Biden’s Empire Moment
Fresh airstrikes on Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria come at a time of fresh Republican skepticism of the military, as a career aspirant president settles into the trappings of power.
It’s a maneuver that’s become as routine as slipping into athleisure and dialing into Zoom.
Early this week, we read again of airstrikes in the Middle East, the latest in a tit-for-tat with agents of Iran. “At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region,” senior Pentagon spox John F. Kirby said in a statement.
“The strikes were both necessary to address the threat and appropriately limited in scope. As a matter of domestic law, the President took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq,” Kirby continued. Those with a sense of deja vu could be excused.
In a new administration with recycled personnel galore from the Obama administration—Jen Psaki as the face of the White House, Domestic Policy Council head Susan Rice in an executive encore tour, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in the likely role he would have occupied in a Hillary Clinton administration—perhaps no figure is more a retread than Kirby.
The retired admiral served Defense secretary Chuck Hagel in Alexandria—before a bizarre ouster at the hands of Hagel’s successor, Ash Carter, and a swift recovery at State under Secretary of State John Kerry. He is now starring in a swan song under Secretary Lloyd Austin at Joe Biden’s Pentagon. And through it all, one could observe, the United States has been bombing Iraq and Syria.
Several items are at play here.
First, the strikes on the cadres of Iran, not the president’s first, represent a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward moment for many who hope Biden will prove a surprise beacon of restraint. The administration had tacitly backed a Congressional revocation of the 2002 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF), the fateful legislation that gave the greenlight to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and the expenditure of years more of blood and treasure in the region, on a supremely tangential basis.
This had won plaudits from those who wished for reform. The good news? President Biden is willing to throw Bush administration law on the scrap heap of history. The bad? He has, evidently, taken a Borboun view—nearly invoking “L’état, c’est moi”—of his authority. Under the Biden view, the authorization can be revoked because, in foreign affairs at least, as one former president once explained, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” So, the AUMF is wrong because it is redundant.
“I directed last night’s airstrikes, targeting sites used by the Iranian-backed militia group responsible for recent attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq, and I have that authority under Article II,” Biden said this week, referring to the section of the Constitution that grants presidential powers. This from a president who once voted to rebuke President Richard Nixon, by voting for the War Powers Act of 1973, at the height of Vietnam, and in his first year in Senate. “And even those up on the Hill who are reluctant to acknowledge that have acknowledged that is the case,” Biden said this week, digging in his heels.
But they haven’t.
“The danger here is that you fall into a pattern of military escalation that becomes war without voters ever having a say.” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who made his bones in the Trump era as a champion of diplomacy, told Politico. Even old guard hawks in Biden’s ranks are flummoxed, underlining the authority enunciated under Article I, that is Congress’s power. “Congress has the power to authorize the use of military force and declarations of war, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is planning to hear from the administration more on these strikes,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey told the outlet.
And President Biden now risks the cross-partisan acclaim he’d achieved with his May Afghanistan withdrawal announcement.
“We’ve got ourselves into a real pickle in Iraq and Syria.” William Ruger, vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together, told me. He was Donald Trump’s choice to be Ambassador to Afghanistan, and has praised the new administration on its policy on America’s longest war. “We end up needing to defend troops in those countries that aren’t required to be there in the first place,” as happened over the weekend. The administration emphasized that the strikes were fundamentally “defensive” in nature, after recent spasms of Iranian proxies in region.
Though Biden continues to sail through a honeymoon of sorts, with a clear, majoritarian approval rating, struggles loom.
Biden’s maneuver comes as conservatives are poised to be skeptical of military action, and even the military, like never before in the modern era, an environment Biden’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama did not have to grapple with, when complaints about the Pentagon and foreign policy were essentially fringe, fair or not. Perhaps the nation’s most significant Republican, Tucker Carlson, tore into the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just last week, haranguing him for perceived partisanship and what he saw as a grandstanding admonishment of “white rage.”
And unlike when Trump struck Iran, Biden, in theory, wants to imminently do a deal with Iran.
A tight timeline exists this summer before the lameduck, incumbent government of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and his hardline successor, Ebrahim Raisi. The future president underlined this week clear, unbowed protocols for a second deal. Such apparent intractability on the issue is why many observers, including this one, thought Biden would take a look at a second deal, and take a pass.
But here, too, is where the alumni atmosphere of the Biden administration is significant.
From Psaki, to Kirby, to Rice, to Sullivan, to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to U.S. Deputy of State Wendy Sherman (who one former senior Trump administration official derided as “the biggest appeaser in government”), and on, it’s an old gang, committed, whatever underreported Biden’s personal rivalry with Obama, to cementing their old boss’s legacy beyond mere celebrity.
For advocates of restraint, however, that has meant in the early going enshrining the former constitutional law professor’s creative interpretations of executive authority.