WASHINGTON – Republicans, led by their presidential candidates, didn’t waste much time Sunday putting campaign pressure on President Joe Biden over the Middle East drone attacks that killed three U.S. service members.
Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, challenger Nikki Haley and several prominent GOP lawmakers blamed Biden’s policy for the attack, and demanded that he retaliate against Iran, the alleged sponsor of the incident.
“This brazen attack on the United States is yet another horrific and tragic consequence of Joe Biden’s weakness and surrender,” Trump said.
Haley, a former United Nations ambassador, said that “they would not be attacking our troops if Joe Biden weren’t so weak in his treatment of Iran.”
Biden, who faces a tough reelection race against either Trump or Haley, is looking at the kind of decision that no incumbent president wants: possible military action that punishes aggressors but does not trigger a wide war.
‘We shall respond’
Biden blamed the deadly drone attack on Iran-backed militants and vowed a response.
“We will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing,” Biden said in a statement.
Speaking later at a church in Columbia, S.C., Biden told worshippers that “we had a tough day last night in the Middle East. We lost three brave souls.”
After leading a moment of silence for the fallen, Biden added: “And we shall respond.”
Biden versus Trump on Iran
Biden, who has said he expects to run against Trump in the fall election, has warned that Trump is a reckless politician who has reportedly described slain troops as “suckers” and “losers.”
“The only loser I see is Donald Trump,” Biden said during a fundraising dinner in South Carolina on Saturday.
Trump has accused Biden of “weakness” on Iran, and will no doubt continue to do so in the weeks ahead.
GOP: The world is watching Biden
With the general election less than ten months away, GOP lawmakers also served notice that they will make the drone deaths a test case for Biden.
“The entire world now watches for signs that the President is finally prepared to exercise American strength to compel Iran to change its behavior,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the chambers top Republican.
Biden also faces pressure from the left wing of his party and his administration. Some allies have urged him to forge a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the war at the root of the latest troubles in the Middle East.
‘Life isn’t unicorns & gumdrops’
Analysts said Biden’s main challenge – politically and militarily – is to avoid a wider war with Iran that would claim more American lives.
Colin Clarke, an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague Ph.D., said the attack is just the latest escalation in a “low-boil regional war” that has involved the United States – and that the Biden administration needs to address.
“Hearing too much whining from Biden supporters about not wanting to escalate the war in the Middle East,” Clarke, the director of research at the Soufan Group, an international security consulting firm, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“It would be great to not have to worry about that, but Iran is escalating, so it’s well past time to respond,” Clarke said. “Life isn’t unicorns & gumdrops, Tehran needs to feel some pain.”
In an interview with USA TODAY, Clarke said Sunday’s actions “clearly represents a major escalation between the U.S. and Iran.”
“I don’t expect Congress to authorize anything, since the Biden administration desperately wants to avoid calling this what it is, a regional war,” Clarke said. “The administration is aware of the optics of what is happening and will be on defense against attacks by Trump and his supporters that Biden is weak on Iran.”
As a result, Clarke said, “The U.S. will have to respond to this attack, but also needs to be careful not to drag the region further toward a broader conflagration.”
More pressure on Biden from Congress
The Sunday provocation came just days after a broad and unusually bipartisan array of congressional lawmakers weighed in on what Biden should – and shouldn’t – do in response to the increasing tempo of attacks.
On Tuesday, four Democratic and Republican senators sent the White House a letter warning Biden that he needs buy-in from Congress before ramping up military operations against the Yemen-based Houthis, another Iranian proxy group that has escalated hostile actions against U.S. and allied forces.
Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), said they were especially concerned that Biden could risk dragging the United States deeper into an escalating Middle East war. “While the Houthis and their backers, namely Iran, bear the responsibility for escalation, unless there is a need to repel a sudden attack the Constitution requires that the United States not engage in military action absent a favorable vote of Congress,” they wrote.
On Friday, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers sent Biden an even more sharply worded letter about how Congress needs to authorize future U.S. strikes against the Houthis.
“We urge your Administration to seek authorization from Congress before involving the U.S. in another conflict in the Middle East, potentially provoking Iran-backed militias that may threaten U.S. military servicemembers already in the region, and risking escalation of a wider regional War,” the lawmakers said in their Friday letter. “Article One of the Constitution is clear: Congress has the sole power to declare war and authorize U.S. military action.”
The lawmakers, led by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., also criticized the Biden administration for invoking a “national emergency” clause when launching recent attacks. The letter was signed by some House progressives such as Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, but also by some of Congress’ most conservative Republicans, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia and Andy Biggs of Arizona.
“We are not convinced that the circumstances of the U.S.’s strikes in Yemen meet the ‘national emergency’ criteria … and we believe there was ample time to come to Congress for authorization before initiating these strikes,” the lawmakers wrote. “As representatives of the American people, Congress must engage in robust debate before American servicemembers are put in harm’s way and before more U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent on yet another war in the Middle East.”
The Sunday attack is likely to intensify such concerns in Congress and put even more pressure on Biden, former senior U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence official Javed Ali told USA TODAY.
Ali noted that the Biden administration continues to state publicly that it does not seek a war in the Middle East with Iranian-backed groups in the region or with Iran itself. But he said the deaths of American troops could prompt lawmakers to consider a new authorization to use military force, separate from ones it passed in 2001 and 2002, to sustain U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
“Both the Senate and House letters show that Congress is questioning the legal basis of the operations against the Houthis already,” said Ali, who is now a professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. “And now the circle will widen with whatever the response will be for the attack in Jordan.”