Feb 9, 2024

Biden is Dragging the United States Deeper Into the Middle East

Photograph Source: Becker1999 – CC BY 2.0

“The United States does not want to see the conflict escalated and will not escalate the conflict.”

– Senior State Department official in the wake of four days of U.S. bombing in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, February 5, 2024.

“We do not see it as an escalation.”

– Senior State Department official discussing the bombing, February 5, 2024.

“I absolutely don’t agree with your description of the larger conflict.”

– National Security Council spokesman John Kirby denying any connection between Israel’s war in Gaza and U.S. bombing in the Middle East, January 29, 2024.

U.S. officials may not acknowledge the connection between the Gaza War and the U.S. bombing campaign, but there is no question that Israeli militarism is relevant to the increased attacks from the Houthis against commercial shipping in the Red Sea as well as the increased attacks from Iranian-backed militia against U.S. facilities in Jordan, Syria, and Iraq.

As a result of these developments, the United States has taken a stronger stand against Iran, and suggested the possibility of an expanded security alliance with Saudi Arabia in return for Saudi diplomatic recognition of Israel.  These steps would require a deeper U.S. commitment in the Middle East with greater instability and uncertainty at a time when we should be looking for a way to reduce our presence.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s fifth trip to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf since the start of the Gaza war on October 7, 2023 has been no more successful that the first four.  These trips have failed to get Israel to reduce its heavy bombardment of civilian areas in Gaza and permit humanitarian aid to get through; forge an agreement for a unified, Palestinian-led governing body for the West Bank and Gaza; create a path to a Palestinian state; or normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.  President Biden, meanwhile, conceded in a discussion about the U.S. military strikes against the Houthis last month: “Are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”

The United States has stretched itself too thin politically and diplomatically by probing for comprehensive reform in the Middle East.  All of our attention should be focused on a cease-fire in Gaza and the release of the more than 100 Israeli hostages.  [At least 32 of the remaining 136 hostages captured by Hamas have died, according to Israeli intelligence.]  Instead, the Biden administration is engaged in discussions that are going nowhere, such as transferring power in the Palestinian Authority to a new, younger prime minister, and arranging for an Arab peacekeeping force in Gaza to support a new Palestinian administration there.

Israel will do everything within its power to block these measures, and as long as we have to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an anti-American obscurantist, there is little likelihood of success.  Biden has not been willing to put pressure on Israel, which means there is little opportunity for advancing a peace process in the Middle East.  Netanyahu has gone out of his way to embarrass U.S. presidents in the past, and his promises to the Biden administration to limit the high-intensity bombardment in Gaza by the end of January have already been broken.

The history of U.S. policy in the Middle East has largely been one of failure, which is particularly unfortunate at this juncture when we have no vital security interests at stake.  President Eisenhower began the series of failures in 1953, when he sanctioned the overthrow of a legitimate Iranian government.  President Reagan endorsed a U.S. presence in Lebanon in 1982 in the wake of an ill-fated Israeli invasion, which exposed U.S. Marines to a terrorist attack.  President Bush concocted a duplicitous invasion of Iraq in 2003, which opened the door to Iran’s influence in Baghdad and began the cycle of instability that now dominates the region.  Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; closed the American consulate in East Jerusalem; stopped aid to the Palestinians; recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel; and endorsed Israel’s permanent grip on the West Bank.  His abrogation of the Iran nuclear accord abruptly ended an opportunity for serious political negotiations with Tehran.

Since the revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the United States has relied overwhelmingly on military power to assert influence in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.  In the wings, there are U.S. politicians and pundits who favor regime change in Iran as well as the use of military force against Iran.  Too many American leaders have never forgotten our own hostage situation in Iran in 1979, and have wanted to strike back ever since.  As retired Marine general Anthony Zinni once remarked, “If you liked Iraq, then you’ll love Iran.”

Two steps are essential to protect U.S. security interests.  First, the United States must press Israel for a cease-fire.  The only way to pressure Israel would be to place genuine conditions on U.S. arms transfers or to withhold the lethal systems that only Washington provides.  The United States has no non-military tools of influence regarding Israel, so military assistance is our only source of leverage.

Second, it is time for a renewed diplomatic effort with Iran.  CIA director William Burns has experience in dealing with Iran’s leaders, and is clearly the most effective diplomat in the Biden administration.  The efforts to alienate Iran must stop.

Current U.S. diplomatic activity relies on discussions with key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, which are going nowhere.  Moreover, these talks involve the possibility of a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, which would introduce an additional tail to wag the American dog in the Middle East.  These developments could even lead to renewed discussion for the formation of an “Arab NATO,” which was broached by Trump and his aggressive national security adviser, John Bolton.  The Biden administration presumably understands the limits of military force in the region, but the confrontation with Iran and the continued support for Netanyahu could only lead to the deployment of additional U.S. forces.  The end result will be to keep the United States in the Middle East—our very own briar patch.

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