“You can’t act with impunity,” he told reporters about the message while touring a facility in Houston, Texas. After a pause, he added, “Be careful.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking to reporters on board Air Force One en route to Texas earlier in the day, said that Biden was “sending an unambiguous message that he’s going to act to protect Americans.”
“And when threats are posed, he has the right to take an action at the time and in the manner of his choosing,” she added. “He also is going to take those actions in a manner that’s deliberative and that has the objective of deescalating activity in both Syria and Iraq.”
The first airstrikes of Biden’s administration were launched on Thursday in eastern Syria. Pentagon officials said they targeted Iranian-backed militia groups in retaliation for earlier attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq, as well as ongoing threats to those personnel.
Twenty-two fighters, members of the Iraqi Hezbollah and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, were killed when the strikes hit, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Iranian officials condemned the strikes.
“America’s recent action strengthens and expands the activities of the terrorist Daesh [ISIS] in the region,” Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security council, said in remarks to visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, Reuters reported. “The attack on anti-terrorist resistance forces is the beginning of a new round of organized terrorism.”
The Syrian Foreign Ministry also said it opposed the strikes, saying the Biden administration “is supposed to stick to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle as the previous administration.” And Russia, a Syrian ally, spoke out against the military action.
Biden’s administration consulted with congressional leadership before authorizing the strikes, the White House said, after some members criticized the strikes as overstepping the executive’s powers.
The administration plans on briefing lawmakers early next week at the latest.
Psaki said Biden’s authority stems from Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which outlines how the president is the nation’s commander-in-chief.
“As a matter of domestic law, the president took this action pursuant to his Article 2 authority to defend U.S. personnel. The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks on facilities and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks. As a matter of international law, the United States acted pursuant to its right of self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter,” she said.
“The strikes were both necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks. And I can assure you—and I spoke with the national security team—that there was a thorough legal process and review in advance.”
Psaki in 2017 questioned why then-President Donald Trump authorized airstrikes in Syria, writing in a tweet that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “is a brutal dictator” but that the nation “is a sovereign country.”
Vice President Kamala Harris in 2018, when she was a senator, also questioned why the U.S. military was taking action against Syria, writing, “I am deeply concerned about the legal rationale of last night’s strikes.”
Psaki said the attacks under Trump were responding to a chemical weapons attack, while the Feb. 25 strikes were “in defense of U.S. personnel under attack in Iraq.”
“There’s a massive difference in both policy and law,” she added.