Foreign Policy

Will Biden Drag Americans Into a War in Lebanon?

As Israeli-Lebanese violence heats up, the Biden administration is quietly promising to get the United States involved.


It was September 1983, and a young senator named Joe Biden had a message for President Ronald Reagan. "I would not support any authorization for troops in Lebanon of any duration absent much more clearly defined goals and a reasonable prospect of attaining those goals," Biden said, commenting on a proposed congressional war powers resolution.

U.S. Marines had been deployed to Lebanon as part of peacekeeping mission in the wake of an Israeli invasion aimed at destroying Palestinian militias, and Congress was debating whether to continue the mission. A month after Biden's warning, a truck bomb killed 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers in their barracks, and Reagan pulled out the Americans.

Today, Biden is considering sending U.S. forces back into the fray—not as bystanders but as direct combatants—with far less permission from Congress.

Since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza, a parallel border conflict has been raging in the north. The Lebanese militia Hezbollah and the Israeli army are shelling into each other's territory, forcing around 100,000 people on each side of the border out of their homes. Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, has said that it will continue until an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire is reached in Gaza. Israeli officials are considering a "blitzkrieg" offensive to neuter Hezbollah.

Last year, Biden dissuaded Israel from launching an invasion of Lebanon. He has also dispatched U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein, an Israeli army veteran who previously secured an Israeli-Lebanese border agreement, to mediate between the two sides. But while he's discouraging an Israeli invasion, Biden is also promising to back one up if it happens.

CNN reported on Friday that the Biden administration was offering "assurances" of U.S. military support to Israel if a major war breaks out, "though the US would not deploy American troops to the ground in such a scenario." Then, on Monday, Politico reported that Biden was contemplating "more direct military support" if Israel comes under "severe duress."

And that's a real likelihood. Separately, a U.S. official told CNN last week that Israel's Iron Dome air defense system "will be overwhelmed" in the event of a full-on missile war, according to U.S. assessments. A week ago, Hezbollah published a video of one of its drones hovering over the Israeli port city of Haifa.

The Politico report "has been my understanding of how Biden specifically would like to react," says Sam Heller, an American who lives in Lebanon and works as a fellow at Century International, a nonprofit New York–based research institute.

"Israel's performance since October has really indicated that to sustain this [war], they will require a substantial and continuous input from their American partner, inputs of many kinds," Heller adds. "It seems U.S. intervention along those lines will also be a real mess and will also invite reprisals against U.S. forces around the region."

Over the past six months, U.S. forces have already come under attack from Iraqi and Yemeni militias. Publicly and privately, pro-Iran forces from around the region are offering to send troops in defense of Lebanon.

Biden's support for Israel has been steadily escalating. At the beginning of the war, the Biden administration rush-shipped American weapons to Israel. In November, the U.S. military began sharing targeting intelligence with the Israeli army. In April, after Israel bombed an Iranian consulate in Syria, the U.S. military shot down most of the drones and missiles that Iran launched in retaliation.

In May, Biden eventually held up a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs to Israel, arguing that this type of weapon had harmed too many civilians. "Israel doesn't need them for Gaza, but it would if the conflict in Lebanon escalates further," CBS News reported, citing a U.S. official.

Ironically, the Israeli-Lebanese conflict is pitting American taxpayer-funded weapons against American taxpayer-funded weapons. For years, the United States has tried to finance and train Lebanese government forces in order to reduce Hezbollah's influence. During recent talks, Hochstein proposed that Hezbollah could withdraw from the border and the U.S.-funded Lebanese troops could take its place.

But Israeli forces struck Lebanese government troops at least 34 times between October and December, according to CNN. (The Israeli army denied that these were intentional attacks.) The White House's National Security Council told CNN that it "do[es] not want to see this conflict spread to Lebanon and we continue to urge the Israelis do all they can to be targeted and avoid civilians, civilian infrastructure, civilian farmland, the [United Nations], and the Lebanese Armed Forces."

Although Congress has approved aid to both Israel and Lebanon, it did not intend to fund a war between the two countries. Nor did it ever discuss U.S. forces getting involved themselves. The National Security Council and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Direct U.S. involvement would "raise significant issues" with the president's war powers, says Brian Finucane, a former U.S. State Department lawyer and adviser to the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research organization. "The White House would cite Article II of the Constitution as authority for something like providing air defense to Israel, and may try to skirt the War Powers Resolution, as it did back in April," he adds.

A younger Biden had a lot to say about that notion.

"I hope what we have learned from our encounters in Southeast Asia is that a foreign policy, absent the consent of the governed, is not likely to last very long," he commented during the debate over the 1983 resolution, "so it is best to get as many people on board at the outset."