Don't do it, Joe

The president is inching toward war with Iran. It would be a mistake.

From this morning’s New York Times:

This was the day that President Biden and his team had feared for more than three months, the day that relatively low-level attacks by Iranian proxy groups on American troops in the Middle East turned deadly and intensified the pressure on the president to respond in kind.

With three American service members killed and two dozen more injured by a drone in Jordan, Mr. Biden must decide how far he is willing to go in terms of retaliation at the risk of a wider war that he has sought to avoid ever since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas touched off the current Middle East crisis.

Let’s be clear about a couple things. One, by “wider war,” the author of that article, Peter Baker (of course), means a direct war between the United States and Iran.

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Two, Biden may not want direct war with Iran — which would indeed be catastrophic — but he has done absolutely nothing to avoid one. At every turn, he has made the choice to push the U.S. further up the escalatory spiral. When Iranian-backed militias attacked U.S. positions in Syria and Iraq in October, he sent the Eisenhower and Ford aircraft carrier groups to the Eastern Mediterranean. When Iran and its proxies stepped up their attacks, Biden responded by bombing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities — first without casualties, then with. The cycle of killing accelerated until even the nominally U.S.-client Iraqi government started complaining, but it didn’t stop. He (and his “coalition partners” —there’s a phrase I hoped to never utter again) have effectively already gone to war against the Iran-backed Houthi militia in western Yemen.

All of that led to last night’s drone attack on “Tower 22,” a U.S. outpost in northeastern Jordan near the borders with Iraq and Syria that according to CENTCOM housed approximately 350 U.S. Army and Air Force personnel. Credit for the attack, which killed three service members and wounded at least 34, was claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a coalition of Iran-backed groups including Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujab, who operate in the area.

Biden seems to be feeling significant pressure to escalate even further in response to the attack. A lot of it is coming from senior Republicans, including Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, the latter of whom demanded: “Hit Iran now. Hit them hard.” Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas tweeted: “Time to kill another Iranian general, perhaps?” Sen. Tom Cotton called in Biden’s manhood, faux-cowboy-style, saying that anything less than “devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East … will confirm Joe Biden as a coward unworthy of being commander in chief.”

Biden said in response to the attack that “we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner [of] our choosing.” A national security wag told the Times that: “I’m sure they’re looking for some kind of Goldilocks response here,” he added, meaning “not too hard” that it provokes a full-fledged war, “not too soft” that it just prolongs the conflict “but something that seems just right.”

Goldilocks is an apt metaphor here, because that “just right” approach is the stuff of fairy tales. Escalation of any kind will just mean more escalation, no matter how perfectly chosen the target is. An Islamic Resistance official made that clear to the Washington Post: “If the U.S. keeps supporting Israel, there will be escalations … All U.S. interests in the region are legitimate targets, and we don’t care about U.S. threats to respond … Martyrdom is our prize.”

This brings us to the One Weird Trick that Biden has at every point refused to even consider: Calling for an immediate ceasefire in Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza — a mass murder campaign that has killed over 26,000 people and displaced some 85% of Gaza’s surviving population that the International Court of Justice ruled last week may amount to genocide. Israel’s ongoing military campaign against the Palestinians is the stated reason for everything else happening in the region right now: the Iranian drone attacks on U.S. bases, the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes, and the worsening situation on the Israel-Lebanon border. If the killing stops, either those fronts all go quiet, or the Iranian-backed militias will lose all pretense of legitimacy if they keep going (in which case, the escalation will just start again).

All the popularly stated reasons for Israel to continue its attack on Gaza are baffling. Israel’s stated desire to “eliminate Hamas” has completely and predictably failed. The party’s leadership is intact and, as we speak, negotiating through intermediaries with Israeli leaders and CIA director William J. Burns about the fate of the remaining hostages. Israeli officials are now openly floating the possibility that Yahya Sinwar, the tactical leader who likely planned the Oct. 7 attack, long ago escaped to Egypt.

And regarding those hostages — in whose names the war was said to have been undertaken — senior Israeli military leaders now admit that “the dual objectives of freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas are now mutually incompatible.” I hate to say I told you so, but …

The only logic to continuing the war at this point is Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-assed political calculation that, so long as the killing continues, he can remain in power with his corruption trials delayed; his ideological drive to further ensure that his true lifelong ambition—to prevent the formation of an independent and viable Palestinian state; his desire to thumb his nose at the peaceniks and the Muslim world and lash out at all his enemies at once; or some combination of the above.

For Biden to follow Bibi down that road is not only moral lunacy, it’s potential political suicide, at a time when he keeps saying democracy is on the line. The Democratic coalition is fracturing at the worst possible moment. It isn’t just Arab voters in the crucial swing state of Michigan he may have lost. The Rev. Timothy McDonald, the senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta — as in, Atlanta, Georgia — told the Times this month that “Black faith leaders are extremely disappointed in the Biden administration on this issue.” Rev. McDonald went on to say:

“We are afraid,” Mr. McDonald said. “And we’ve talked about it — it’s going to be very hard to persuade our people to go back to the polls and vote for Biden.”

Falling for Republican (and media) taunts to start a war would be an all-time Lucy-and-the-football moment for the 81-year-old president. The idea that Tom Cotton would ever think any Democrat “worthy of being commander in chief,” no matter how many Muslims (or Black Lives Matter protesters) they killed is laughable on its face. And for all Lindsey Graham’s chickenhawk bravado, he knows full well that a politically unpopular all-out war with Tehran will be Biden’s to own, not his.

Donald Trump, having all but wrapped up the nomination, seems to be preparing his usual tactic of flooding the zone with contradictory bullshit: activating his followers’ ever-present fears of World War III and blaming Biden for the attack, while stating with his chest out that he would take an unspecified stronger response. (He’s had no comment, that I’ve seen, on his fellow Republicans’ frothing calls for a direct war.) In a Truth Social post, Trump also rewrote history to suggest that the destruction of U.S.-Iranian relations he personally oversaw during his presidency — including scrapping the Iran nuclear deal and ordering the assassination of the IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani — had weakened Iran, as opposed to helping lead directly to this latest danger point.

Be ready for weeks—if not months—of Trump and his defenders talking out of both sides of their mouths on Iran, as they did with Iraq in 2016: Courting the “antiwar” vote with rants about warmongering Democrats, while gleefully rattling his saber (war with Mexico, anyone?) any chance he gets.

None of this is necessary. U.S. troops are killed and targeted all the time, including at some of the countless hidden outposts strewn across the periphery of our empire, without the government escalating to all-out war. In 2017, four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush outside the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger. The incident is mostly remembered for a cringeworthy phone call then-President Trump had with one of the soldier’s widows. The U.S. responded not by invading Niger but by offering a bounty on the head of an Islamist militant who headed the attack; he was killed by French forces four years later.

When Iran retaliated in 2020 against Trump’s assassination of Soleimani with the largest ballistic missile attack ever conducted against Americans, injuring 110 U.S. soldiers at the Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq, President “PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH” backed down, at the urging of both Democratic and Republican leaders. Those urgings—then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted “America & world cannot afford war,” Elizabeth Warren told a campaign rally, “The American people do not want a war with Iran” — are just as applicable today as they were four years ago. (The exception from the peace caucus back then was, naturally, Lindsey Graham.)

In other words, if Biden makes the right choice—and I am holding out the slimmest of hopes here—I think it would be easy to sell to the American people, including the military. We’ve accepted it before! Even the pro-Israel caucus could be persuaded to back a ceasefire in Gaza at this point, I think, if it came from people they trust and packaged with the release of all the remaining hostages and a promise of de-escalation on all sides. Otherwise, we are headed for a repeat of several old nightmares, this time played out under far more dangerous circumstances, at home and abroad.

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