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  1. The Weekend Essay
11 November 2023

The empire can’t strike back

The US has finally lost control of the Middle East.

By Malcom Kyeyune

This is the first of a three-part series of essays on the end of “the new American century”.

The idea that we have reached the end of the “end of history” has become a cliché. In Ukraine, even with the combined weight of Nato assistance, Kyiv has failed to secure a decisive advantage against Russia. In Asia, the US and its allies are nervous, as the industrial might of China is being translated into hard military power. The global balance of power is shifting.

Yet evidence of how immensely different the world is in 2023 compared with 20 years ago is not to be found in eastern Europe or in the South China Sea but, once again, in the Middle East. Hamas’s shocking 7 October attack on Israel has triggered a region-wide crisis that threatens to develop into a wider war. While Israel’s bombardment of Gaza dominates the world’s attention, the crisis has already ignited a second, more significant conflict: there is now a “shadow war” in the region, one that is being waged against the United States itself.

What is remarkable about this conflict – what makes it a “shadow war” to begin with – is that the US refuses to acknowledge its existence. Such denial isn’t unprecedented: in 1969, the Soviet Union and China waged a real but officially unrecognised war over border disputes that dated back to the time of the tsars and the Qing dynasty. Hundreds of Russian and Chinese soldiers were killed and dozens of tanks destroyed in fighting that took place in their remote and sparsely populated border regions. Neither side wanted to admit that they were engaged in hostilities, partly because the two largest communist states waging war on each other would have fatally undermined the illusion of solidarity between both regimes. It was also because both sides possessed nuclear weapons; both sets of leaders worried about the threat of escalation into a full nuclear exchange. The Sino-Soviet border conflict was waged in silence until a ceasefire was negotiated six months after it began.

In the Middle Eastern shadow war of 2023, the dynamic is different. Here, only the US has an interest in denying its existence, even as the groups attacking the US have no interest in hiding their aggression. Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the indiscriminate nature of its bombing campaign – more civilians have died in Gaza in a month than have died over the entirety of the Ukraine war – has infuriated the Muslim world, leading to increasing diplomatic isolation for both the Israeli and American governments. But it has also triggered a regional military crisis, as the various forces belonging to the so-called Axis of Resistance have – more or less openly – declared war on both countries.

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The members of the Axis of Resistance – including Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis of Yemen, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and numerous armed groups in Iraq – are portrayed in the West as proxies of Iran: mere cats’ claws for Tehran’s mullahs. But this interpretation obscures as much as it illuminates. Each of these actors have different goals and interests, and some of them, such as Hamas and Syria, have a history of animosity towards each other. Hamas considers itself a group fighting for Palestinian liberation; the Houthis are mostly focused on their insurgency against the US- and Saudi-backed Yemeni government; while the mostly Shia Iraqi militants are nationalists first and foremost; and so on. Just as Denmark or Poland can’t merely be described as “proxies” of American power, the Axis of Resistance is best understood as a loose alliance of different groups tied together both by common enemies (Israel and the US), and the financial, diplomatic and military support of the primus inter paresIran.

[See also: The Iran Trap]

The fighting against Israel – Hezbollah’s salvos into northern Israel, for example – has dominated the media coverage, but the fighting against the US has been barely discussed. The omission is curious since the American military crisis is historically more significant than the one in Israel: the US maintains dozens of bases in the Middle East, including redoubts and outposts in Iraq and Syria, two countries that de facto belong to the hostile Axis of Resistance. These American bases are under constant rocket, drone and missile attack, and the US has been slow in responding. While sporadic attacks on US fortifications have been happening for years, the “new normal” of barrage – sometimes more than half a dozen separate incidents a day – is unprecedented. What’s more, it’s clear that the US Department of Defense is trying to downplay and even hide the seriousness of what is taking place.

In the first round of attacks, which began one week after 7 October, US Central Command – CentCom – was regularly issuing updates. Drones fired from some of these groups were being shot down and attacks were being foiled. And while CentCom was quick to admit that one civilian contractor had died from a heart attack while seeking shelter from incoming rockets, it insisted that no other casualties (wounded and severely wounded) had been inflicted. But CentCom later backtracked and admitted that US forces had sustained more than 45 casualties from the first week of attacks. Now, CentCom has essentially stopped commenting on these attacks altogether; we no longer know what kinds of weapons are being used against American bases, and we have no idea the level of damage.

What is going on? America, we are often told, possesses the strongest, most advanced military in the world; in sheer dollars spent, it accounts for around 40 per cent of the world’s total military spending. What reason would the US have to hunker down and pretend like nothing was going on, even as rockets and drones rained down on its installations? Unlike the Sino-Soviet border conflict, there is neither the problem of image management with the nightmare of intra-communist warfare, nor the threat of nuclear war. So why the hesitancy?

The reason the US wants to hide and deny this shadow war is that changing military realities on the ground have left it far weaker in the region than it used to be. The great military successes in the region – Desert Storm (1990-91), Desert Shield (1990-91), Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-11) – all took place decades ago, against disorganised opponents who either lacked the will or materiel to fight back. Thirty years ago, drone technology was nascent, and rockets weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are now. The geopolitical situation was also different: China was still a comparatively poor country, Russia was reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Iran was friendless and still recovering from the devastating Iraq-Iran War between 1980 and 1988. The American military was much larger, and its weapons were, in relative terms, more advanced than they are today – in 2023, the average age of a US Air Force warplane is roughly 30 years: most planes in US service are older (sometimes significantly so) than the pilots flying them. That wasn’t necessarily the case in 1993 or 2003.

The US is increasingly caught in a bind. Its enemies are stronger and more numerous than they were two decades ago, when the US was mostly fighting poorly armed insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. Today, Iraqi militant groups are battle-hardened after a decade-long struggle against Islamic State, and they have access to modern stand-off weaponry: suicide drones, ballistic missiles, short-range Burkan (“Volcano”) rockets with explosive warheads weighing hundreds of pounds each, and even modern anti-air missiles, exported from Iran or Russia. Even Hezbollah in Lebanon presents a serious threat against the US Navy because it now boasts hardware such as the modern Russian Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles. The result of these geopolitical, economic and military shifts in the balance of power has been to seriously undermine US dominance in the region. One and a half decades ago, the US could hover drones over much of the Middle East and rain down Hellfire missiles on suspected terrorists with near impunity; only a few days ago, the Houthi rebels of Yemen (one of the poorest countries in the region) uploaded a video of them using their anti-air missiles to shoot down a American MQ-9 reaper drone over the Red Sea.

But that’s only half the story: an American drone costs something like $32m to purchase; the Iranian-produced missile that took it out, by contrast, probably had a cost measured in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The military attrition thus masks an even deeper problem: economic attrition, as US weapon systems get both older and more expensive, while the tools used to challenge (waning) American supremacy are becoming both cheaper and more widely available.

The Iraqi militants issuing public declarations that they won’t rest until every American is kicked out of Iraq have tens of thousands of men under arms. By contrast, the more exposed US bases in the region have only a couple of thousand men, at most. The American military is experiencing a severe recruitment crisis, and there is a deep and pervading sense of war weariness among US voters. All of this has conspired to present the Pentagon with an impossible choice: if it strikes back, it risks accomplishing nothing more than simply kicking the hornet’s nest. Mobilising tens and even hundreds of thousands of militants against it, when it has neither the will – nor the boots on the ground – to really fight back.

But if it doesn’t strike back, it only confirms what everyone in the Middle East openly suspects: that American primacy is dead, and that the US has become a doddering, weak giant, standing on feet of clay. Thus, the war being waged against the US today has become a shadow war. It’s a war that nobody in the Pentagon wants to talk about in the hopes that it simply goes away. For to admit that the United States is already engulfed in a new kind of war against it, waged with new weapons and with new purpose, is to admit the unacceptable: that the project for the “new American century”, which was born in fire and blood in Afghanistan and Iraq, seems to be ending decisively in the very places it once began.

[See also: Progressives dream of tyranny]

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