The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden ran on ending forever wars. He’s already undermining that promise.

President Biden speaks at the White House on Saturday after the House passed his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

According to President Biden, the airstrikes he launched against Iran-backed militias in Syria on Feb. 25 were designed to send Iran a message: “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.” But the strikes also sent a disturbing message to Americans: Barely a month into Biden’s presidency, the Middle East quagmire is already undermining his much-advertised commitment to a “foreign policy for the middle class” that will end “forever wars” and focus on “existential” threats such as climate change and on rebuilding America’s strength at home.

The strikes immediately sparked a congressional uproar, rekindling the debate over presidential war powers. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who had helped spearhead efforts to curb former president Donald Trump’s warmongering, called on lawmakers to hold the current administration to the same standards, requiring congressional authorization for “retaliatory strikes not necessary to prevent an imminent threat.” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) echoed that view: “Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances.” Progressives in the House led by Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) promised to revive the effort to curb presidential war-making.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) underlined the true import, releasing a statement that he was “very concerned” that the action “puts our country on the path of continuing the Forever War instead of ending it. … This is the same path we’ve been on for almost two decades.”

Administration spokespeople defended the strikes as defensive and proportional. Biden aides boasted they sent a clear signal to the Iranians that America would defend U.S. soldiers in Syria and Iraq, even while seeking to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Missiles, however, are an inchoate messenger. After all, Iran proceeded to torpedo European Union efforts to kick-start talks on reviving the nuclear deal.

The argument that the strikes are a “defensive” measure mocks the reality of our presence there. Under President Barack Obama, the United States invaded Syria without permission or invitation as part of a ham-handed effort at regime change, just as we invaded Afghanistan to overturn its government and invaded Iraq in a war of choice to take down Saddam Hussein. For an aggressor to call the retaliatory exchange “defensive” doesn’t pass the smell test.

In fact, the greatest effect of the strikes is likely to be not on Iran or the Islamist terrorists but on the Biden administration itself. They make withdrawal from Syria harder and might begin to lock the administration into a commitment that should never have been made.

Obama and Trump both campaigned on the promise that they would end the wars in the Middle East. Both failed. Now the question is whether will Biden fail as well.

The same question is posed in Afghanistan where, unimaginably, the United States has been fighting for two decades. Against the resistance of his generals, Trump reduced U.S. forces to 2,500 and cut a deal with the Taliban to remove them in May. But there’s plenty of pressure on the new president to stay in the country. The Pentagon warns that withdrawal will lead to the collapse of the government the United States props up and to a wider civil war. A report from the congressionally created Afghanistan Study Group calls on the United States to postpone any withdrawal and instead condition it on Taliban behavior. If Biden accedes, the forever war will continue, well, forever — or at least until a new president is ready to accept reality and get out.

Interventionism is no small project. As the Brown University Costs of War project has documented, over the past three years alone, the United States has launched drones or airstrikes in seven countries, engaged in combat in eight, held military exercises in 41 and assisted counterterrorism actions in 85 countries. The wars have been going on for two decades at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and at least $6.4 trillion.

The Biden team believes they can do it all: mobilize to meet the existential threat of climate change, rally global efforts to fight pandemics, rebuild America at home, take on China and Russia in a new great-power competition, strike at alleged terrorists in dozens of countries, sustain commitments across the Middle East and continue to police the world.

But if the debacles of recent years teach anything, it is that America can’t do it all. The fog of war is unpredictable. Great-power confrontations are costly and dangerous. Small forays turn into quagmires. Rebuilding America takes a back seat to foreign adventure. Biden has to choose.

Public disenchantment with the endless wars is clear and has been since George W. Bush declared Mission Accomplished. But the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us of decades ago still wields immense political clout. Politicians remain terrified of appearing weak. And sadly, the Biden foreign policy team includes no one who has been a clear and consistent opponent of our disastrous interventions across the world. The strike on Syria may have held the front pages for only a day, but it likely will have far greater implications for the rest of Biden’s presidency — and perhaps beyond.

Read more:

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Biden can’t lose sight of the nuclear crisis

Max Boot: Biden actually has a strategy for the Middle East, not just a Twitter account

Josh Rogin: Biden’s Iran envoy will complicate his Syria approach

Afghanistan’s Ambassador Roya Rahmani: The U.S. must help us build peace for generations to come

Karen Tumulty: Andrew Cuomo’s survival in office looks doubtful