As the US secretary of state Antony Blinken wraps up his fifth trip to the Middle East since 7 October, the Biden administration has yet to articulate a comprehensive US strategy for regional peace and stability that goes beyond putting plasters on bullet holes. In the last week, the US has conducted strikes against Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the death of three US troops stationed in Jordan on 29 January, in addition to more strikes on Houthi assets in Yemen. In turn, Iran’s proxies in the “axis of resistance” – the Houthis, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah – remain defiant, continuing their attacks against the US, its allies and on its interests in the region.
Meanwhile, negotiations over a truce in Gaza are stuck, with the leadership of Israel and Hamas refusing to budge from their maximalist positions around a permanent ceasefire, and normalisation talks with Saudi Arabia have lost their pre-7 October momentum. With President Joe Biden fast losing support at home for his handling of the Middle East and the region in a simmering state of conflict, the US needs to shift its tactical approach to one more firmly rooted in reality.
On 29 September 2023, the national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the Middle East region was “quieter today than it has been in two decades”. His words have been immortalised as either painfully out of touch or wilfully ignorant, depending on how generous the assessor. That autumn, nearly three years into his term, Biden was focused on rallying Europe in the face of Russian aggression, setting a firm strategy to counter China, and focusing on improving the economic standing of Americans at home. Never a believer that the US could significantly impact events in the Middle East, Biden quickly abandoned his human-rights-centred campaign platform in his belief that it would be less of a headache to maintain the regional status quo than use precious resources to address the root causes of unrest and instability – namely the Israel-Palestine conflict and Iranian aggression. Rather than devise a strategy that would address those root causes in the interest of long-term US interests, Biden’s national security team aggressively pursued a Saudi-Israel normalisation deal as the cornerstone of Biden’s Middle East legacy.
Hamas’s gruesome attacks on 7 October, followed by Israel’s swift and devastating response in Gaza, brought Biden’s non-strategy “strategy” down in one fell swoop, revealing the shallowness, complacency and lack of foresight that would catapult the region into the low-level state of conflict it is in today.
In his September speech, Sullivan offered proof of the administration’s success in the Middle East not in the number of diplomatic achievements in the region, but by the amount of time he had to spend on “crisis and conflict” in the Middle East. He noted that “compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11” it was “significantly reduced”. His statement revealed a dangerously flawed sense of logic for someone in his position and with his experience in national security affairs. Worse still, it failed to recognise the “quiet” for what it was: a superficial calm before the inevitable storm.
Today, almost five months into the war in Gaza, and having gambled on the premise that the desire for economic progress by people in the region would trump their basic human desire for freedom and dignity, the US is shaken, jumping from one retaliatory strike to the next against an emboldened enemy, all the while scrambling to prevent an all-out war that would see Biden mired in the Middle East in a critical election year. Blinken’s frantic shuttle diplomacy, rather than steadily leading the region to stability, is looking more like an embarrassing scramble to plug the holes of a sinking ship. Meanwhile, a small but forceful chorus of voices back home agitates for a more hawkish US approach.
Yet these diplomatic failures are not the result of an inherently incompetent America; rather, of an administration that refuses to fully acknowledge the centrality of the war in Gaza to the uptick in regional violence, and is unwilling to use its leverage with the only party capable of ending it: Israel.
That is not to ignore Hamas’s culpability and responsibility for the current situation. Regardless of the historical context of occupation and the Israeli intelligence failures that allowed the attacks to unfold, Hamas did start this latest round of violence and must not be allowed to repeat it. Qatar and Egypt, both of whom have influence with the group, have been knee-deep in the truce and hostage negotiations, trying to move Hamas’s military leadership away from its maximalist position of a permanent ceasefire.
The same cannot be said for the American effort vis-à-vis Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu – himself held hostage politically by the extremist bloc in his government led by the far-right ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, both of whom are settlers living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – holds an equally maximalist position and refuses to entertain Palestinian governance west of the Jordan river after the war is over (his own version of “from the river to the sea”). Faced with the intransigence of its closest ally, the US has not attempted to use its leverage in the form of conditioning military assistance or reducing its political cover of Israel at the UN to force Netanyahu to make hard choices for peace. On Iran, the US is similarly ineffective, unable to suggest a diplomatic path forward to address core issues like the nuclear file and Iran’s role in the region. It instead disguises its tactical strikes against Iran’s proxies as a “strategy”.
Blinken will surely have heard variations on these themes from Arab allies during his latest trip. With the stakes this high and America poised to repeat its ill-fated pattern of confusing military might with strategic vision, the question is: will he listen?
[See also: Has Zelensky walked into a trap?]