The Guardian • Issue #1953

Mismatch: Biden bombs Syria while pushing progressive economic bill at home

An old dichotomy that’s haunted many Democratic administrations – pushing ostensibly progressive economic and social policies at home in the US while pursuing imperialist aims abroad – has returned.

In airstrikes characterised as “retaliatory action,” the US military on the 25th of February bombed buildings in Syria near the Iraq border that were reportedly being used by Islamist militia groups for smuggling weapons. It was the first known foreign military action undertaken by the new administration, coming thirty-seven days into Joe Biden’s presidency.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bombing killed at least twenty-two people; most, but not all, were apparently members of the militia groups.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said seven 500-pound bombs were dropped on the site, destroying “multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militia groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.” Defence officials justified the strike as a “proportionate military response” to recent militia rocket attacks on US troops and contractors in Iraq.

The bombing in Syria came on the eve of a US House vote on Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan: the economic mega-rescue package which proposes raising the minimum wage to $15, sends out new stimulus checks, extends and boosts unemployment benefits for the millions still left jobless by the pandemic, provides renters with anti-eviction aid, and more.

Widely hailed as one of most progressive economic bills ever considered by Congress, the measure stands in stark contrast to the Biden-authorized military strike in the war-weary Middle East. Opponents of the bombing are drawing attention to the fact that heaven and earth must be moved in order to try to raise the minimum wage but an American president can unilaterally expend millions of dollars on military attacks.

Decades of nearly uninterrupted US intervention in the region have made for an extremely complex situation, one exacerbated further by four years of Donald Trump. The sinking of the Iranian nuclear agreement, previous strikes on Syria, flip-flopping on how to engage with anti-ISIS fighters, support for Israeli settlements and aggression, proposals to partition Iraq, and implicit backing for the Saudi monarchy’s murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are among the more recent episodes.

Looming over all of it, of course, is the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003 by President George W Bush, which destroyed that country, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, opened fresh areas of the Middle East to exploitation by the multinational oil giants, and let loose the forces of religious extremism.

Some of the traditional organisations of the now demobilised and fractured international anti-war movement are condemning the Syria strike. The War Resisters League criticised the “War on Terror” started by Bush in 2001 and continued by his successors, saying “The money waged on war could be spent on life-affirming resources.”

The Stop the War Coalition in the UK declared that “the role of the US in Iraq has been catastrophic for the people of that country and the whole Middle East.” It drew attention to the 2,500 US troops still occupying Iraq and lamented what it saw as Biden “following in the footsteps of his predecessors despite all evidence that military interventions do nothing but create destruction and misery and the conditions for future wars.”

Medea Benjamin, a leader of the CodePink organisation, criticised the Pentagon’s rationale that the strikes were carried out to protect US troops and coalition contractors. “We should let the Pentagon know,” she tweeted, “if they want to protect US personnel, then get them the hell out of the Middle East.”

The national co-chair of the Communist Party of USA, Joe Sims, put a spotlight on the mismatch between the Biden administration’s domestic and foreign actions. “We cannot have a progressive policy at home and an imperialist one abroad,” Sims said. He urged a US withdrawal from the region and pointed to the futility of constant retaliation. “Remove the troops. An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth leaves us all blind and toothless.”

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a Notre Dame law professor, told the Associated Press the attack was a clear violation of international law. The United Nations Charter only allows the use of military force in a foreign country if that target country was itself responsible for an armed attack. “None of those elements is met in the Syria strike,” she concluded.

The Win Without War coalition characterised the current crisis as a “direct result of Trump’s failed maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, but also the unmistakable outcome of “decades of US war in the Middle East and a continued belief that bombs will somehow bring peace.”

Biden’s Syria strike casts a shadow over his declared aim of reviving negotiations to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, which Trump withdrew the US from in 2018. The move is also difficult to understand in the wake of repeated statements by Biden that he wants to reinstate the moral authority of the US in its relations with other countries. Russia, which has forces stationed in Syria, was given four minutes’ warning before the strikes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared, “This kind of notification does nothing when the strike is literally already on its way.”

Rather than raining bombs down on the Syria-Iraq border, peace advocates are urging Biden to follow through with his commitment to turn from war towards diplomacy, beginning with the Iran nuclear deal.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., sounded a note of critique from within Biden’s own party. “We cannot stand up for Congressional authorisation before military strikes only when there is a Republican president,” Khanna wrote. “The administration should have sought Congressional authorisation here. We need to work to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate.”

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