As the US secretary of state Antony Blinken embarks on his fourth regional trip since 7 October, the Middle East appears to be teetering on the brink. This raises questions: just how much control does the United States have over the trajectory of the Middle East? And can the arrival of America’s top diplomat halt the seemingly inevitable path to war?
On 2 January, the senior Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri was assassinated in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut (the Dahiyeh), prompting the Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah to vow retaliation. In the Red Sea, Yemen’s Houthis continue to target commercial vessels, resulting in the US and 13 other nations sternly warning the group that they are “determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks”. Meanwhile, Hamas maintains its ability to fire rockets into Israel, guaranteeing the continuation of the latter’s assault on Gaza.
It is impossible not to be alarmed at how tensions have escalated in the region, increasing the risk of miscalculation on the part of any of the parties involved. With each passing day, the Iran-supported “axis of resistance” – Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis – seems more emboldened than the last. It is riding the wave of global criticism of Israel’s tactics in Gaza, and publicly sneers at the US’s inability to contain its special ally or respond to the axis’s displays of power.
It is doubtful that Iran and its proxies are courting all-out war: they know they’re no match for the military might of the US, should it get involved. Nor is Hezbollah willing to alienate a Lebanese population already exhausted and traumatised by years of domestic political and economic crises. One must assume that Israel likewise would prefer to avoid a regional conflict of that size – it would be irresponsible not to presume a two-front war with Hamas and Hezbollah would come at great political and military cost. Yet all sides continue to act recklessly, each of them one bad decision away from the worst-case scenario.
Blinken will spend the next few days in the Middle East, with stops announced in Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the West Bank. Much is riding on his trip. The US’s diplomatic efforts to make meaningful progress on many of Blinken’s stated topics – from protecting civilian lives in the West Bank and Gaza, to securing the release of the remaining hostages in the Strip and facilitating the increased, sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gazans – have so far been tragically ineffective. Despite continued Israeli intransigence in the face of American frustration, the Biden administration continues to cling to the illusion – at best naive, at worst disingenuous – that its public embrace of Benjamin Netanyahu will compel the embattled prime minister to change course in Gaza. American soft power is looking more soft than powerful.
To restore its diplomatic credibility and pull the region back from the brink, the US must do far more to convince Israel that its strategic interests lie in targeting Hamas leadership and military capability rather than Palestine’s civilian infrastructure and exercising restraint on its northern border. To do so America must use sticks it has so far been unwilling to deploy, such as making military assistance conditional. It must also compel the Houthis to halt their attacks in the Red Sea, either by issuing convincing threats or through limited military targeting of strategic Houthi naval assets. It is a difficult and unenviable task at a precarious moment, and the odds are not in America’s favour.
When it rallied a global coalition to defeat Islamic State, the world was united in its perceptions of both the threat and the appropriate response. However, unconditional US support for Israel has rendered its diplomacy here toothless, and sent a message that is, in the words of Jordan’s King Abdullah, “loud and clear: Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional. And human rights have boundaries – they stop at borders, they stop at races, and they stop at religions.”
Pax Americana rests on two pillars: US military might and diplomatic power. By failing to rein in the scale of Israel’s actions in Gaza or in deterring Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, those pillars seem shaky. Bolstering them requires swift and decisive action from Joe Biden. The cost of continued relative inaction is simply too high.
[See also: How will the war in Ukraine end?]