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Joe Biden

Widening Middle East conflict creates new test for Biden, Congress

President Joe Biden is vowing that the United States will respond after three U.S. troops were killed and several dozen were injured in a drone attack by Iran-backed proxies in Jordan on Saturday.

The scale and possible targets of the U.S. response could be one of Biden’s most significant national security decisions to date. Biden is facing growing pressure from all sides in Congress — from defense hawks to war-powers advocates — on how to deal with the escalating Middle East violence.

The attack this weekend marked the first time that U.S. troops were killed in the region since the start of the war in Gaza on Oct. 7. Hamas murdered more than 1,000 Israelis and others while kidnapping more than 200 people. Israel’s military campaign in Gaza since has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians.

Since Oct. 7, Iranian proxies have launched more than 150 separate attacks in the region, including on commercial shipping lanes and on American troop positions in Iraq and Syria.

Biden has responded to those incidents by ordering airstrikes on Iran-backed groups, but the attacks haven’t ceased — leading many Republicans to insist that Biden should be doing more. GOP defense hawks are urging Biden to hit Iran more directly, arguing his administration has failed to adequately deter Iran’s aggression in the region.

“We must respond to these repeated attacks by Iran and its proxies by striking directly against Iranian targets and its leadership,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Senate Armed Services Committee Republican. “It is time to act swiftly and decisively for the whole world to see.”

House Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said Biden’s “fear of escalation has morphed into a doctrine of appeasement.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Biden has been resorting to “hesitation and half-measures” in response to the recent growing spate of attacks.

Here’s more from McConnell:

The bigger picture: Biden is already under pressure from members of his own party — and some non-interventionist Republicans — about the scale of the U.S. military campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. As signs emerge that this could become a sustained campaign to degrade the Houthis, these lawmakers have said there should be a role for Congress to debate and authorize any military expedition.

Others argue that Biden doesn’t need new authorities from Congress in order to retaliate against terrorists that harm Americans, pointing to the president’s Article II constitutional authority.

But it’s unclear how far Biden will go with a military response to the attacks on U.S. troops in Jordan. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Biden must order a “deliberate and proportionate response.”

The Biden administration’s stated goal is to deter Iran without sparking a larger-scale war in the Middle East. That, of course, has proven tricky as the U.S. counter-strikes have not halted the attacks.

As a result, other Republicans have been more explicit. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) reiterated their view that it’s long past time for the United States to bomb Iran directly.

“The Biden administration can take out all the Iranian proxies they like, but it will not deter Iranian aggression,” Graham said. “I am calling on the Biden administration to strike targets of significance inside Iran, not only as reprisal for the killing of our forces, but as deterrence against future aggression.”

Andrew Desiderio

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