By: The Editorial Board – wsj.com – January 28, 2024
It was bound to happen eventually, as President Biden was warned repeatedly. A drone or missile launched by Iran’s militia proxies would elude U.S. defenses and kill American soldiers. That’s what happened Sunday as three Americans were killed and 25 wounded at a U.S. base in Jordan near the Syrian border. The question now is what will the Commander in Chief do about it?
The sorry truth is that these casualties are the result of the President’s policy choices. Mr. Biden has tolerated more than 150 Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East since October. Only occasionally has he or the Administration registered more than rhetorical displeasure by retaliating militarily, and only then with limited airstrikes.
The President refused to change course even after U.S. troops suffered traumatic brain injuries. A Christmas Day proxy attack in Iraq left a U.S. Army pilot in a coma. Last week, more than a month later, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Garrett Illerbrunn was finally “sitting up in the chair for the first time for most of the day,” and “alert with both eyes opened and following,” his family’s medical blog says.
Mr. Biden vowed Sunday to “hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing,” though that stock line rings increasingly hollow. He has no choice now other than to approve strikes in retaliation, but targeting the responsible militia is insufficient. Mr. Biden and the Pentagon are playing Mideast Whac-a-Mole.
Everyone knows that the real orchestrator of these attacks is Iran. But the President has put his anxieties about upsetting Iran and risking escalation above his duty to defend U.S. soldiers abroad. It would have been more honest (if a sign of weakness) to withdraw American troops from the region, rather than consign them to catching Iranian drones for months.
The irony of Mr. Biden’s strategy—avoid escalation with Iran above all else—is that he’ll now have to strike back harder than if he had responded with devastating force the first time U.S. forces were hit, and every time since.
That probably includes hitting Iranian military or commercial assets. There are certainly risks of escalation from doing so. But Iran and its proxies are already escalating, and they have no incentive to stop unless they know their own forces are at risk. Here’s one idea: Put the Iranian spy ship that has been prowling the Red Sea on the ocean floor.
The alternative is a growing American body count. Iran’s clients in Yemen are continuing to fire at U.S. warships in the Red Sea while holding a vital shipping lane hostage. U.S. destroyers have managed to intercept Houthi volleys in a testament to American weapons technology and military professionalism. But eventually a drone or missile could elude U.S. defenses and sink a U.S. warship.
One thing to watch is whether the Administration will react to this attack by putting more pressure on Israel to stop its campaign against Hamas. This would validate the claim of the militias that they are merely targeting the U.S. because it supports Israel. And it would tell Iran that its militia drone and missile campaign has succeeded in easing pressure on Hamas. But it is how this Administration thinks.
Mr. Biden has spent months fretting about a broader regional war without confronting the reality that the U.S. is already in one. The result is that U.S. deterrence has collapsed in the region, and Americans are dying. Mr. Biden’s repeated displays of weakness are inviting more attacks. In the 1970s, Iran helped to ruin Jimmy Carter’s Presidency by seizing hostages. Mr. Biden should worry that it will also take down his Presidency if he won’t respond with enough force that the mullahs get the message.
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