By Lara Seligman and Andrew Desiderio
July 13, 2021
A series of Iranian-backed militia attacks against Americans in Iraq and Syria is piling new pressure on President Joe Biden, with some Republicans criticizing his approach as insufficient and ineffective.
U.S. troops and diplomats in Iraq and Syria were targeted in six rocket and drone attacks this week alone, including when at least 14 rockets hit a base in Iraq on Wednesday, injuring two U.S. service members. The development is the latest in an escalating back-and-forth between the U.S. and Iranian-backed militia groups, which have stepped up attacks on U.S. troops in recent months despite Biden’s stated goal of deterrence through retaliatory airstrikes.
The conflict is once again testing Biden’s resolve to pivot away from America’s decades of war in the Middle East so his administration can focus on ending the pandemic and navigating adversarial relations with Russia and China. And it could threaten Congress’ work this year on scaling back the president’s authority to strike in the region.
Biden’s growing headache is also a familiar one for the former longtime senator and vice president, who has watched three successive American presidents before him continue to fight seemingly endless wars in the region using open-ended congressional authorizations.
Republicans this week criticized Biden’s “bare minimum” approach, noting that his two retaliatory strikes have failed to deter the Iranian proxies.
“Iran-backed militias’ continued assault on U.S. personnel in Iraq cannot be tolerated,” Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement to POLITICO. “President Biden must put forward a real strategy for deterring and ending these attacks, rather than continuing his bare-minimum, tit-for-tat approach that is failing to deter Iran or its militias and puts American lives at increased risk.”
While they acknowledge that the current situation is unsustainable, Biden’s Democratic allies counter that the president does not have the authority to launch offensive strikes against the Iran-backed militia groups without first seeking congressional approval. The president, they say, is acting within his Article II powers under the Constitution to defend U.S. service members by retaliating.
“These are very fact-specific determinations,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a Foreign Relations Committee member, said in an interview.
“These actions within Iraq [are] very different than any kind of attack on Iran,” Van Hollen added. “The president has no authority to attack Iran, and in that circumstance would clearly have to come to the Congress to seek authorization.”
Other Democrats have compared the situation to a low-scale war that could reasonably be considered “hostilities” as defined by the War Powers Act. They are urging Biden to consider asking Congress for approval to continue striking the Iranian proxies — but only if he believes that will truly deter the militias.
But Van Hollen noted that the U.S. under Biden has yet to initiate hostilities against the Iranian proxies, and “that is obviously a line that cannot be crossed” without approval from Congress.
Meanwhile, former defense officials called on the president to “be consistent” in responding to the attacks. Mick Mulroy, who oversaw the Pentagon’s Middle East policy during the Trump administration, noted that “Iran needs to know they can’t hide behind their proxy forces.”
But Biden has limited options to contain the situation. He has already twice directed targeted airstrikes on facilities used by the militia groups in Iraq and Syria — once in February and again in late June in response to a spate of drone attacks — to little effect, even as his administration asserts that the strikes were intended to deter future attacks. And he risks further exacerbating tensions with Iraq, which condemned the June airstrike on Iraqi soil as a “blatant” violation of national sovereignty.
The past week has seen a string of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.
Pentagon Spokesperson Cmdr. Jessica McNulty said the United States reserves the right to respond “at a time and place of our choosing to protect and defend our people.”
“What we will not do is telegraph our potential actions — seen or unseen,” she said.
On Monday, three rockets were fired at Ain al-Asad air base, and then a drone was shot down near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Then on Tuesday, an explosive-laden drone attacked U.S. troops at Erbil air base in Iraq. Three attacks targeted troops in Iraq and Syria on Wednesday: at least 14 rockets hit al-Asad, injuring two U.S. service members; two rockets were fired at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone; and a drone attacked the Al Omar oilfield in eastern Syria, where U.S. troops were hit were hit with multiple rockets on June 28.
At the same time, the military is batting down misinformation about additional attacks on U.S. forces in Syria, and rumors that Washington is facing pressure from the Iraqi government to withdraw from the country — both of which officials have attributed to Iranian propaganda.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday that the department is “deeply concerned” about the attacks, and hinted that the president could choose to retaliate again.
“We take the security and safety of our people overseas extremely seriously,” Kirby said. “And you’ve seen us retaliate appropriately when that safety and security has been threatened.”
The escalation is also complicating bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to rein in the president’s war powers.
Next week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to approve a bill to repeal two authorizations for the use of military force against Iraq. On Monday, the panel will receive a briefing from top administration officials on how the repeals might affect current military operations, with a focus on the escalating conflict with the Iran-backed militias.
Biden supports scrapping the outdated authorizations, and the House has already approved similar efforts.
But some Senate Republicans are already promising to make the process difficult, arguing that repealing the 2002 and 1991 Iraq War authorizations would send a dangerous message as the Iran-backed militia groups that continue to strike American positions in Iraq. They also contend that it would unnecessarily hamstring the commander in chief — though the 2002 authorization was intended to topple Saddam Hussein’s government, and the 1991 authorization is effectively obsolete as it dealt with the Gulf War.
“Any justification for the 2002 AUMF has long since passed,” Van Hollen said. “U.S. forces are currently in Iraq with the approval of the Iraqi government. So you don’t need a 2002 AUMF to justify that presence of American forces in Iraq.”
Still, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told POLITICO that he is introducing an amendment to the repeal measures next week that would preserve the president’s ability to attack Iran and its proxies. It’s a top priority for GOP lawmakers including Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, the top Republican on the House Armed Services panel, who urged Biden to “show strength in the face of these attacks.”
“It needs to be made clear that if our troops are attacked in any part of the world that we will not only respond, but we will respond quickly and forcefully,” Rogers told POLITICO.