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16 April 2024

America cannot afford another war in the Middle East

Joe Biden’s approach to the region has adhered to a sound realism.

By Sohrab Ahmari

My kids’ Catholic parochial school held its annual fundraising gala on Saturday evening. And while the other parents glided between the dance floor, the bar, and the buffet, I was glued to my phone, desperately updating my news apps and social-media feeds for the latest on the full-blown war poised to break out between Israel and Iran. My mind cycled through imagined-but-all-too-realistic pictures of the impending horrors.

Had the Middle East taken that final step into the end times, dragging the rest of the world with it? For now, Joe Biden seems to have staved off the worst possible outcomes. But to keep at bay the nightmarish scenarios requires urgent and nimble diplomacy — and a sturdy willingness to say “No” to Benjamin Netanyahu’s unpleasant government.

That evening, I trembled over the fate of my homeland, Iran. I thought about its passionate, funny, and sometimes maddening people. My kin. I thought about the densely packed city of my birth, Tehran. The Persian and Islamic antiquities that might be damaged or destroyed in an Israeli response to the Iranian barrage. I worried, too, about the safety of my friends in Israel. Ever since my early 20s, when I scrolled tearfully through the website of Yad Vashem, the Jewish state’s Holocaust memorial, the necessity of a safe Jewish homeland has been one of my foundational political commitments.

But above all, I was filled with fear as an American. In the wake of 9/11, the United States had wasted 20 years, trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives on fruitless regime-change wars in the Middle East and North Africa. These conflicts had demoralised the nation, distracting leaders in Washington from the social and economic carnage that had unfolded in the homeland during the same period. America had finally extricated itself from the region in 2021, creating an opening for domestic reconsolidation and reconstruction. Would an Israeli-Iranian conflict pull the country back into a region whose tribal, ethnic, sectarian, and historical intricacies it couldn’t begin to master? Oh God.

All told, the Tehran regime launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel. But the Israelis, acting in concert with the US, Britain, France, and Jordan, intercepted most of the objects, resulting in “a lot of bang, but relatively little destruction on the ground,” as the New York Times reported. The whole thing looked like a well-choreographed tit-for-tat, with the Islamic Republic giving the Western powers ample notice, sequencing the attack in waves, and then declaring the affair closed (barring further Israeli escalation). The Iranians, in other words, were determined to save face and give a deterrent impression, but without getting into a war they probably know they can’t win.

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So far, then, the Biden White House has managed to thread a difficult needle: maintaining support for the Jewish state in the wake of the 7 October Hamas terror attack against southern Israel, while averting a wider confrontation that would pit the US-led bloc in the region against Iran’s “axis of resistance.” It’s a thankless posture. The more excitable elements of the pro-Israel movement are already screaming about betrayal and calling on Biden to “end Iran”. Meanwhile, the Israel-sceptical left, not a small component of the Democrats’ young base, has grown disaffected in response to what they see as Biden’s failure to restrain Netanyahu in Gaza.

But Biden’s approach in the Middle East — if not in Ukraine — has generally hewed to a sound realism. While a series of missteps have undermined America’s position somewhat in recent decades, Washington remains the principal outside power in the region. As such, the United States couldn’t have permitted the atrocities of 7 October, carried out by Iran’s Gaza proxies, to go unpunished. Not without losing serious credibility. At the same time, America doesn’t need and can’t afford another big Mideast war as it shifts attention to the much more geo-economically vital Pacific region.

Hence, the response from the Biden administration so far: a tit-for-tat pattern of conflict management aimed at keeping things reasonably contained, allowing the arch-enemies to save face without actually bloodying each other’s faces. This model leaves all parties — including important domestic constituencies, Jewish and Muslim — dissatisfied. Indeed, it’s almost designed to do so. Those seeking perfect justice will always be disappointed by international affairs. Given the current global balance of forces, in which US hegemony is waning in relative terms, conflict management, muddling through and avoiding the worst is the best we can hope for.

Still, if Biden’s approach works, history might just reward his leadership with the same retrospective glow that now surrounds JFK’s and RFK’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Emphasis on if, however. To a queasy-making degree, the plan relies on Netanyahu appreciating that Israel’s superpower patron mustn’t be cornered; that he mustn’t stoke a direct conflict with wildly destabilising consequences that would likely jeopardise US power and, thus, America’s ability to protect the Jewish state in the long term. Western governments, including the Biden administration, are urging restraint in Jerusalem, and let’s hope they keep at it. There are reports that Israel’s war cabinet has agreed to respond forcefully to Iran’s attack, but without sparking a wider conflict. The nightmare of regional war still looms too close for comfort.

[See also: The Iran attack changes everything]

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