January 31, 2024 - 3:30pm

In the wake of an attack on American troops that left three dead and dozens more injured, the United States needs to re-examine its position in the region. While many cry for a direct escalation against Iran in response to the assault perpetrated by Iran-backed militias, this doesn’t address the root of the problem: overexposed troops in vulnerable positions.

Washington effectively has two choices: retaliation or withdrawal. We don’t have to speculate about how these paths develop, because we have been down this road before. Following an Iranian militia attack which killed an American contractor in Iraq in 2019, the Trump administration conducted a strike which killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. In response, Iran launched ballistic missiles at al-Asad base, injuring over 100 troops. The Soleimani strike did not initiate a war, but this was mostly down to luck. The missiles targeted barracks, and only early warning which prevented fatalities and the downing of a civilian airliner stopped further escalation. Does Joe Biden really want to risk something similar? 

In the event that the US retaliates ruthlessly against Iran, that leaves thousands of American troops exposed in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and the Gulf. The root problem is that Washington has abdicated its role of force protection by putting troops in indefensible positions without any national imperative to do so. The anti-Isis mission, the pretext for US troops’ presence in Iraq and Syria, has long gone past its point of usefulness. The group’s residual presence is now best dealt with by Iraq’s internal security forces; an American military hammer is not the appropriate tool to stomp out a group that has gone underground.

US troops are also stationed in al-Tanf, Syria, on the auspices of blocking Iranian supply lines to its militias. What this primarily ignores is that Iran doesn’t use this route — the presence of Iran-backed militias whose abilities have only grown for several years bears witness to this. What’s more, the close proximity of American troops provides these militias with exposed targets. A non-existent supply line does not justify the risks to American troops. 

Many in Washington believe the cause for this latest attack was that Iran was insufficiently deterred. Really, though, the US permitted hundreds of attacks on its troops in Iraq and Syria for several years prior. Early warning systems and air defences can only insulate soldiers for so long. Eventually there are human or technical gaps that enemies can exploit.

The solution might be the Reagan option. When President Ronald Reagan was faced with hundreds of dead soldiers following a barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, he withdrew troops. He spotted the sunk-cost fallacy: American blood had been spilled, and an aggressive response would not undo it. Biden should take note.

A war with Iran would be far likelier if the United States escalates further. This would prove disastrous strategically and economically. No stake in the region is commensurate with the loss that would be incurred by stumbling into a war with a regional power in the Middle East. Israel would have a second and far more lethal front to its north to contend against. A fifth of the world’s oil market would suddenly stop flowing. Thousands of missiles would oversaturate every air defence system in the region and US troops would be targeted en masse.

Washington can pursue this nightmarish end, or it can examine the costs and benefits and wash its hands of the whole affair. Two decades of blood and treasure have been squandered to no benefit in Iraq. Leaders in Washington can keep this shameful holding pattern until American troops pay the price for their inaction, or they can end this chapter once and for all.

Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities