On February 25th, President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes in Syria against facilities operated by Iranian-backed militia groups—the first official military action of his presidency—in an act of retaliation for the rocket attacks on Erbil earlier in the month that resulted in the death of an American military contractor, and the injury of six others. Since the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in January of 2020, back-and-forth acts of retribution like those witnessed last month have been commonplace, oftentimes resulting in little more than the unnecessary infliction of deeper suffering and human destruction upon the people of the Middle East and service personnel alike. If this was meant as a signal of strength to the world, it was woefully ineffective—almost certainly conveying the opposite message from that which was desired. After promising a return to sensible and well-tempered diplomacy, President Joseph Biden’s actions on Thursday signaled that the United States would instead continue its policy of “proportionate retaliation,” something that has demonstrably proven itself ineffective as a legitimate peacemaking tool. Just as under former President Donald J. Trump—who ordered airstrikes under similar auspices in 2017, 2018, and 2020—retaliatory action from the United States have only ever served to exacerbate existing conflicts in the region and escalate those that have yet to boil over, all at the cost of human life.
Even more disappointing for those working toward regional peace and security, was the timing of the strike during a critical moment for peace with the continued hope that the Biden Administration will make good on its promise to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Earlier in February, Biden extended an invitation to Iran to reopen talks on restarting the now-defunct JCPOA—or the “Iran Nuclear Deal” as it is colloquially known. Although Iran initially rebuffed Biden, it stated it would be willing to return under the condition that American economic sanctions on the country were lifted. The United States has the opportunity to step down from a position of leverage without asking for anything in return, instead, they further escalated the potential conflict by engaging in the deployment of arms.
One should be reminded that civilians often suffer the greatest consequences of military intervention. Iran’s people, meanwhile, have been caught in the crossfire of the conflict. The people of Iran suffer the brunt of economic sanctions imposed upon their state. By continually escalating tensions through retaliation, President Biden effectively further legitimizes fears that U.S. policies vis a vis Iran will follow the historical path of military intervention in the Middle East such as has been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. The use of military force makes the prospect of diplomacy and peaceful conflict resolution an even fainter possibility.
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The United States must recognize the harmful effects of its current and historic foreign policy in the Middle East, and begin working toward a better future. A future that is grounded in the principles of de-escalation, reconciliation, and inherent human dignity and worth. Until it does so, the cycle of destruction will continue forevermore. No longer can acts of retribution, shows of force, and senseless acts of violence define our actions abroad. Like President Biden himself said in his election campaign, we as a country must look once more towards diplomacy, empathy, and accountability (directed towards our neighbors in the global community as well as ourselves) as our guiding principles abroad if we wish to see a better world yet.
Ultimately, lasting and meaningful peace cannot be achieved through force of arms—nor will retributive action ever prove itself an effective deterrent against continued hostility. Only through diplomacy and peaceful engagement can one truly begin to walk the road to political reconciliation, the final victory over the bitter scourge of conflict waiting at its end. As Jimmy Carter said, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.” We call on the Biden Administration to make good on their promises to make diplomacy the hallmark of our foreign policy. This cannot be achieved through the utilization of further force. Indeed, we call on the Biden Administration to turn away from the use of military strikes that will only cause further harm to the most vulnerable. Refraining from further military strikes and re-entering the JCPOA is a necessary start.