During the US presidential campaign, one argument that spread amongst progressives was that the election boiled down to picking the lesser of two evils. This was a phrase that I did not particularly agree with as, at that point in his career, Biden had proved to be an admirable and qualified candidate for the Democratic party. However, the recent airstrike on Syria shows that perhaps, when it comes to US foreign policy in the Middle East, the Biden administration might be an ‘evil’ in disguise.
On February 25th, President Biden carried out his first military action: authorizing the bombing of multiple facilities in Syria that were used by Iran-backed militias. Though not independently verified, the strike allegedly resulted in 22 fatalities from the Popular Mobilization Forces. According to the Pentagon, the attack was “a proportionate military response.” The decision to order an airstrike without obtaining congressional approval has garnered widespread criticism across party lines, calling into question Biden’s intention to fulfil his campaign promises. Additionally, it suggests that when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East, the Biden administration will not be vastly different from previous administrations.
The Biden administration has certainly made strides domestically when it comes to both equity and combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Since taking office, President Biden has signed more than 50 executive actions, including executive orders and memorandums. He reversed Trump’s ban on transgender Americans joining the army. He signed an executive order advancing racial equity, as well as one that prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. Biden has also acknowledged growing levels of discrimination against Asian-Americans and signed a memo combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.
With regards to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden has imposed a 100-day mask mandate, halted the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization, imposed COVID-19 travel restrictions, and created a COVID-19 task force. As a result, he has been applauded for taking swift and effective action, fulfilling campaign promises, and working towards improvement.
However, with regards to foreign policy, Biden’s decision to bomb facilities in Syria without congressional approval contradicts his campaign promises and his early remarks as the president. With every election, each candidate criticizes the sitting president over their involvement in the Middle East, chanting promises like “Bringing Home the Troops,” only to continue and even aggravate such involvement; this election was no exception. Throughout his campaign, Biden criticized Trump’s approach to the Middle East, particularly in light of the decision to kill an Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, which Biden asserted would significantly deteriorate relations with Iran. One of Biden’s campaign promises was the promise to “End Forever Wars,” which include the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and ending any support for the war in Yemen. Furthermore, Biden proudly declared that “diplomacy is back at the centre” in his first speech as the 46th president of the United States. He also reiterated his promise to end the war in Yemen by ending military and intelligence support to belligerent groups while further emphasizing a diplomatic and humanitarian” approach to the Middle East in general. In this sense, the decision to strike Syria not only goes against Biden’s campaign promises but also against his first remarks as US President.
In response to growing criticism of his decision to bomb Syria, Biden issued a letter to Congress justifying his action. He noted that the bombing was a response to an attack on a coalition military base at Erbil International Airport on February 15th, causing the death of a civilian contractor and injuring US personnel. The attack was intended to send a message to Iran that the US will act swiftly to protect national interests and US personnel. The Pentagon noted that “President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel”, going on to state that “we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.”
However, the attack has led to further tension in the region: the Syrian foreign ministry condemned the airstrike, calling the attack “a cowardly and systematic American aggression.”
Additionally, the attack arguably damaged an opportunity to provide a diplomatic solution to the growing tension between Iran and the US. Iran recently announced that it will not join the US and the European Union in informal discussions about returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), causing further tensions between the two countries.
The bombing of Syria and Biden’s subsequent justification leaves open the possibility of further unilateral attacks. Though it is still the early stages of Biden’s presidency, his first military response was a direct contradiction to his campaign promises and was largely in line with the foreign policy of his predecessors. This suggests that the Biden administration is merely operating under the guise of peace and diplomacy while still pursuing the same aggressive approach of the previous administration that has proved to hinder efforts towards diplomacy.
In this sense, there is no doubt that such policy will continue, regardless of which party is in power. It is difficult to imagine peace in the Middle East as long as this hawkish approach to US foreign policy continues, trapping the region in a never-ending cycle of wars. The Middle East deserves more than constantly being at the mercy of the US President’s whims.
Edited by Robin Vochelet
Helia Mokhber is in her final year at McGill University, pursuing a B.A. Honours in Political Science with a major in Psychology. She is particularly interested in Political Theory, politics of the Middle East, and Political Psychology.