Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 26 December 2023


Biden Endangers U.S. Troops


The Administration conducted retaliatory strikes on three facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy group responsible for the attack. Defense secretary Lloyd Austin issued a statement saying his “prayers” are with the wounded. Which is nice, but Mr. Austin isn’t a chaplain. The U.S. defense chief’s job is to deter such attacks and defend his troops from being too-easy targets for Shiite militias.

The White House response was worse. The National Security Council’s Adrienne Watson issued a statement announcing the reprisal and insisted that the “President places no higher priority than the protection of American personnel serving in harm’s way.”

This is demonstrably false, and the bromide is insulting. Mr. Biden’s highest priority, whispered by the White House every day, is avoiding escalation with Iran or its proxies. Mr. Biden is afraid—we use that word advisedly—of being involved in a larger conflict, which might not be popular in an election year. But that anxiety is now interfering with his core obligation to defend U.S. forces.

Iranian front groups have been trying to kill U.S. troops for months. Yet Mr. Biden offered the military equivalent of a wrist slap after Americans suffered traumatic brain injuries in attacks this autumn.

The Administration may want the public to think the latest retaliatory strikes were more substantive than the previous pinpricks on weapons stores. U.S. Central Command took the unusual step Monday night of saying that the strikes “likely killed” a number of militants. But the Associated Press, citing Iraqi officials, says the U.S. killed all of one militant. Some 18 were wounded.

Americans who sign up to serve in uniform know the risks, but serving as drone catchers because Washington refuses to deter the enemy isn’t supposed to be among the occupational hazards. And Mr. Biden’s token strikes haven’t deterred Iran’s proxies in Iraq or anywhere else.

The Houthis, another Iran-backed military, are also unimpressed with the new U.S. coalition to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The terrorists are escalating despite U.S. restraint in response. The U.S. military said Tuesday afternoon that American ships and fighter jets had shot down no fewer than 12 drones, three antiship ballistic missiles, and two land attack cruise missiles, ostensibly at multiple targets. All were fired by the Houthis in a 10-hour period.

Does that sound like an organization worried about how America might respond? The U.S. hasn’t punished the Houthis for taking the world economy hostage, though the U.S. knows the location of Houthi launch sites, radars, weapons and military leadership. The Houthis are betting the U.S. and friends lack the political will to punish their piracy.


Behind all of this is Iran, though the White House refuses to speak this truth or do much about it. Mr. Biden frets that Iran could accelerate its nuclear program, or further unleash its proxies and create trouble for Iraq’s government that hosts U.S. military trainers and anti-ISIS intelligence assets. Tehran is exploiting the U.S. fear of escalation to its own benefit.

The irony is that the biggest tonic for disorder in the Middle East would be restoring American deterrence. That would mean warning Tehran that its military and nuclear assets are at risk if it doesn’t call off the proxy dogs. For all the Biden fears of Tehran, the recent empirical record—the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, for instance—counsels that Iran backs down when it faces severe costs for its assaults.

Restoring deterrence in the Middle East would require the Biden Administration to admit that its approach to Iran hasn’t worked and demands a course correction. The alternative is a continuing spiral of violence the Administration says it desperately wants to avoid. And sooner or later more Americans will be in critical condition, or dead.

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