The US president’s muscular diplomacy cannot hide America’s lost standing in the Middle East
US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
EVER SINCE BARACK OBAMA announced a withdrawal of 50,000 troops from Iraq in 2011, America has been trying to get out of the Middle East. As the world’s biggest oil and gas producer, it no longer needs the oil-rich region’s hydrocarbons as it once did. It is also anxious to put its recent disastrous record in the Middle East behind it. The Israelis and Palestinians have long since seemed averse to America’s peace brokering. And the memory of George Bush’s calamitous war in Iraq, 2003-2011, still haunts American politics and policy circles. Competition with China, not democratising the Middle East, is America’s overseas fixation these days. And yet, as the worsening conflagration in Gaza illustrates, the region that formerly dominated American foreign policy will not be ignored. The Middle East keeps pulling America back in.
President Joe Biden, a veteran of decades of Middle Eastern diplomacy, is at least well-equipped to respond. Right up until the moment Hamas’ gliders, dinghies, and armoured bulldozers poured into southern Israel on a murderous raid in October, Biden’s administration had given the Middle East a wide berth. Its big priority was rallying America’s allies against the threat of China; next came defending Ukraine; the Middle East was scarcely a priority for Biden at all. Yet, his administration’s response to Hamas’ raid and Israel’s retaliation has been impressively proactive and cool-headed.
Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, promptly embarked on a red-eye tour of Israel and neighbouring Arab states, making 10 stops in seven countries in five days. Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense, followed him to Israel, as well on October 18 did Biden himself. “I am a Zionist,” the president, a Catholic of Irish stock from Pennsylvania, told Israel’s war cabinet.
Biden’s fundamental position is that Israel has suffered an outrageous attack that its American ally must help it defend itself against. The Hamas raid was an act of “barbarism that is as consequential as the Holocaust,” the president claimed in a TV interview. Biden therefore considers Israel justified in trying to destroy Hamas, and he has sworn to help arm and equip it for the task. He has authorised weapon supplies to Israel and asked Congress to provide it with $14 billion as part of a $105-billion emergency spending package.
In a huge show of force, Biden has also deployed American forces to the region both to reassure the Israelis and deter their rivals—especially Iran, Hamas’ main sponsor—from taking advantage of the crisis. An American aircraft carrier strike group is in the eastern Mediterranean. It is dominated by America’s newest and most sophisticated carrier, the USS Gerald R Ford, armed with 75 aircraft and escorted by up to five destroyers.
A second strike group, including the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, will soon join it. Two American fighter squadrons and multiple Patriot air-defence battalions and anti-ballistic missile batteries have been deployed to Israel, and further reinforcements are promised. The warning to Iran is clear. Suppose it launches its other main regional ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, into Israel, opening a second front in the crisis. In that case, America will ensure that its proxies, and maybe Iran itself, will pay a terrible price.
America has been providing the Israelis with diplomatic cover, too. On October 18, it vetoed a draft resolution at the UN Security Council calling for a “humanitarian pause” in Israel’s shelling of Gaza; on October 21, it proposed a resolution spelling out Israelis’ right to self-defence. Israelis are appreciative. Billboards reading “Thank you, Mr President”, have cropped up alongside Tel Aviv’s main highway.
There is a well-worn logic to Biden’s diplomacy. By standing staunchly with Israel in its hour of trial, the President hopes to reassert America’s influence on it, and in due course, restrain its retaliation against Hamas. That should limit the number of Palestinian civilian deaths that result, and thereby contain the backlash from Arab states and beyond, ultimately ensuring the conflict does not spread
There is a well-worn logic to Biden’s diplomacy. By standing staunchly with Israel in its hour of trial, the president hopes to reassert America’s influence on it, and in due course, restrain its retaliation against Hamas. That should limit the number of Palestinian civilian deaths that result, and thereby contain the backlash from Arab states and beyond, ultimately ensuring the conflict does not spread. “While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it,” Biden cautioned the Israelis during his visit. At the same time, he has indicated to the Palestinians and their Arab sympathisers that America understands that their stateless and wretched plight, to which Israeli policies have contributed, is fuelling the terrorism he denounces. On October 21, Biden posted on X, “We cannot give up on a two-state solution.”
Blinken quietly reinforced that nuanced message. On his preparatory trip to Israel, the secretary of state allegedly refused to assure his hosts that Biden was on his way until they had agreed to establish a humanitarian corridor between Gaza and Egypt to allow Palestinian civilians an escape route.
This is a narrow and perilous diplomatic path. Biden and his aides are attempting to cheerlead for Israel’s right to self-defence while protecting the Palestinian civilians falling victim to Israeli bombs. They are trying to demonise Hamas while pointing to a brighter future for Palestinian statehood. The administration is seeking to deter Iran while coaxing Arab countries to show forbearance towards Israel, even as it bombs Palestinian civilians.
Biden is at least a practised hand at exerting American influence on Israel in this way. He has known Benjamin Netanyahu personally since the early 1980s, when Israel’s prime minister was stationed as a diplomat in Washington. As Barack Obama’s vice president, almost three decades later, Biden was humiliated by Netanyahu even so. On the eve of a visit to Israel by Biden, the Israeli leader’s government announced its intention to expand Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, despite the Obama administration having explicitly asked it not to do so. Against the advice of some of his aides, Biden went ahead with his trip, including a cozy meal with Netanyahu and his wife. “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love ya,” he later scrawled on a gift to the Israeli leader—a message that encapsulates Biden’s approach to Israel. He believes it will always deserve America’s protection and that the best way to influence it is to keep telling it so. Yet, Biden does not only do conciliation where Israel is concerned.
When Israel last launched major airstrikes on Gaza, in 2021, following rocket attacks into southern Israel by Hamas, Biden offered the same staunch American support in public. Yet, in private conversations with Netanyahu, he suggested it was time-limited. After 11 days of strikes, according to a new book on the Biden administration by Franklin Foer, an American journalist, Biden finally concluded that the risks of continued Israeli violence outweighed the potential security gains. “Hey man, we’re out of runway here,” he reportedly told Netanyahu. “It’s over.”
Netanyahu agreed to end the strikes, which Biden considered a vindication of his method. The war had lasted 40 days fewer than Israel’s previous major clash with Hamas, in 2014, which lasted for 50 days, despite Obama’s more forthright and public efforts to end it.
While Biden has impressed with his diplomacy, his beaten former Republican opponent, Donald Trump, has been reminding Americans what incompetence looks like. The former president has taken time off from the multiple lawsuits he faces to castigate both Netanyahu and Biden. A former fan of the Israeli prime minister (who is a close family friend of Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner), Trump now appears to bear a grudge against him. This is perhaps because Netanyahu congratulated Biden on his 2020 election win over Trump, even as the Republican maintained his ludicrous claim to have won the election.
Trump, characteristically, has also sounded enamoured of the wrong side in this conflict. Of Hezbollah, an Iranian-armed group about which it is likely that Trump knows very little, he said: “They’re vicious and they’re smart. And, boy, are they vicious, because nobody’s ever seen the kind of sight that we’ve seen.”
In the current febrile environment, the Middle East could be one lucky direct hit away from a serious escalation. ‘If Iran or its proxies attack us personnel anywhere, make no mistake: we will defend our people, we will defend our security, swiftly and decisively,’ said Antony Blinken. It would be wrong to doubt him
The former president’s party has taken time out from its own crisis—House Republicans’ long-running failure, due to internal divisions, to elect a Speaker of the House of Representatives—to play a more constructive role. Most Republican House members have joined the Democrats in signing a bipartisan statement condemning Hamas’ violence and offering Israel America’s support. Yet, the longer the crisis continues, the more cracks are appearing in that support, especially on the left. Pro-Palestinian groups, including some dominated by liberal American Jews, have staged protests outside the White House, calling for an immediate end to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Thirteen leftwing House Democrats have signed a resolution calling on the Biden administration to broker an immediate ceasefire.
Biden knows it could not do so even if it wanted to. But he will also be worried about the prospect of the conflict getting out of control. Nothing could make Iran happier than to see America sucked into another Middle-Eastern conflagration. Its proxies are trying to increase the odds of this. American and allied troops based in Iraq and Syria were targeted by 13 drone and rocket strikes between October 17 and 24. In the current febrile environment, the Middle East could be one lucky direct hit away from a serious escalation. “If Iran or its proxies attack US personnel anywhere, make no mistake: We will defend our people, we will defend our security, swiftly and decisively,” said Blinken on October 24.
It would be wrong to doubt him. Yet, America’s setbacks in the Middle East and longstanding efforts to retreat from the region may have diminished its powers of deterrence. For Obama, who initiated the attempted retreat, it was a matter of strategy. The shale gas revolution had reversed a long decline in America’s energy production, putting the country on a path to becoming, in effect, energy independent. A richer and more authoritarian and aggressive China should be America’s chief foreign policy concern, Obama increasingly believed. And if that were not sufficient reason to affect the “pivot to Asia”, Obama advocated, he could also point to a disastrous side-effect of America’s Middle-Eastern obsession.
Washington’s political corridors, lobbying shops, and thinktanks had become stuffed with advocates of one aggressive Middle-Eastern action or another. And yet America’s recent history of Middle-Eastern adventurism suggested none was to be trusted. The only way to reduce the temptation of ill-advised intervention, in Obama’s view, was to dramatically reduce the prominence of the Middle East in US thinking.
Donald Trump, deeply envious of Obama’s popularity, tried to reverse most of his policies—yet, he was if anything, keener to reduce America’s military commitment to the Middle East. Biden was even more neglectful of the region. Under pressure from the Democratic left, he until recently threatened to reverse the closer ties with Saudi Arabia that arguably represented Trump’s single main regional achievement. With the benefit of this context, Biden’s impressive show of force looks like an effort to make up some of the standing in the region that America has recently lost.
When Israel last launched major airstrikes on Gaza, in 2021, following rocket attacks by Hamas, Biden offered the same support in public. Yet, in private conversations with Netanyahu, he suggested it was time-limited. After 11 days of strikes, Biden concluded that the risks of continued Israeli violence outweighed the potential security gains
In the process, he has underlined how necessary America’s presence is to the Middle East. No other country has the combination of influence in Jerusalem and military might necessary to prevent an Israeli-Palestinian conflict spiralling around the region. American Middle East wonks, revivified by the crisis, are already calling for a fresh American push to settle the conflict once and for all, by negotiating the long-promised two-state solution that Biden advocates. That would be wonderful if possible. But for now, America would be happy merely to help shepherd the crisis through to a less-than-calamitous conclusion.
This time round, Biden will afford Netanyahu and his generals much longer to pursue their military aims in Gaza than they had in 2021 or 2014. Even so, there will come a time in this crisis when Biden calls halt, and hopes that his early support for the Israelis helps persuade them to listen—before the conflict can spin out of control.