December 15, 2023

Israel Is Not America’s Responsibility

Yet the Global War on Terror seems on the verge of absorbing the Gaza War into its current configuration.

Andrew J. Bacevich
Biden with Israeli, US flags

President Joe Biden leaves a press conference following a visit to Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023.

(Brendan Smialowski / Getty)

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One way of understanding the ongoing bloodbath pitting Israel against Hamas is to see it as just the latest chapter in an existential struggle dating back to the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. While the appalling scope, destructiveness, and duration of the fighting in Gaza may outstrip previous episodes, this latest go-around serves chiefly to reaffirm the remarkable intractability of the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict.

Although the shape of that war has changed over time, certain constants remain. Neither side, for instance, seems capable of achieving its ultimate political goals through violence. And each side adamantly refuses to concede to the core demands of its adversary. In truth, while the actual fighting may ebb and flow, pause and resume, the Holy Land has become the site of what is effectively permanent conflict.

For several decades, the United States sought to keep its distance from that war by casting itself in the role of regional arbiter. While providing Israel with arms and diplomatic cover, successive administrations have simultaneously sought to position the US as an “honest broker,” committed to advancing the larger cause of Middle Eastern peace and stability. Of course, a generous dose of cynicism has always informed this “peace process.”

On that score, however, the present moment has let the cat fully out of the bag. The Biden administration responded to the gruesome terrorist attack on October 7 by unequivocally endorsing and underwriting Israeli efforts to annihilate Hamas, with Gazans thereby subjected to a World War II–style obliteration bombing campaign. Meanwhile, ignoring tepid Biden administration protests, Israeli settlers continue to expel Palestinians from parts of the West Bank where they have lived for generations. If Hamas’s October assault was a tragedy, proponents of a Greater Israel also saw it as a unique opportunity that they’ve seized with alacrity. As for the peace process, already on life support, it now seems altogether defunct. Prospects of reviving it anytime soon appear remote.

More or less offstage, the fighting is having this ancillary effect: As the Israeli Defense Forces employ US-provided weapons and munitions to turn Gaza into rubble, the “rules-based international order” touted by the Biden administration as the latest organizing principle of American statecraft has forfeited whatever slight credibility it might have possessed. Russia’s assault on Ukraine appears almost measured and humane by comparison.

As if to emphasize Washington’s own limited fealty to that rules-based order, President Biden’s immediate response to the events of October 7 focused on unilateral military action, bolstering US naval and air forces in the Middle East while shoveling even more weapons to Israel. Ostensibly tasked with checking any further spread of violence, American forces in the region have instead been steadily edging toward becoming full-fledged combatants.

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In recent weeks, US forces have sustained dozens of casualty-producing attacks, primarily from rockets and armed drones. Attributing those attacks to “Iran-affiliated groups,” the United States has responded with air strikes targeting warehouses, training facilities, and command posts in Syria and Iraq.

According to a Pentagon spokesman, the overall purpose of American military action in the region is “to message very strongly to Iran and their affiliated groups to stop.” Thus far, the impact of such messaging has been ambiguous at best. Certainly, US retaliatory efforts haven’t dissuaded Iran from pursuing its proxy war against American military outposts in the region. On the other hand, the scale of those Iran-supported attacks remains modest. Notably, no US troops have been killed—yet.

For the moment at least, that fact may well be the administration’s operative definition of success. As long as no flag-draped coffins show up at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Joe Biden may find it perfectly tolerable for the US-Iran subset of the Israel-Hamas war to simmer indefinitely on the back burner.

This pattern of tit-for-tat violence has received, at best, sporadic public attention. Where (if anywhere) it will lead remains uncertain. Even so, the United States is at risk of effectively opening up a new front in what used to be called the Global War on Terror. That war is now nearly dormant, or at least hidden from public view. The very real possibility of either side misinterpreting or willfully ignoring the other’s “messaging” could reignite it, with an expanded war that directly pits the US against Iran making the Israel-Gaza war look like a petty squabble.

Then there are the potential domestic implications. No doubt President Biden’s political advisers are alive to the possibility of a major war affecting the outcome of the 2024 elections (and not necessarily to the incumbent’s benefit either). One can easily imagine Donald Trump seizing on even a handful of US military fatalities in Middle East skirmishing as definitive proof of presidential ineptitude, akin to the bungled withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan, during Biden’s first year in office.

Two Wars Converge

Understanding the larger implications of these developments requires putting them in a broader context. In Gaza in the last two months, two protracted meta-conflicts that had unfolded on parallel tracks for decades have finally converged. That is likely to have profound implications for basic US national security policy, even if few in Washington appear aware of the potential implications.

On the one track, dating from 1948 (although its preliminaries occurred decades earlier) is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Enshrined among Israelis as the War for Independence, for Arabs the events of 1948 are seen as the Nakba, or “Catastrophe.” Subsequent eruptions of violence have ensued from time to time, as Arab nations vented their anger at the Jewish state and Israel pursued opportunities to create a strategically more coherent and more economically viable, not to mention biblically endorsed, “Greater Israel.”

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Initially intent on steering clear of the Arab-Israeli conflict—occasionally even denouncing Israeli misbehavior—American officials allowed themselves over time to be incrementally drawn into becoming Israel’s closest ally. Yet under the terms of the relationship as it evolved, the Israeli leaders insisted on retaining a large measure of strategic autonomy. Over Washington’s vociferous objections, for example, it acquired a robust nuclear arsenal. To guarantee their security, Israelis placed paramount emphasis on their own military capabilities, not those of the United States.

Meanwhile, on the other track, dating from the promulgation of President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Doctrine in 1980, US forces have had their hands full in the region. With Israel exacerbating or fending off threats to its own security, successive American administrations undertook a series of new military commitments, interventions, and occupations across the Greater Middle East that had little or nothing to do with protecting Israel.

In the Persian Gulf, the Levant, the Horn of Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia, the Pentagon dealt with problems of its own as those regions became venues for hosting American forces engaged in operations intended to protect, punish, or even “liberate.” Such military exertions and the presence of US forces became commonplace throughout the Middle East—except in Israel. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Washington’s military actions reached their apotheosis when President George W. Bush embarked on a global campaign with the aim of eliminating evil.

Meanwhile, the various engagements undertaken by Israeli forces from the 1950s into the present century achieved mixed results. On the one hand, the Jewish state persists and has even expanded—a minimalist definition of “success.” On the other hand, recent events affirm that threats to Israel’s existence also persist.

In comparison, the US-led Global War on Terror proved an outright failure, even if strikingly few ordinary Americans (and even fewer members of the political establishment) appear willing to acknowledge that fact.

Once the US-supported regime in Kabul collapsed in 2021, it appeared American military misadventures in the Greater Middle East might be petering out. The humiliating result of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in the wake of the disappointing outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom had seemingly exhausted Washington’s appetite for remaking the region. Besides, there was Russia to tend to—and China. Strategic priorities seemed to be shifting.

Alarm Bells, American-Style

Now, however, in the wake of the atrocities committed on October 7 and Washington’s tacit acquiescence in Israel’s maximalist war aims, the dubious notion that vital American interests are still at stake in the Greater Middle East has taken on new life. Dating from the 1980s, Washington had cycled through a variety of arguments for why that part of the world was worthy of spending American blood and treasure: the threat of Soviet aggression, US reliance on foreign oil, radical Arab dictators, Islamic jihadism, weapons of mass destruction falling into hostile hands, potential ethnic cleansing and genocide. All of those were pressed into service at one time or another to justify continuing to treat the Middle East as a strategic US priority.

In truth, though, none of them has stood the test of time. Each has proven to be fallacious. Indeed, efforts to cure the sources of dysfunction afflicting the region proved to be a fool’s errand that has cost the United States dearly in money and lives while yielding little of value.

For that reason, allowing Israel’s conflict with Hamas to draw the United States into a new Middle Eastern crusade would be the height of folly. In fact, however, with little public attention and even less congressional oversight, that is precisely what may be happening. The Global War on Terror seems on the verge of absorbing the Gaza War into its current configuration.

In recent years, a shift in Pentagon priorities to the Indo-Pacific and to a future face-off with China has left only about 2,500 US troops in Iraq and 900 more in Syria. The nominal mission of such modestly sized garrisons is to carry on the fight against the remnants of ISIS.

White House officials have, however, never gone out of their way to explain what those troops are really doing there. In practice, they have effectively become inviting stationary targets. As a consequence and not for the first time, “protecting the troops” has emerged as a convenient pretext for mounting a broader punitive response.

With Congress accepting claims that the Authorization for Use of Military Force enacted in response to 9/11 suffices to cover whatever US forces in the region may be up to 22 years later, the Biden administration functionally has a free hand to act as it wishes. The course it has chosen is to use Israel’s war in Gaza as a rationale for reversing course in the Middle East and once again making violence and threats of violence the basis of US policy there. On that score, the fact that some American forces are now covertly operating in Israel itself should set off alarm bells.

The Gaza War will change Israel in ways that may be difficult to foresee. The failure of its vaunted military and intelligence establishments to anticipate and thwart the worst terrorist attack in that country’s history leaves Jewish Israelis with a sense of unprecedented vulnerability. It will hardly be surprising if they look to Washington for protection, in which case Israel’s survival could become an American responsibility.

The invitation is one that the United States would do well to refuse. Accepting it will confront Americans with challenges they are ill-equipped to meet and with obligations they can ill afford. Deepening the Pentagon’s involvement in the Greater Middle East will only compound the failures to which the Carter Doctrine has already subjected this nation, while scrambling US strategic priorities in ways sure to prove counterproductive.

In 1796, George Washington warned his countrymen of the dangers of allowing a “passionate attachment” to another nation to affect policy. That warning remains relevant today. The Gaza War is not and should not become America’s war.

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Andrew J. Bacevich

Andrew J. Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Long War, co-edited with Danny Sjursen, is forthcoming.

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