Why Conservatives Should Oppose Bombing Iran
The spiral of intervention is how we got here in the first place.
The war hawks are warbling again. Senator Lindsey Graham on Sunday called on President Joe Biden to “strike targets of significance inside Iran,” while Senator John Cornyn said the U.S. should “target Tehran” by bombing its paramilitary forces. The future former presidential candidate Nikki Haley warned that Biden had been “weak in his treatment of Iran” and said “we should retaliate with the full force of American strength.”
None of this is new, of course. Graham has been demanding we bomb Iran since the reign of Xerxes I. Yet the casus belli this time around is much graver: Over the weekend, three American troops were killed and more than 30 injured in a drone strike at an outpost in Jordan near the Syrian border. Iran has denied involvement, but the strike was reportedly carried out by Iranian-backed militants who have been increasingly aggressive since Israel began bombing the Gaza Strip. Attacks on American forces in Syria have been frequent, while the Houthis in Yemen have been firing missiles at commercial ships in the Red Sea.
It’s now very possible that a wider war could engulf the Middle East, with Iran on one side and the U.S. on the other. That raises questions: why are American troops in Syria in the first place? Why are they in harm’s way in faraway Jordan? And why once again is the solution said to be even more bloodshed?
The Americans killed in Jordan were stationed at Tower 22, which is about 12 miles from the U.S.-controlled al-Tanf military installation just over the Syrian border. Al-Tanf was established in 2016 amid the Syrian Civil War as a staging ground for Americans who were training rebels to fight the Islamic State. More recently it’s been the scene of skirmishes with Iran-supported militants, and that has everything to do with its location. Al-Tanf sits on the Baghdad-Damascus Highway, a kind of Route 66 for Iranian imperialists, linking Iran-backed Shiite forces in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
This is an old fear among America’s Sunni allies in the Middle East: the dreaded Shiite Crescent, a moon-shaped swath of Iranian influence that stretches from Iran itself to Hezbollah in Lebanon more than 1,000 miles away. With ISIS now mostly routed, al-Tanf exists primarily to counter this Shiite bloc. John Bolton admitted as much in 2019 when he was Donald Trump’s national security adviser; even Trump, who wanted to withdraw American forces from Syria, didn’t shut down al-Tanf.
The story of the Shiite Crescent dates back twenty years to when America invaded Iraq and replaced Saddam Hussein with a Shiite-run “democracy.” This prompted the king of Jordan, a Sunni, to warn of a Shiite Crescent for the first time. Relations between Iran and Iraq today are complicated—many Iraqi Shiites resent Tehran as an outsider meddling in their affairs—but there’s no question Iran was the biggest winner of the Iraq war, as the rise of Shiite power next door enabled it to expand its influence westward.
The Syrian Civil War is another cause of Iranian expansion, and here too American heroics played a role. By arming the Syrian rebels in a quixotic bid to depose the dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is allied with Iran, the U.S. helped draw both Iranian and Russian forces into the Syrian theater. Assad ultimately won the war, and Iran’s presence in Syria was further strengthened. This in turn provided America with an excuse to stick around and keep al-Tanf open, which drew even more Iranian-linked aggression.
This is a pattern throughout America’s Middle East policy: Interventions beget unintended consequences beget excuses for more interventions. Twenty years ago, the idea that Iran would be the main beneficiary of the Iraq war would have caused Bill Kristol to gag on his freedom fries. Ten years ago, the idea that American arms to Syrian rebels would culminate in an Iranian victory would have been mocked as defeatism. Today, both are reality, and both are now enabling calls for even more war, this time with a Shiite bloc that our previous wars had a hand in strengthening.
In fairness, President Biden doesn’t seem to buy this. He has a tendency to react from his gut (as opposed to the chillier and more detached approach of Barack Obama) but that gut tends towards skepticism of conflicts where America doesn’t belong. So, while Biden promised to respond to the Jordan attack, he seems unlikely to blow up the entire Middle East in the process. Still, it’s not yet known exactly how he’ll retaliate, and the deaths of American troops, combined with Biden’s continued support for Israel despite pressure from his left, introduce an element of uncertainty into his thinking.
The attack on Tower 22 puts the United States in a precarious position. It also puts Biden in a tough position politically. Under Donald Trump, Israel was striking historic deals with its Muslim neighbors while skirmishes with Iran were at least more muted. In an election year, you don’t think Trump is going to keep quiet about that, do you?