a drone strike from an Iran-affiliated militant group in Iraq that killed three U.S. troops at a support base in Jordan the previous weekend.
On Friday, Biden framed the punitive action as a necessary measure. “If you harm an American, we will respond,” he said. The strikes on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, in which the British were also involved, were billed as a deterrent against the group’s attacks on maritime activity in the Red Sea, a crucial artery of global commerce.
“We will not hesitate to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement, adding that there would be “further consequences” for the Houthis — who embarked on this campaign as a form of protest against Israel’s onslaught in Gaza — if the attacks did not stop.
Behind Biden’s Middle East crises is the long tail of Trump’s legacy
Analysts are skeptical that the U.S. strikes will achieve any considerable strategic goals. The Biden administration telegraphed its response over the past week and deliberately avoided crossing the implicit red lines of the Iranian regime — no apparent Iranian personnel were hit, though Iraqi authorities pointed to more than a dozen deaths, including an unspecified number of civilians.
“It looks like a very significant action by the Biden administration, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near sufficient to deter these groups,” Charles Lister, director of the Middle East Institute’s Syria program, told my colleagues. “These militias have been engaged in this campaign for more than 20 years, they are in a long-term struggle. They are ultimately engaged in an attritional campaign against the U.S.”
The strikes predictably provoked a new wave of regional anger. The Houthis said they will “meet escalation with escalation.” An Iranian foreign ministry official accused the United States and Britain of “stoking chaos, disorder, insecurity and instability.” An Iraqi government spokesman said Biden’s action “places the security in Iraq and the region on the edge of the abyss,” and lamented how his nation was a “battleground for settling scores.”
Looming behind the tensions is the war between Israel and militant group Hamas, which still has more than 100 hostages in its captivity. Israel’s devastating campaign in Gaza has killed more than 27,000 people, leveled the territory and sparked a humanitarian crisis. It also stoked a wave of attacks by Iran-aligned “axis of resistance” groups on U.S. bases in the region.
The main restraining factor in the moment is that neither the United States nor Iran wants a full-blown war. “The Biden administration has elections looming, in which it does not need another costly foreign adventure, trouble over its Israel policy, or rising oil prices,” wrote CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh. “Iran’s economy is still shaky, internal unrest is a not-yet distant memory, and it has wider goals of outsized regional influence, milking its technical relationship with Moscow, and the apparent … pursuit of a nuclear weapon.”
In Washington, Republican lawmakers and politicians have called on Biden to be far more aggressive against Iran, even suggesting the need for U.S. attacks within Iranian territory. The White House has made clear that it doesn’t want to engage in an open war with Tehran.
“Biden is characteristically less rabid than his critics,” wrote Spencer Ackerman, a veteran chronicler of the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East. “But he has locked his policy into a position where every provocation prompts another step up the escalator.”
Ackerman summoned Karl Marx’s pithy axiom about history playing out first as tragedy and then as farce. After two decades of Middle East quagmires, he argued, Biden was engaged in “a farcical, rote recapitulation of the historical disasters that led to this point, its ultimate failure as preordained as the horrors it will generate. Biden still has time to restrain Israel — and find a way to negotiate with Iran before we cross the threshold. But not much.”
The Middle East’s arc of conflict is spiraling
Other commentators are less alarmed. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin pushed back against the suggestion that the Biden administration should now withdraw the United States’ relatively small troop presence in countries like Iraq and Syria, which are serving a near-decade-long mission to counter the militant Islamic State.
“Keeping small amounts of U.S. troops in strategically important outposts in the Middle East is not the same as fighting a ‘forever war,’” Rogin wrote. “It’s an insurance policy against much worse outcomes. Americans are willing to pay the price of this insurance policy, as long as it does not include the deaths of U.S. troops.”
Jon Hoffman, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, disagreed. “America’s presence and policies in the Middle East are not deterring violence, nor are they stabilizing the region,” he wrote. “Instead, they incite and risk major escalation. Washington should end its aimless tit-for-tat military exchanges with Iran-backed groups in the Middle East and bring U.S. troops home.”
That’s not going to happen now, as Biden girds himself for a combative election year. “One of the great things about having a president with 50 years of experience in foreign policy is, he’s very, very aware of the difficulties, the tension, the competition in the region,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, told the New Republic. “But I’m confident that he is carefully balancing how to deter Iran, how to strike back in a way that shows a firmness and determination to protect American troops, with an eye towards avoiding broadening the conflict.”