Bragging about his restoration of the pre-Trump neoliberal foreign policy, Joe Biden proudly declared “America is back.” What this means in practice is that barely a month into Biden’s term, America is back to bombing Syria for alleged provocations by Iranian-backed militias.
While ordinary Americans on both the Left and Right are wary of dreams of empire and want to focus instead on pressing domestic challenges, Biden’s paeans to America’s pre-Trump foreign policy—including its disastrous run in the Middle East—suggest someone unwilling and unable to learn from events.
A Dubious Return to Regime Change in Syria
For example, this recent attack supposedly was a response to an Iranian-backed militia, but this prompts the question: Why are our troops still in Syria and Iraq? On what authority and for what purpose does this mission continue? Biden’s recent approval of a limited bombing did almost nothing to justify the decision to the American people, nor did he attempt to justify the continued presence of U.S. troops in a danger zone. Instead, the White House sent a pro forma statement to Congress, and that’s about it.
The United States has been involved in Syria since 2011. First, we set out under Barack Obama to remove Bashar al-Assad by arming the so-called Free Syrian Army. Then, having armed the anti-Assad rebels, many of them became unmanageable and joined ISIS, wreaking havoc in Syria, in Europe, and here at home. President Trump then proceeded to devise policies to destroy ISIS, which the military largely achieved.
But now what? Does Biden still mean to remove Assad? And, if so, why are we so sure that what comes next won’t resemble ISIS?
Trump faced a lot of criticism for ordering our troops out of Syria after the ISIS mission was complete. He was then persuaded into keeping some forces there—ostensibly to guard both critical oil resources and our Kurdish allies. Key government officials, including his Syrian envoy, lied to him about the numbers and status of American forces.
Forever War Abroad, Danger at Home
America has been in the Middle East since the late 1970s, yet has little to show for it. Our involvement seems to make things worse abroad while increasing our risk at home.
Barack Obama—who ran as peace candidate—withdrew from Iraq only to get us involved in Libya and Syria during his second term. These were both sold as humanitarian missions, but the end results were quite inhumane.
As Andrew Bacevich observed, “[T]he confused state of U.S. policy toward Syria—the yawning gap between high-sounding words and half-hearted action—testified to the larger disarray now enveloping Washington’s approach to the Greater Middle East. After Libya (not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan), it was impossible to sustain the illusion that eliminating this or that unsavory regime held the key to putting the region back together again.”
One small victory of the Trump years was the near-elimination of domestic Islamic terrorism. Things returned to normal, more or less, both here and in Europe. No San Bernardinos or nightclub massacres happened on his watch. Surely, some of this stems from the United States scaling back its presence (reducing their motives), while blocking the flow of unvetted refugees into the country (reducing their means).
Trump did give in to pressure to retaliate against the Assad regime following Syria’s alleged use of poison gas. I was critical of these decisions at the time, although, to his credit, Trump’s actions were discrete and did not lead to an escalation of our involvement in the conflict.
The difference now is that Biden is a weak leader, and at least some in his national security team seem devoted to increasing our footprint in the Middle East. This is sold as supporting vague humanitarian goals.
The latest attack further cements the American commitment to Syria. This is unfortunate because, like Afghanistan, there is no end game. Unlike in Afghanistan, however, we’re not obviously on the right side. Assad is the only legitimate leader of Syria. The government he leads has reestablished itself all over the country and is the only viable path to ending the war, the refugee crisis, and the scourge of Islamic fundamentalists.
In the end, there never was a clear national security rationale for removing Assad.
No law or principle gives the United States a right to attack Syria’s government, create chaos, and set up objectively bad conditions for the vast majority of the Syrian people. In Iraq, we did this, but at least there was a fig leaf concern for weapons of mass destruction. Even with that rationale—later proven false—Iraq has hardly been a success story, for either the United States or the Iraqis.
A Legacy of Failure
These policy failures manifest a broader problem in both parties that goes beyond Syria to include our continued basing of troops in Europe and South Korea. We don’t know how to throw in the towel. America’s Mideast foreign policy goals are both overly ambitious and ill-defined. When results do not materialize, the solution is always to try harder, devote more resources, or “stay the course,” rather than to rethink the strategy.
In other words, our vaunted national security leadership is bad at making decisions. It is bad at assessing threats, bad at prioritizing competing challenges, and bad at devising metrics, whether for “good enough” success allowing our departure, or for identifying manifest failures, which we should then abandon. In the case of American troops in Europe, this continuation of outdated policy is merely an expensive nuisance. In Syria and elsewhere, it imposes real costs in blood on the American military and, in the case of retaliation, on the American public.
I suspect what’s going on here is more than the usual incoherence of American policy. There is also an internal contradiction within the Biden Administration. The softer sorts want rapprochement with Iran and a restoration of the nuclear deal. Others, including hardcore interventionists like Samantha Power and primarily pro-Israel partisans like Tony Blinken, do not. For them, the rise of ISIS and similar groups are simply the price to pay for weakening Syria. A war-ravaged and weakened Syria is unable to threaten Israel. Taking sides in this multisided war keeps America in the Middle East, artificially creating new interests (such as force security) that align with the broader strategic interests of Israel and the anti-Iran Gulf States.
The slogan “America is back” means open-ended commitments to the Middle East and elsewhere. This promises activity and expense, but no obvious benefits. The chief result likely will be provocation and irritation, as the modest forces and strategies are not sufficient to eliminate any of these purported threats completely.
Sometimes, as in our personal lives, it’s best simply to avoid a bad neighborhood altogether.