Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Biden’s Middle East Posture Courts Insanity and Endangers U.S. Troops

An Israeli–Iranian spat can easily become something much larger—and Americans will bear the brunt of it.


The crisis in the Middle East remains one step from major escalation. In the aftermath of Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel, many pundits rushed to celebrate, claiming that Iran’s “maximum effort” had been easily swatted away. Those celebrations were understandable; according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), 99 percent of Iran’s drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles were intercepted—primarily by U.S. air defenses—or fell short of their intended targets. The structural damage in Israel was light, and just one person was injured. Iranian leaders then aggressively downplayed Israel’s retaliation against an air defense battery in Isfahan a week later, giving hope to the region—and the wider world—that further escalation might be avoided.

But it would be unwise to walk away from recent events with a false sense of security. While Tel Aviv and Tehran appear to have opted to bring things back down to a low boil, this could prove—as it often has in the past—to be a short-term aberration. The decades-long shadow war between these two regional adversaries is likely to continue, which means the region and the roughly 40,000 U.S. troops stationed there remain one wrong move away from disaster.


First, it’s important to point out just how close Israel and Iran got to full-fledged hostilities. While Israeli military action against Iranian targets in Syria is not unusual—hundreds of Israeli airstrikes have occurred there over the last decade—never before had Israel targeted an Iranian consular annex, let alone in broad daylight. Iran simply couldn’t allow such an overtly provocative attack to go unanswered. To the Iranians, doing so would have only incentivized the Israelis to conduct similar high-profile strikes in the future.

Tehran, for its part, was faced with conflicting priorities: how to retaliate forcefully, but in a way that would not provoke a full-scale conflict with a superior adversary. Notwithstanding commentators who labeled Iran’s barrage “potentially catastrophic,” it isn’t clear that Iran ever intended to deal a crippling blow. Given the telegraphing from Tehran days before the attack, diplomatic backchanneling, and the ample intelligence collected beforehand, it’s far more likely the Islamic Republic was aiming for a “goldilocks” response meant to send a strong signal to Israel while preserving off-ramps for de-escalation.

Israel, too, had a decision to make after the U.S. and its partners in the United Kingdom, France, and Jordan rose to their defense: Should it take the well-executed air defense ballet we saw on April 13 as the victory it was, or answer the attack with offensive strikes of their own? Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thankfully, opted for a narrowly circumscribed attack on Iranian soil which was not especially escalatory. Indeed, the Israeli airstrike was small enough for Iran to explain it away as a non-event. 

Fortunately, two weeks of sparring ended with both sides calculating that all-out war was in neither of their interests. More importantly, though, we learned just how out-of-date Israel and Iran’s assumptions were about each other. Iran wrongly assumed its diplomatic compounds were off-limits; and Israel wrongly assumed Iran would never be brash enough to launch a direct attack against it from Iranian territory, let alone one that included more than 100 ballistic missiles.

Such are the dangers of “misperception” in international relations. If this disconnect happened before, it can certainly happen again. Indeed, instead of adjusting its strategic calculus, Israel seems content to continue hitting Iranian assets outside of Iran at a relatively low cost. Just twenty-four hours after the attack in Isfahan, Israel purportedly bombed the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces—a Shia militia group and Iraqi government paramilitary security force—at a base on the outskirts of Baghdad. While Israeli attacks in Syria are commonplace, if confirmed, this would also mark the first such Israeli strike in Baghdad since 1981, when Israel executed a daring bombing raid to destroy Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor.


Why does any of this matter? Because, like it or not, Iran and its proxy forces are just as likely to blame the United States for Israel’s actions as they are to blame Israel itself. As long as U.S. troops remain in the region in large numbers, they will bear the brunt of more escalation between Iran and Israel, regardless of who is at fault.

In fact, these escalation dynamics are already occurring. It’s not a coincidence that local Shia militias in Iraq and Syria rapidly increased the pace of drone and rocket attacks against U.S. forces there—around 170 of them occurred just between mid-October and early February—at the same time the Israeli military accelerated their operations against Hamas in Gaza. Nor is it a coincidence that those militia attacks started up again—after a two-month hiatus—the day after Israel struck Baghdad. On April 21, a U.S. military base in northeastern Syria came under rocket fire from the Iraqi border. A one-way attack drone was also launched at Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, where U.S. troops are located. If this is a sign of things to come, then the de-escalation being touted in recent days could be little more than a mirage. 

Ultimately, the United States can’t control Iran or Israel. Although U.S. officials convinced Netanyahu to opt for a far less intense form of retaliation against Tehran, the Biden administration remains woefully inept at getting the Israelis to increase delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, for example, after months of prodding.

But the U.S. can control its own Middle East policy. Over the short-term, this means making it abundantly clear to Netanyahu that the U.S. remains steadfast in its refusal to  participate in any future offensive Israeli military action on Iranian territory. Biden’s clear statement to this effect should be commended, as it almost certainly steered Tel Aviv away from a major attack on Iranian nuclear facilities—which could have prompted another Iranian missile barrage, or full-scale regional war. 

In the end, though, a simple truth remains: U.S. troops in the region—especially the ones spread across small, remote, and difficult to defend forward operating bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan—are readily accessible punching bags for Iran to inflame tensions in the region whenever it suits them. Those troops should be immediately redeployed to larger, safer hubs in the Central Command area of responsibility, so that our force posture in the Middle East is not constantly held hostage to the whims of our adversaries. We must do everything we can to prevent another Tower 22, where three U.S. troops were killed in a drone attack.

Washington must right-size our presence and security commitments in the Middle East, especially as urgent priorities elsewhere in Europe and the Indo-Pacific present far more consequential stakes for the future of American security and prosperity. Failure to take this difficult but strategically necessary step means we will be stuck watching this same Middle East horror show on repeat. To borrow the kitschy aphorism often misattributed to Einstein, the definition of insanity is indeed “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The same goes for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.