President Joe Biden’s weekend airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria are rankling Democrats frustrated by his decision to sidestep Congress — a dynamic that promises to fuel the party’s long-running push to rein in presidential war powers.
Democratic lawmakers are in familiar territory over Biden's latest retaliatory airstrikes after criticizing him for striking the same Iranian proxies in the region earlier this year without first seeking congressional approval. In both instances, the president cited his authority under Article II of the Constitution, which allows him to take steps to protect U.S. service members in self-defense.
But some in Biden's party are sounding the alarm about possible abuses of that power, which presidents of both parties have employed to circumvent Congress and legally justify various military operations. The airstrikes come as lawmakers are already working to repeal the two-decade-old authorizations for the use of military force in Iraq, an effort that Biden supports.
“The danger here is that you fall into a pattern of military escalation that becomes war without voters ever having a say,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a top member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. “The safest bet for a president is to just claim broad Article II authority.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the Foreign Relations panel’s chair, suggested he wants a broader examination of Biden’s legal rationale for the strikes. The president’s Article II powers have long been viewed as expansive and broad by Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
“Congress has the power to authorize the use of military force and declarations of war, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is planning to hear from the administration more on these strikes,” Menendez said in a Monday statement on the airstrikes.
Complicating matters further for the Biden administration, the Iraqi government condemned the strikes on its soil on Monday, with officials calling the attack a “blatant” violation of its sovereignty.
Additionally, U.S. forces in Syria came under rocket fire late Monday in what was likely a retaliation for the strikes by the militia groups, Lt. Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesperson for the coalition, said on Twitter. There are no injuries and the damage is still being assessed, Marotto said.
Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq and Syria have stepped up their attacks against Americans in the region in recent months, prompting Biden to approve what Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby described as “defensive precision airstrikes” targeting the groups’ weapons storage facilities near the Iraq-Syria border.
“Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, the president directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks,” Kirby added.
The Pentagon concluded that each strike hit its intended target, and officials are currently assessing the full effects of the operation, Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Jessica McNulty told POLITICO on Monday. Air Force jets from U.S. Central Command bases carried out the strikes, according to a defense official.
The groups have changed tactics from using rockets to deploying unmanned aerial systems or UAS in recent months, a move that U.S. officials see as escalation. The militias have launched at least five UAS attacks against facilities used by U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq since April, McNulty said.
But those explanations from the Pentagon might not be enough for Democrats who are already demanding classified briefings about the nature of the threat. Several already view the airstrikes as “hostilities” under the War Powers Act that thus require congressional approval.
“The administration would be better off coming to Congress and asking for a debate on a declaration of war if they foresee a need to continue to go back and forth with … Iranian proxy groups," Murphy said.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a former CIA officer who has pushed to repeal aging war authorizations, said she hasn't read the administration's justification for the airstrike yet but didn't foresee the move spurring a protracted war powers debate.
"We're pretty far away from authorizing or moving towards an authorization of use of military force specific to Iranian-backed militia[s]," Spanberger said in an interview. "There's a lot that happens throughout the world, and I think that there would be significant, significant debate … within Congress, before we would look at writing such an authorization."
Since Biden directed an airstrike on a border crossing used by Iran-backed militia groups in eastern Syria in February, he has refrained from launching additional retaliatory operations amid repeated militia attacks on U.S. and Iraqi personnel. Officials said the February move was calculated to signal to Iran that the Biden administration would not tolerate such attacks through proxies in the region, while avoiding escalation into a wider conflict.
But the administration sees the growing number of UAS attacks as an escalation designed to increase pressure on Washington to withdraw troops from Iraq, said one senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. The drones are now carrying larger and more precise payloads, this official said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has led the effort in the upper chamber to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Iraq war authorizations, said the White House’s Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk was planning to brief him about the strikes on Monday.
Kaine said he was concerned that the conflict would “escalate without a congressional discussion” but added that Biden’s actions were a “classic” self-defense mechanism.
“I have a much more constrained view of Article II powers than most around here,” Kaine added. “I think it has to be defense against attacks or imminent attacks.”
Democrats also raised concerns about whether U.S. strikes against the Iran-backed militia groups are actually having a deterrent effect. The administration has described the strikes as targeted and precise in nature, but the attacks on Americans have not abated.
“Protecting American troops is a priority, but clearly continuing airstrikes is not deterring Iran-backed militias from attacking our troops in Iraq,” Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) said. “I look forward to hearing a realistic plan from the Biden administration to de-escalate — as we discussed back in February — because we can’t keep launching strikes over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Biden’s airstrikes got a key endorsement from at least one top Democrat, though. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement that the strikes “were an appropriate and reasonable use of force intended for defensive purposes.” Schiff added that he has asked the administration for “an assessment of whether this action will truly deter or prevent further attacks.”
Republicans were mostly mum about the airstrikes as of Monday morning, but Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Biden did the right thing and that the decision highlights the need to keep the 2002 Iraq war authorization on the books.
“I believe these actions are overdue and highlight the continued need for the 2002 AUMF, or — at a minimum — the need for a comprehensive replacement before a repeal can be considered, especially given that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are an ongoing threat to American troops,” Inhofe said in a statement.
Iraq’s government has long been in a tough spot as it has tried to maintain good relations with both Tehran and Washington, which are adversaries. Both U.S. troops and Iranian-backed forces have aided the Iraqi government in fighting against the Islamic State terrorist group, and Iran has significant economic, cultural and religious ties with Iraq.
Nahal Toosi and Connor O'Brien contributed to this report.