On January 28, the event the U.S. had expected and long dreaded happened. Drones launched by what President Biden called “radical Iran-backed militant groups” struck a U.S. outpost in Jordan on the border with Iraq, killing three American service members and injuring 34 more.
There have been more than 150 attacks by Iran-backed militias on American forces in the region since October 7. But this one is different. It is the first time American troops have been killed in the strikes, and the Biden administration has said that if an Iran-backed militia strike kills a US troop, the U.S. may strike inside Iran.
Sunday’s fatal strike did not move U.S. intelligence agencies to change their assessment that Iran does not intend to start a wider war with the attack in Jordan. Nonetheless, Biden’s advisors agree that the fatal strike “will require a different level of response.” In front of a choir of senatorial calls to “Hit Iran now. Hit them hard” and that Biden would be “a coward unworthy of being commander-in-chief” if he didn’t, Biden vowed that “we shall respond.”
When the Houthi of Yemen began targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea, the Biden administration issued a similar promise to respond. “Let our message now be clear…. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue.” The U.S. has followed through on the threat to respond by striking Yemen eight times, though Biden has acknowledged that the response is not working.
And it’s not. On January 27, the Houthi hit a U.K. registered tanker with a missile; the next day, a British war ship had to deploy a missile to shoot down a Houthi drone that was targeting another ship. The Houthi say they targeted the ships in response to the U.S. and U.K. response.
Sometimes, when your enemy feels the international order is so unfairly stacked against them or that actions are a sufficiently existential threat, tit-for-tat responses – be they striking militia groups in Iraq or Syria who then just strike you again or striking the Houthi in Yemen who then just strike you again – cease to work because your enemy no longer prioritizes or fears one more missile strike.
After nearly a full term in office, the Biden administration boasts not a single proactive foreign policy idea. Responding is not a foreign policy. Under Joe Biden, the State Department has been reduced to the hawkish arm of the Defense Department, overruling the Pentagon’s recommendations for diplomacy with calls for military responses.
The current administration is author of what might be called the Biden Doctrine of foreign policy. The doctrine is triggered upon receipt of another country’s grievances. The doctrine calls for ignoring the pleas until the aggrieved nation feels it has no diplomatic options left and strikes. The White House then insists the action was unprovoked and responds by striking back. The doctrine is executed always without Security Council authorization and usually without congressional authorization, but with the claim of legitimacy because the U.S. is not acting alone since the U.K. is partnering with them.
The Biden State Department never addresses why militias are firing on American bases in Syria and Iraq and never listens to why those governments want American forces to leave. It never considers listening to or negotiating with the Houthi over their illegal maritime attacks. For the Biden State Department, discussion of your enemy’s grievances, in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken counselor Derek Chollet, are “not on the table.”
The same policy was followed with Russia in Ukraine. On December 17, 2021, Russia presented the U.S. and NATO with proposals on mutual security guarantees that might have forestalled the war. The U.S. and NATO both rejected them. “Fundamental Russian concerns were ignored,” Putin lamented. Rejection of the proposals may not be surprising. What surprised Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was that “Neither the United States, nor the North Atlantic Alliance proposed an alternative to this key provision.” The official Russian response to the Russian proposal on February 17, 2022 said that the United States and NATO offered “no constructive answer” to Russia’s key demands.
After ignoring Russia’s formal expression of grievances, as in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, the Biden administration claimed that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked and responded by supporting Ukraine and confronting Russia militarily. In both the Middle East and Ukraine, the U.S. has substituted responding to a military attack with a military attack for any imaginative, empathetic or pre-emptive foreign policy. That approach has undermined U.S. interests in both regions by leading to dramatic escalations when the stated U.S. goal was to avoid escalation.
Avoiding escalation, though, requires listening, dialogue and diplomacy. It requires having a State Department and a foreign policy. Responding is not a foreign policy.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.