On Friday, the United States conducted a series of strikes on sites in Syria and Iraq that it said belonged to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated militias. The air raids came in retaliation for the January 28 attack by the armed group Islamic Resistance of Iraq (IRI) on a military base in Jordan that killed three US soldiers and injured more than 40 others.
In a statement issued the same day, US President Joe Biden said the response would not stop at IRGC targets. On Saturday, American and British forces bombarded Houthi bases in Yemen in an apparent continuation of efforts to degrade their ability to disrupt maritime shipping in the Red Sea. There may be more attacks in the coming days as well, but clearly, the US is refraining from directly hitting Iran, which it accuses of supplying weapons to IRI.
A military response was politically unavoidable for the Biden administration. As is normally the case in an election year, any serious domestic development or international incident involving US interests or prestige becomes a defining moment for the sitting administration, whether Republican or Democratic.
The measured retaliation reflects the fact that the US president has a lot to worry about in terms of domestic perceptions and the attitudes of voters he seeks to sway in his favour as well as the dramatic changes in his own party’s electorate.
Pressure from Trump
Since October 7, the Israeli government has sought to portray Hamas’s attack as an Iranian act of aggression. After the January 28 attack in Jordan, some Republican members of Congress echoed this position.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham minced no words in agitating for a direct US strike on Iran itself. His Republican colleagues Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Cornyn of Texas seconded his call.
Former President Donald Trump, who is the likely Republican nominee for the presidential election in November, took a rather isolationist stance and insisted that the Jordan attack would not have taken place had he been in charge.
Establishment Republicans like Graham, Cornyn and Cotton may no longer reflect the general mood among the rank and file who now form Trump’s solid base and are trying to change the party’s position on foreign policy. Indeed, the Make America Great Again crowd is loathe to expand US entanglements overseas and prefers to see financial resources used domestically, for example, to strengthen the southern border and halt the influx of migrants and asylum seekers.
But it is not just the core of Trump’s base that embraces this anti-escalatory stance. Given that the vast majority of Americans worry about their country getting dragged into a war – about 84 percent, according to one recent poll – Trump’s isolationist rhetoric has widespread appeal.
Democrats in Congress, perhaps feeling the growing pressure, reacted to the Jordan attack by calling for a strong but “proportionate” response, a euphemism for a measured strike on pro-Iran militia targets but without directly hitting Iran. Such positions were articulated by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Senators Ben Cardin of Maryland and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
Indeed, the Biden administration’s response to the Jordan attack has practically marked the midpoint between hawkish Republicans’ calls for striking Iran directly and the Democrats’ calls for a limited reaction. According to the Pentagon, its strikes included the command and control centres of Iran’s IRGC and its affiliated militias – in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – as well as their drone and intelligence capabilities.
Impact on Biden’s re-election campaign
American foreign policy decisions and actions rarely impact the outcome of presidential elections, even less congressional elections. This time around, however, Biden’s choices may make or break his chances for re-election.
In his administration’s response to the Jordan attack, he had to reconcile his declared disinterest in widening the conflict in the Middle East with the need to respond to an act of aggression against US troops in the region. But the response that he ordered was nonetheless an escalation of tensions that may lead to the dreaded widening of the conflict.
Biden decided on this response, likely with his re-election campaign strategy in mind. Knowing that he is unlikely to persuade many hardcore Republicans to switch their votes from presumptive nominee Trump to him, Biden seeks to get the support of most independents and some moderate Republicans in November. Reports following the New Hampshire primary indicate that Biden may be able to count on segments of these two groups to support his campaign.
Usually supportive of moderate positions in US foreign policy that protect American interests and prestige, many independents and moderate Republicans are likely to approve of Biden’s response to the Jordan attack.
While he may be gaining their support, Biden may be losing the support of others. Indeed, the most important problem for him may be in his own Democratic Party, where the sentiment is clearly shifting – slowly but perceptibly – away from traditional support for military action overseas and for Israel.
Young voters in general, who were crucial for Biden’s victory in 2020, and young Democrats have soured on the president’s policy choices, especially those related to Israel and the Middle East. They accuse him of hypocrisy because of his contradictory positions on the Russian war on Ukraine and the Israeli war on Gaza.
Crucially, the president’s fortunes may depend on whether Muslim and Arab Americans decide to vote for him in November. Currently, the support of both communities is in doubt as Biden continues to ignore their calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and is doing nothing to stop the Israeli slaughter, in which more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed.
While his retaliation for the Jordan attack may be the right geopolitical move that US foreign policy requires, it is unlikely to restore to him any support from young Democrats and Muslim and Arab Americans.
What Biden needs to do to gain their support is to dissociate himself and his administration from Israel’s genocidal war, its apartheid system and its occupation of Palestinian land. Indeed, his re-election remains uncertain without a new, morally defensible direction in US foreign policy in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.