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Opinion: US bombing strikes are sending the wrong message

Opinion by Peter Bergen, CNN

(CNN) — Several media reports are echoing Biden administration talking points that the retaliatory strikes on more than 85 targets in Iraq and Syria last night were designed to “send a message” following a drone attack by an Iranian-backed militia that killed three US servicemembers in Jordan.

But what exactly was the message and how is it likely to be received?

Let’s consider how these strikes have been framed. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden told reporters he had made his decision about what he was going to do, while the White House national security spokesperson said, “It’s fair for you to expect that we will respond in an appropriate fashion…” That gave any member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps living in Iraq and Syria several days’ notice to pack their bags and head elsewhere.

The Biden administration has also repeatedly said it doesn’t want to go to war with Iran. But part of establishing deterrence is not to say what you won’t do but to leave some strategic ambiguity about what you can and might do.

Given the largely unsuccessful history of such US strikes against Iranian proxy groups in the Middle East, the US’ response, along with any subsequent military action, is unlikely to deter Iranian proxies from further attacks on American targets and shipping in the region. To tamp down the possibility of a wider regional war, the US needs to focus its efforts on addressing the underlying cause of this roiling conflict: the continued war in Gaza.

Previous US strikes have failed to deter Iran and its proxies. The US has repeatedly struck Houthi targets in Yemen in recent weeks, but the Iranian-armed Houthis kept launching missiles at commercial shipping in the Red Sea and came close to striking a US warship on Tuesday. On Friday, US forces shot down 12 Houthis drones over the course of roughly 12 hours. On Saturday, the US struck six Houthi anti-ship cruise missiles just hours before the US and the UK conducted additional strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, hitting at least 30 targets across 10 locations.

We’ve seen this time and again. In January 2020, the Trump administration ordered a drone strike that killed the most important Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, framing it as an act of deterrence against attacks on Americans in the region. Less than a week later, Iran launched ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq, causing more than 100 US soldiers to be treated for traumatic brain injuries.

A US drone strike last month, which killed the leader of an Iranian-backed militia in Baghdad had similarly undesirable knock-on effects. It gave the Iraqi government more ammunition in its negotiations with the US to call for the withdrawal of 2,500 American troops still based in Iraq — a move that would fulfill an important Iranian policy goal.

Let’s not forget that the Biden administration already made a grave mistake when it pulled all US troops out of Iran’s neighbor Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. You can imagine the high fives in Tehran when that happened.

Withdrawing from Iraq would be another failure that only serves Iran’s interests, especially since a United Nations report released this past week confirms earlier reports that the “de facto” leader of al-Qaeda, Sayf al-Adl, continues to live in Iran.

From Iran’s perspective, its efforts to replace the US as the key regional player in the Middle East seem to be going well.

What we need is a clear-eyed acknowledgement that these strikes are not furthering the US’ strategic goals of stopping Iran and its proxies from attacking American targets and allies and that Tehran is continuing to spread its considerable influence in the Middle East from Yemen in the south to Lebanon 1,500 miles to the north.

The Prussian general and military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously observed, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

Does the US have any real clue about the kind of conflict it is embarking on? Of course, there are no easy answers and the armchair warriors in DC who are pressing Biden to blow up targets in Iran don’t have to live with what the “day after” looks like and the knock-on effects that might lead to a wider regional conflict in the Middle East.

And while US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday that the strikes in Iraq and Syria were just “the start of our response,” there isn’t much evidence based on what we’ve seen so far to suggest additional strikes will help. It’s possible that US cyber-attacks in Iran could damage key elements of Iranian military command and control structures, but these kinds of attacks can take many weeks to prepare.

The US must move quickly to address the underlying driver of the present regional conflagration that is engulfing the Middle East. That involves halting the war in Gaza, releasing the Israeli and American hostages held by Hamas, and having a plausible plan for the “day after” the guns fall silent in Gaza.

That plan cannot involve defunding UNRWA, which is the only institution that can keep Gazans fed, housed and educated, having done so for decades. UNRWA was right to launch an investigation and immediately fire 13 members of its staff who are alleged by Israel to have had some role in Hamas’ October 7 attack. But the reality is that no Arab countries are going to have the capacity or will to feed and house nearly 2 million Gazans and the idea that Israel will be able to do so as an occupying force without facing an intense local insurgency is wishful thinking of the highest order.

The Biden administration is forced to choose from a menu of difficult choices as it tries to contain the metastasizing regional conflict in the Middle East while also balancing America’s strategic objectives of helping Israel dismantle Hamas’ military wing and releasing the remaining Israeli and American hostages held in Gaza, while also containing the threats from Iran and its proxies.

This article has been updated to reflect the strikes on Houthi targets on Saturday. 

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