U.S. retaliation for American deaths shouldn’t be driven by war fever

by Daniel DePetris

Until this past weekend, the roughly 45,000 U.S. troops based in the Middle East were able to insulate themselves from the chaos of the region. Granted, American service members in Iraq and Syria have been attacked more than 150 times by Iran-backed militias since October, but none of those attacks resulted in fatalities thanks to a combination of luck and antimissile defenses.

That all changed Sunday, when President Joe Biden broke the news that a drone attack on living quarters had killed three Americans and wounded more than 30. The attack occurred in northeastern Jordan, a stone’s throw from the Syrian border, at a facility known as Tower 22, which has been used by U.S. forces for years to support U.S. operations in Syria.

The Pentagon is clear that an Iran-supported militia perpetrated the attack. War fever is gripping Washington, with longtime Iran hawks using last weekend’s tragedy as an opportunity to amplify their case for why the U.S. needs to hit Tehran directly. Lawmakers such as U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton and John Cornyn have jumped on social media to recommend bombing Iran directly, despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence community still doesn’t have a full picture of what exactly occurred and that Iran doesn’t have direct command and control over its proxies.

Even so, there is no doubt Biden will respond militarily. He was willing to retaliate after militia attacks that injured U.S. forces, and it’s a guarantee he will strike back now that Americans have been killed. The U.S. bombed Kataib Hezbollah, one of these militias, just last week, destroying facilities in western Iraq and south of Baghdad. The Iraqi government has been increasingly vocal about these U.S. precision strikes, lambasting them as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty that is chipping away at the U.S.-Iraq relationship. The president intimated his response a few hours after releasing his statement about the attack. “We had a tough day last night in the Middle East. We lost three brave souls in an attack on one of our bases,” Biden said during a stop in South Carolina. “And we shall respond.”

The debate inside the White House revolves around the scope and intensity of that response. It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that U.S. retaliation would be far broader than it was during last week’s U.S. strikes in Iraq, if only because of the loss of American lives. Yet the extent of that response matters, for as much as Biden may have the legitimate urge to avenge the deaths of Americans, he also needs to be cognizant about the risk of escalation. Preventing more escalation in the Middle East is purportedly a U.S. policy goal, so any U.S. military action that would undermine it would be self-defeating.

There is blood in the water right now. Emotions are raw — and after listening to some of the cavalier statements coming from Capitol Hill, we might assume that the U.S. is on the cusp of launching a war of choice against Iran. But responsible policymakers can’t afford to let hysteria rule the day. Emotion, whether it be fear, pride or anger, is a terrible basis for good policy.

So what should the U.S. do, exactly?

In this specific instance, there is no use debating whether the U.S. should use military power. Judging by Biden’s words and those of his advisers, the decision has already been made. And military retaliation is perfectly justifiable: U.S. adversaries must understand that they can’t shoot at U.S. troops and not be held accountable for it.

The U.S. strikes, however, must be proportionate. Militia arms depots, storage facilities and training grounds are all fair game. But striking inside Iranian territory as so many knee-jerk armchair generals are clamoring for isn’t smart if your overall objective in the region is to stop the violence from spreading further. Iran, of course, can’t compete with the U.S. in a full-fledged war; its conventional military power is pathetic even by regional standards. Yet Tehran does possess the largest missile arsenal in the region, with a range to strike U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. To believe the Iranians would simply roll over and take it on the chin after a U.S. attack would be naive at best and delusional at worst. The U.S. killed one of Iran’s top generals in January 2020, and Tehran responded days later by sending more than a dozen ballistic missiles into a U.S. base in Iraq.

Notably, any U.S. military action should be accompanied with back channel diplomacy. By “diplomacy,” I don’t necessarily mean negotiations but stern communication. The Biden administration must make it crystal clear to the Iranians that while the U.S. will never hesitate to defend its people, it has no intention of starting a wider war and in fact would have preferred not to engage in military action at all were it not for their proxies’ behavior.

A message should be sent to the Iraqi government as well: Start controlling the militias that are technically under your army’s purview or prepare yourself for a U.S. aid cutoff and the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces remaining in the country, although the U.S. should withdraw anyway.

Finally, the U.S. ought to come to grips with the fact that our presence in Iraq and Syria is doing more harm than good.

War should be a last resort. It’s imperative we follow that golden rule.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.