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Approximate Response
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Approximate Response

As Iran strikes American bases, the U.S. retaliates against Tehran’s proxies.

Happy Tuesday! How much would you pay for an unopened pack of American Spirit cigarettes the late Kurt Cobain left behind at a rehab clinic? If the answer is somewhere north of $1,700, here’s your chance! Entertain it!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday dismissed Suella Braverman—who was serving as home secretary overseeing national security, law enforcement, and immigration—in an unexpected cabinet shuffle, replacing her with the current foreign secretary, James Cleverly. Sunak then tapped former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to replace Cleverly as Britain’s top diplomat. To accept this position, Cameron—who is not currently serving in Parliament—was named a life peer, allowing him to serve in the United Kingdom’s House of Lords.
  • The Department of Defense on Monday released the identities of the five soldiers killed in a helicopter accident during a training mission on Friday over the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The five servicemen were members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but Pentagon officials noted there are “no indications of hostile activity.”
  • The nine justices of the Supreme Court released a code of conduct on Monday in light of renewed scrutiny over ethics questions. The 14-page document lays out what might be grounds for disqualification from hearing a case—including personal bias or prejudice as it relates to the disputed facts of the case, involvement with the case at a previous stage, or a financial stake in the outcome of the case. “For the most part these rules and principles are not new,” the justices wrote, adding that “the absence of a code, however, has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the justices of this court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules.” The code does not include an enforcement mechanism for the standards it sets. 
  • Republicans on the House Oversight Committee issued subpoenas on Monday to several current and former White House aides as part of their investigation into President Joe Biden’s alleged mishandling of classified documents. Former White House counsel Dana Remus is among the five aides called to testify as part of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into Biden. Oversight Chairman James Comer claims his committee has evidence Biden aides began searching the president’s Penn Biden Center offices—where the first documents were found—two years before aides said they first found the papers. Biden was interviewed last month as part of special counsel Robert Hur’s ongoing investigation into his handling of classified documents.
  • The House of Representatives voted Monday night to table a resolution brought by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia to immediately impeach Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. In a 209 to 201 vote, eight Republicans joined all present Democrats to refer the matter to the Homeland Security Committee, which has already launched an impeachment inquiry over Mayorkas’ handling of the southern border.
  • Secret Service agents protecting President Joe Biden’s granddaughter, Naomi Biden, opened fire Sunday night on three individuals trying to break into an unmarked Secret Service SUV in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. “During this encounter, a federal agent discharged a service weapon and it is believed no one was struck,” Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement released after the incident. “The offenders immediately fled the scene in a red vehicle and a regional lookout was issued to supporting units.” The incident comes as car thefts are up 98 percent over the last year in D.C.—there’s not yet any indication the perpetrators knew the car belonged to the Secret Service. 
  • Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia announced Monday she is running for governor of the state, opting not to run for reelection for her tightly contested House seat in 2024. Spanberger—who formerly worked for the CIA—is the first candidate of either party in the gubernatorial race, which will be held in 2025. The current governor—Glenn Youngkin, a Republican—cannot run for a second consecutive term.

The Escalating Proxy Conflict with Iran

(via Getty Images)
(via Getty Images)

On October 25, American troops stationed at the Al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq were targeted in a drone attack launched by Iranian-backed militia groups. One drone, laden with explosives, lodged in a barracks but did not detonate. Had it exploded, American military personnel likely would have died. “They are aiming to kill,” a U.S. defense official told the Wall Street Journal, “We have just been lucky.”

The attack was just one of dozens perpetrated against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxy groups over the last month, presumably in response to American involvement in Israel’s war against Hamas. At least 56 service members have thus far been injured in the attacks, according to Pentagon officials, with 25 sustaining traumatic brain injuries. Approximately 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria and 2,500 remain in Iraq, working with local forces to prevent any resurgence of the Islamic State in the region. The strikes on U.S. troops show no signs of abating, and some analysts believe a more forceful American response is needed to break the current pattern of attacks—but the risk of escalating conflict looms large over the region.

After two precision strikes targeting facilities in eastern Syria used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its proxies in response to repeated attacks on American and coalition positions—one in late October, one in early November—the United States on Sunday carried out a third bombardment that reportedly killed a handful of proxy fighters. That apparently wasn’t enough to deter those groups, however, with Iranian proxies launching four additional strikes between Sunday evening and Monday morning, bringing the total number of attacks on U.S. forces since mid-October to 52. The Pentagon didn’t report any U.S. casualties or major damage from the latest attacks.

“The President has no higher priority than the safety of U.S. personnel, and he directed today’s action to make clear that the United States will defend itself, its personnel, and its interests,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement on Sunday night. Austin followed up yesterday with comments at a press conference in South Korea. “These attacks must stop,” he said, “and if they don’t stop, then we won’t hesitate to do what’s necessary … to protect our troops.” The remarks are notably stronger than Austin’s statements after the first retaliatory bombardment carried out on October 26, and Sunday’s counterstrikes represented a bolstered American response to the proxy group attacks. But they also reflected the implicit limits the Biden administration is observing in an attempt to prevent further escalation. The retaliatory strikes have thus far targeted facilities in Syria affiliated with proxy groups and in some cases used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—but not any dedicated Iranian military targets.

“The issue is there is an unstated red line, and that red line is Iran,” Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) who focuses on Iran, told TMD. “If the attacks are being planned, financed, and controlled from inside Iran, but all the retaliation is against targets in Syria, it suggests that there is a restraint to American policy.” 

Many analysts believe Iran views damage inflicted on its affiliated Arab militia proxy groups, particularly in Syria, as not especially costly. “The venue of Syria is the least aggressive posture for the United States because it is where the Iranians have the least amount to lose,” said Rich Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who previously served as the White House National Security Council’s director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction. “To the extent that the United States chooses to attack Arab militia infrastructure or Arab militia personnel instead of the IRGC, it is a low cost for Tehran.” 

In recent years, this strategy has emerged as standard operating procedure. “The fact that we continue over two-and-a-half years to only strike in Syria is instructive to Tehran,” he added. “They feel that there is some level of impunity for aggressive tactics against the United States.”

The proxy militias operating in Syria and Iraq fall under the umbrella of Iran’s so-called “Axis of Resistance” coalition. As Nicholas Carl, the Middle East portfolio manager for the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at AEI, wrote on the site earlier this month: 

Iran furnishes these groups with varying levels of financial, military, and political support in exchange for some degree of influence or control over their actions. Some are traditional proxies that are highly responsive to Iranian direction while others are partner militias over which Iran exerts more limited influence. … Iran—through the IRGC—provides direction, intelligence, logistical support, weapons, and other kinds of military hardware to the other members of the Axis of Resistance. The IRGC in more recent years has focused on outfitting the militias with advanced military capabilities, such as long-range drones and missiles, as well as promoting greater cohesion across its members, driving them to work alongside one another more closely.

Though the United States has yet to strike IRGC personnel directly, American defense officials view the Iranian military as responsible for the attacks—and hope that their strikes against Iranian proxies convey this blame. “By specifically targeting IRGC-associated facilities, we seek to convey a clear message to Iran that we hold it accountable for the attacks on U.S. forces, and we expect Iran to take measures to direct its proxies to stop,” a senior Defense Department official told reporters on November 8 following the second U.S. retaliatory strike. At the same time, officials were careful to underscore that IRGC troops were not targeted. “We are very certain that this did not involve civilian loss and that the personnel, if they were there, were associated with the IRGC in terms of either, you know, their affiliated groups.” Six to seven proxy group fighters were reportedly killed in Sunday’s strikes, and there were no reports of IRGC troops injured or killed.

Despite the Pentagon’s assurance that the U.S. will do what it needs to do to protect its troops, some lawmakers and analysts believe the response has fallen short. Rubin argues the Biden administration’s trepidation about striking IRGC personnel has trumped its ability to protect Americans—which ends up weakening deterrence and increasing the risk of escalation. “Biden may be thinking that he is showing restraint,” Rubin said. “In reality, he could be setting us up for a far worse conflict.”

“The goal is to roll back Iranian aggression, deter Iran from continued attacks against Americans, and also to dissuade any miscalculation by the regime that would force a major escalation by the United States,” Goldberg told TMD. “The lack of military responses by the United States over several weeks, or using a response that is perceived as weak in Tehran, invites further attack on U.S. forces [and] risks increasing that miscalculation.”

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina took this line of thinking one step further during last week’s Republican presidential primary debate. “If you want to stop the 40 plus attacks on military personnel in the Middle East, you have to strike in Iran,” he said. “You cannot just continue to have strikes in Syria on warehouses, you actually have to cut off the head of the snake—and the head of the snake is Iran, and not simply their proxies.”

But some experts warn that a more forceful response—especially now—might not prevent further strikes on U.S. troops. “Whether or not there’s really a good option for how to deter these attacks in totem, I’m not sure it exists, at least not at the moment,” Greg Brew, an analyst for the Eurasia Group, told TMD. The types of militias attacking U.S. positions—small groups of radicals that don’t care about regional or geopolitical consequences—can be difficult to deter. “These groups look to Tehran for arms, money, and ideological leadership,” Brew said. “Beyond that, a lot of them do whatever they want.” 

Still, the Biden administration may continue to respond with retaliatory strikes on proxy groups in Syria—at least in the short term. “All the U.S. can really do is try to manage the situation using the assets it has in the region and [do] what it can to contain the crisis and avoid an escalation,” Brew argued.

But the chance of escalation—and a potentially dramatic shift in the dynamic of the region—rises in correlation with the number of attacks on American bases in the region: The more attacks there are, the greater the risk that U.S. troops could be killed. “If they kill Americans,” Goldberg said. “There will have to be a very strong response against Iran directly.”

Worth Your Time

  • It’s been a big year for the “aliens are real” crowd—but is physicist Sean Kirkpatrick, the outgoing head of the Pentagon’s UFO-identifying unit, among their number? “Sean Kirkpatrick set up an entire system for collecting data, waded through hundreds of reported UFO sightings and batted down whistleblower claims that the government covered up a program to reverse-engineer alien craft,” Lara Seligman wrote in a story for Politico. “And don’t forget the Chinese spy balloon episode. The Pentagon has a real interest in deciphering the sharp rise in unidentified crafts spotted by military pilots; if these aren’t aliens, they could be foreign adversaries posing incredibly new threats.” To cut to the chase: Are aliens real? “That is a great question. I love that question,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview. “Number one, the best thing that could come out of this job is to prove that there are aliens, right? Because if we don’t prove there are aliens, then what we’re finding is evidence of other people doing stuff in our backyard. And that’s not good. Two, from a scientific perspective: The scientific community will agree that it is statistically invalid to believe that there is not life out in the universe, as vast as the universe is and the number of galaxies and solar systems and planets. So part of what we’ve been trying to do, and part of what I will continue to do until I’m done, is raise the level of the conversation. Let me explain. If you are talking with NASA or the European Space Agency, and you’re talking about looking for life out in the universe, it is a very objective, very scientifically sound discussion and discourse. As that discussion gets closer to the solar system, somewhere around Mars, it turns into science fiction. And then as you get even closer to Earth, and you cross into Earth’s atmosphere, it becomes conspiracy theory.”

Presented Without Comment 

Mediaite: Trump Spox Responds to Firestorm Over Trump Calling His Enemies “Vermin” With a Vow to “Crush Their Existence”

Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! The team will discuss the news of the week and, of course, take plenty of viewer questions! Keep an eye out for an email later today with information on how to tune in.
  • In the newsletters: Kevin filed a dispatch from a Texas Nationalist Movement meeting in Waco, the Dispatch Politics team covered the aftermath of the GOP’s electoral defeats last week, and Nick argued (🔒) we need to take Trump seriously. 
  • On the podcasts: Declan sits down with Jonathan Karl of ABC News on The Dispatch Podcast to discuss his new Trump book, Sarah re-airs Bari Weiss’ Federalist Society lecture (on the aftermath of Hamas’ October 7 attacks) on Advisory Opinions, and Jonah inaugurates his “Ask Me Anything” podcast on The Skiff (🔒).
  • On the site: Drucker posits that Trump’s GOP opponents have no answer for him, Charlotte explains what calls for a ceasefire in Gaza ignore, Stirewalt explores Sen. Joe Manchin’s retirement and potential No Labels bid, and Scott Winship breaks down the latest child poverty numbers.

Let Us Know

Do you think the U.S. has appropriately pushed back against Iranian-backed attacks on its military bases in Syria and Iraq?

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.