Could Joe Biden bomb Iran? There are loud calls by some members of Congress and pundits to do this in response to the surge in attacks by Iranian proxy groups against U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria and shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Some thought it was telling last weekend when National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan refused to rule out a U.S. attack on Iran during a press interview.
But why would anyone be calling for American airstrikes against Iran? Why didn’t the massive U.S. airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria last week and the 14 or more U.S. airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen halt their attacks?
The answer to both questions is that American deterrence in the Middle East has seriously eroded during the Biden administration.
Much of this erosion is due to three years of American weakness and foreign policy failures caused by the administration’s incompetent foreign policy. This includes the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. feuding with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration’s attempts to appease Iran, and a frivolous foreign policy that treats climate change as the principal national security threat to the United States.
American credibility in the Middle East was further undermined by Biden administration policies in the aftermath of the October 7, 2023, Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. Although Biden officials offered strong support for Israel immediately after this attack, there soon were signs of a split between the U.S. and Israel as administration officials began to publicly criticize the Israeli government for the way it was conducting the war against Hamas.
Worried about criticism from his progressive supporters, President Biden and his senior national security officials have pressed the Israeli government to end the war quickly and agree to a peace plan based on the two-state solution. Israeli officials have rejected ending the war before it can guarantee Israel’s security and defeat Hamas. They have also said two-state solution peace plans are off the table due to the October 7 attack.
There have also been press reports of growing tension between Biden and Netanyahu, including the president abruptly ending a December 23 phone call with the Israeli leader, Netanyahu repeatedly rejecting Biden’s calls for Palestinian sovereignty, and a report that Biden was running out of patience with Netanyahu.
In addition, until recently, the Biden administration did little in response to attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed militias and over two dozen missile and drone attacks on Israel and Red Sea shipping by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The Houthi drone and missile attacks began in mid-October. The U.S. did not retaliate until January 11, when U.S. and British forces bombed over 60 targets in Yemen. Despite this and at least 13 subsequent U.S. and U.K. airstrikes, the Houthis have continued to fire at commercial and U.S. Navy ships in the Red Sea, including an attack drone that damaged a British cargo ship on February 6.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the effectiveness of the first airstrikes against Yemen on January 11 was reportedly weakened because the U.S. notified the Houthis of the sites that U.S. and U.K. forces planned to bomb so they could be evacuated.
On February 2, the U.S. responded to over 160 attacks since October by Iranian proxies on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, including a January 28 attack in nearby Jordan that killed three U.S. servicemembers, with major airstrikes against 85 sites. The U.S. conducted another airstrike in Bagdad on February 7 that reportedly killed a militia commander. Biden Administration officials said these airstrikes are part of a multi-tiered U.S. response that could last weeks.
But despite the recent U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, Iran-backed fighters attacked a U.S. base in Syria on February 5, killing six American-allied Kurdish fighters.
There have been calls by some members of Congress and pundits for several weeks to attack Iran in response to the attacks by its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. These calls intensified after the recent U.S. airstrikes failed to stop these attacks. Jake Sullivan’s refusal last weekend to rule out a U.S. attack on Iran added to speculation that the Biden White House may be considering this.
The U.S. attacking Iran or sinking Iranian ships would be a serious development because it would greatly escalate tensions in the region and could spark a regional war. Many Members of Congress insist that any U.S. attack against Iran requires congressional authorization under the War Powers Act and under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution on Congress’s power to declare war.
Congressman Michael Waltz (R-FL) believes this because he contends that bombing Iranian territory is a red line for the U.S. that the president needs congressional authorization to cross. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) have expressed similar views.
What U.S. airstrikes against Iran would accomplish is uncertain. What would the strategy be for such attacks? How extensive would they be? Would they do serious damage to the Iranian military and economy? Given how badly U.S. deterrence in the region has been eroded by this president, would Iran refuse to back down after American attacks on its territory or forces and instead escalate its attacks against the U.S. forces and its allies?
These are serious questions that Congress should insist the Biden Administration answer before a possible attack against Iran. I believe that regardless of whether one believes congressional authorization for an attack on Iran is legally required, the president would be wise to seek it anyway because congressional debate and endorsement of such a serious action would give it much more credibility.
Given the Biden Administration’s efforts to appease Iran, I believe it is unlikely that the President would order an attack on Iranian territory or other offensive actions against Iran. But given Biden’s low approval ratings, I am worried that a desperate “wag the dog” attack on Iran to distract Americans from the president’s political problems at home cannot be ruled out. Congress must keep a sharp eye out for this and demand that it approve any U.S. attack on Iran or Iranian forces.
Fred Fleitz is vice-chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security. He previously served as National Security Council chief of staff, CIA analyst, and a House Intelligence Committee staff member.