America might be overextended in the region, and Iran might not be able to control its proxies. That’s a recipe for a wider conflict.
Can two nations that don’t really want a full-scale war — in fact believe it could be disastrous — find themselves slip-sliding toward one anyway as events escalate inevitably beyond their ability to stop it?
Absolutely. It’s a problem that goes back at least to the Peloponnesian War 2,500 years ago — when the Athenians hurtled toward their doom — and now it’s an issue that both President Joe Biden and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are openly grappling with in the Middle East.
On Friday, Biden launched a broad series of military strikes in retaliation for the Jan. 28 drone attack by an Iranian-aligned militant group that killed three U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 40 others. But the president also clearly said that he’s trying to deter Tehran without provoking a full-scale war, and it was notable that the retaliatory strikes were aimed at the facilities of proxy groups outside of Iran, in Iraq and Syria. Asked by reporters Tuesday how directly Iran was involved in the Jan. 28 attack, Biden replied, “We’ll have that discussion,” and he clarified, “I do hold them responsible in the sense that they’re supplying the weapons to the people who did it.” Biden also added: “I don’t think we need a wider war in the Middle East. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
For both countries, in other words, events are on a permanent hair trigger that is constantly threatening to explode at the slightest pressure. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, appeared to acknowledge this this week when he suggested “that we’ve not seen a situation as dangerous as the one we’re facing now across the region since at least 1973, and arguably even before that.”
The problem for Washington goes well beyond Iran and the Middle East. It is whether by pledging to remain the world’s “indispensable nation” — as Biden did in his Oct. 19 Oval Office address — the United States is putting itself in jeopardy of imminent war on several fronts at once with no obvious way out.
According to Stephen Wertheim, author of the noted 2020 book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, the United States has fecklessly overextended itself in the Middle East, Europe and the Indo-Pacific with no clear strategy at a time when its defense industrial base is ill-preparedand its domestic politics are polarized and often paralyzed. This is causing dissension in both political parties — both President Donald Trump’s MAGA Republicans and progressive Democrats have raised questions about an overcommitment of U.S. aid abroad.
Wertheim believes that since the end of the Cold War the United States has been far too casual about continuing the role of global policeman, failing to fully appreciate the dangers to U.S. forces as well as the costs, which helped give rise to a populist reaction at home. “The United States decided when the costs and risks were low, to scatter its forces all across the world, naively thinking it was the End of History and projecting American power wasn’t going to inspire violent reactions,” he said.
But such reactions began to erupt, he says, after successive U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democratic, grew overconfident in pressing for NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders and seeking to remake the Middle East by invading Iraq two decades ago, thus discrediting America as a reliable peacekeeper and helping to provoke Russia and China to go their own ways.
Nothing illustrates this state of strategic confusion more than the outpost that was attacked on Sunday, called Tower 22, which even some experts in national security say they didn’t know existed. “The several thousand troops collectively stationed in Iraq, Jordan and Syria were left there as remnants of the campaign to defeat ISIS,” says Wertheim. But even though ISIS was defeated years ago, “and with its defeat came the end of the only verifiably complete mission this troop deployment could have had,” the troops remained there as little more than sitting ducks.
Iran and the U.S. are already embroiled in a low-level war, despite Tehran’s dubious claim that the militants it supplies and trains — who are currently attacking American, Israeli and Western targets from Yemen to Syria to Lebanon — are acting entirely on their own.
Yet both the U.S. and Iran have left themselves open to a wider conflict that neither side wants.
For America, the Jan. 28 drone strike at an obscure outpost in Jordan — a base few Americans knew existed — is yet another tragic illustration of the risks of leaving forces forward-deployed around the world, sometimes with no obvious mission. Currently the U.S. has about 2,500 troops in Iraq training the Iraqi military, another 900 in Syria, and a few hundred in Jordan ostensibly to ward off the return of ISIS. Every one of these military personnel is a potential victim who could trigger a future conflict.
For Iran, the U.S. retaliation underway is an illustration of the dangers of running proxy militias on multiple fronts that Tehran may no longer be able to fully direct, if it ever did. While Iran seems to have averted an attack inside its borders for the moment, Biden says he’ll continue striking back, and Tehran may find that its ultimate fate could be determined by an Iraqi or Syrian militia leader if more Americans die.
Wertheim also warned about the dangers of keeping troops in a region that isn’t a focus of administration policy. “The Biden administration came into office seeking to deprioritize the Middle East without attempting to disentangle the United States from its extensive security relationships and military positions in the region,” he said.
The question of whether the U.S. is overexposed in the region goes back to the disastrous bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, which killed 241 Americans, in what was considered the first act of terrorism by Hezbollah against the United States. The U.S. forces were deployed at the time as part of a peacekeeping presence to end the Lebanese civil war. But some U.S. leaders, including a newly sworn-in congress member named John McCain, raised questions at the time about whether the troops had no clear mission and were just exposing themselves as targets.
Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, among other places — who was political attaché in Beirut at the time — says the U.S. has recently done a much better job of ensuring U.S. forces are kept to a minimum and deployed for a reason. In the case of Tower 22, he says, that mission is to avoid a repetition of what happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which led to the rise or ISIS.
“In terms of the U.S. posture in the region, this is not Beirut 1983,” he says. “I think we actually did learn from that.”
Charles Kupchan, a former official in the Clinton and Obama administrations who teaches at Georgetown University, also argues that the president has already achieved the desired goal of reducing the U.S. footprint in the Middle East — all without too much cost.
“The United States is no longer fighting land wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “I’m not someone who believes we should pack up and go home and leave our air bases and naval bases in the region. That having been said, I’m not convinced we also need these forward operating bases in Syria and Jordan. They do expose American forces to these kinds of sporadic attacks.”It’s not just the number of troops or where they’re stationed that has added to the tensions. After the Iraq War, America’s strategic exposure in the region grew to enormous proportions: The 2003 invasion revealed U.S. vulnerabilities on the ground to IEDs and now drones, tutoring potential enemies in how to outmaneuver what was once considered an unassailable superpower.
The Iraq invasion also engendered a spate of anti-U.S. militant proxy groups under Iran’s wing — including Kata’ib Hezbollah, which U.S. officials have named as suspect in the Jan. 28 attack. (The umbrella group it’s a part of, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, claimed responsibility.) For years, these groups have been attacking U.S. troops in the region, especially in Iraq. In 2016, a U.S. Army study found that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” of the Iraq war.
These tensions have grown far greater since the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel that left more than 1,200 Israelis dead, along with an estimated 25,000 Palestinians (according to the Palestinian Health Ministry) in the Israeli retaliation since then. This has triggered almost daily hostilities between Iranian-backed military groups and Western and Israeli forces all over the region, including scores of attacks on U.S. troops in Syria, Iraq and Jordan, albeit without any U.S. deaths until Jan. 28. Meanwhile Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are also supported by Tehran, have been shelling Western shipping in the Red Sea, provoking U.S. retaliation on Houthi command posts.
One big question hanging over this conflict is just how much control Iran exercises over these militant groups.
Some, including hawks who think Biden needs to be more aggressive with Tehran, believe Iran is an active leader of their proxies. “Right now, and most likely in the future, it’s advantage Tehran,” Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official and a Farsi-speaking scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said before Friday’s retaliation began. “They are willing to encourage and direct their proxies to kill us; we won’t kill Iranians in response. This is why the Iranian theocracy’s proxy-war strategy is so successful: The proxies attack but we never attack Iran directly. A losing hand.”
Others, though, like Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador, say the hawks in Washington are constantly overstating Iran’s control over the various militant groups it aligns itself with.
“I think you’ve got to differentiate between Iran’s allies; they’re not all proxies,” Crocker says. “The Houthis have been around as long as Yemen has. And Hamas is about as much an Iranian proxy as the Islamic State is. They’re Sunni extremists, while the Iranian regime is Shi’ite. At the same time the Iranians must have assumed that sooner or later some Americans were going to get killed.”
Indeed, as the Jan. 28 attack showed, the danger for Iran is that its proxies could go too far and provoke a direct retaliation against Iranian interests. The retaliation operations began Feb. 2, when the U.S. military conducted major airstrikes on 85 targets across seven locations in Iraq and Syria focused on “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and affiliated militia groups,” the U.S. Central Command announced. The IRGC is the main sponsor of Iran’s many proxies.
Facing a reelection challenge only nine months away against a likely opponent, Donald Trump, who accuses him of “weakness and surrender,” Biden is expected to mount a response that Blinken said would likely be “multi-levelled, come in stages and be sustained over time.”
“If I were an IRGC officer I’d be taking my uniform off and getting out of town about now,” says Crocker.
“The advantage of a proxy strategy [for Iran] is it forces us to hesitate and address escalation. If Iran had attacked U.S. troops directly we wouldn’t be hesitating,” says C. Anthony Pfaff, a U.S. Army War College scholar and author of the new book, Proxy War Ethics: The Norms of Partnering in Great Power Competition. “The problem, however, is if these militias are acting on their own, the Iranians face the peril of getting sucked into a wider war.”
In the days since the Jan. 28 drone attack both Tehran and Kata’ib Hezbollah, appeared to pull back nervously from the brink. Kata’ib Hezbollah on Tuesday announced it was stopping all attacks on U.S. forces, indicating that it had been pressured to do so by both the Iraqi and Iranian governments. The militants also appeared to absolve Tehran, saying in a statement that “our brothers in the axis — especially in the Islamic Republic — do not know how we work jihad, and they often object to the pressure and escalation against the American occupation forces in Iraq and Syria.”
Biden’s Republican critics have called the retaliatory strikes thus far too meek, saying the president should emulate Trump’s assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad airport in 2020.
But in fact the Trump administration also proved fairly cautious at the time, reaching out to Tehran afterward to warn against further escalation — and it’s not clear how much of a deterrent the Soleimani strike proved to be. “I think the question was whether Soleimani was truly the indispensable leader we thought he was. I agreed with the Trump administration on the desirability of taking him out,” says Crocker. “But [Iran’s proxy] structure has since reasserted itself.”
Indeed Iran has ever more proxies waiting to go on the attack, and the U.S. has plenty of troops left on the ground for them to target. The risk of a wider war looks at least as serious as it’s ever been.