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NBC: Biden bombing Syria to look tough on Iran?

Isn’t that the same reason Donald Trump targeted Qassem Soleimani? And Trump wasn’t trying to get back into a bad deal with Iran at the time, either. Ten days after an attack on American contractors in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias, Joe Biden ordered a strike on their positions in Syria. NBC News’ Kristen Welker reports that the White House wants to provide a “strong” response to Tehran over the earlier attacks.

Strength isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind with this supposedly “proportionate” response:

President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered airstrikes on buildings in Syria that the Pentagon said were used by Iranian-backed militias, in retaliation for rocket attacks on U.S. targets in neighboring Iraq.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby portrayed the bombing in eastern Syria as carefully calibrated, calling it “proportionate” and “defensive.” …

The president’s decision appeared aimed at sending a signal to Iran and its proxies in the region that Washington would not tolerate attacks on its personnel in Iraq, even at a sensitive diplomatic moment.

Three rocket attacks in one week in Iraq, including a deadly strike that hit a U.S.-led coalition base in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil, presented a test for Biden only weeks after assuming the presidency. The rocket assaults coincided with a diplomatic initiative launched by the administration to try to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers.

Biden didn’t have much of a choice but to take some sort of retaliatory response. In that part of the world, giving an opponent a pass on a provocation does not make one look magnanimous; it makes them look weak. That’s why the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, offered his support last night after the strikes:

“I called for the administration to respond to the recent attacks on U.S. and coalition targets, and I commend them for doing just that. Responses like this are a necessary deterrent and remind Iran, its proxies, and our adversaries around the world that attacks on U.S. interests will not be tolerated. I thank the president and our service members for protecting Americans overseas.”

The problem here isn’t taking action — it’s both the kind of action and the massive hypocrisy of it coming from the Biden administration. This kind of “proportionate” response doesn’t provide any kind of deterrent. All those strikes last night likely did was kill a few low-level soldiers and perhaps momentarily disrupt communications. Iran bakes those minor losses into the cake when targeting Americans in the region. Taking out Soleimani was a significant retaliation, one that made clear (at the time) that we really weren’t going to put up with those attacks. That one cost Tehran dearly and undermined the IRGC’s operations in the region; this is chump change to Ali Khamenei.

If you want to make an impression, you don’t concern yourself over proportion. You make it much more painful for your opponent than they can make it for you.

And now the same people who castigated Trump for taking that action — or any action in Syria — are suddenly very sanguine about Biden’s authority to do the same. Newsweek reports on the hypocrisy:

But others cited past criticism by Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki of former President Donald Trump’s operations in Syria, accusing the new administration of hypocrisy.

Progressive Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, for example, quoted a 2017 tweet from Psaki posted after Trump ordered strikes on a Syrian airbase following a chemical weapons attack against rebel forces.

“Also what is the legal authority for strikes?” Psaki then wrote. “Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country.” Omar quoted the tweet Thursday and wrote alongside it: “Great question.”

And in 2018, Newsweek notes, then-Senator and now VP Kamala Harris griped about Trump-ordered strikes on Syria’s chemical-weapons units after one in a long string of atrocities. At that point, Harris demanded that Trump consult with Congress before taking any kind of military action:

“I strongly support our men and women in uniform and believe we must hold Assad accountable for his unconscionable use of chemical weapons,” Harris wrote on Twitter.

“But I am deeply concerned about the legal rationale of last night’s strikes…The president needs to lay out a comprehensive strategy in Syria in consultation with Congress—and he needs to do it now.”

Finally, all of this seems foolish in another sense, domestically rather than diplomatically. Biden wants to sell a return to the 2015 Iran deal as more sustainable than Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the mullahs of Tehran. If he’s having to bomb Iranian proxies at the same time as he’s holding out olive branches to their masters, how sustainable will a renewed JCPOA be, anyway? It certainly won’t be any more reliable than the first one, which allowed Iran to fund its proxy armies and spread its encirclement strategy to Yemen and go all in on Syria. All of that took place after Barack Obama and Biden approved the JCPOA and allowed Iran back into normal financial networks. Why should we go back to that if Iran still keeps attacking Americans in the region?