/ 25 October 2023

Washington continues to play a reckless role in the Middle East

President Biden Delivers Remarks On Afghanistan
US President Joe Biden. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

While calling on congress to support his efforts in the face of what he termed two imminent threats, US President Joe Biden, in an oddly brash White House speech, drew a connection between Russia’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the surprise attack by Hamas on Israel.

Against the backdrop of a deeply divided America, Biden urged citizens to broaden their perspective and rally behind essential foreign aid for American allies. 

The sweeping funding request, totaling $100 billion, includes a staggering $60 billion designated for war-torn Ukraine and a substantial $10 billion for Israel. For obvious reasons, this request has set off a political firestorm as it makes its way through the senate and the Republican-led house, which has been without leadership for over two weeks. 

In the rare prime-time address, Biden aimed to establish a clear contrast with the isolationist stance embraced by many of his Republican counterparts, including former president Donald Trump, who have been major opponents of extending military support abroad. 

Straddling both domestic and international fronts, the president fervently appealed to Americans to understand the urgency of providing assistance to US allies around the world. 

Does the Biden administration genuinely believe that offering unwavering support to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu will result in him exercising restraint? Is it under the impression that the extensive destruction in Gaza and the loss of thousands of lives will expedite the chance of regional peace? 

And, furthermore, does the administration truly think that Israel will achieve more success in this conflict than it did in the 2006 Lebanon war, the biannual confrontations with Hamas over the past 15 years or, for that matter, than the US did in its own experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Biden’s decision last week to visit Israel amid the conflict with Hamas in Gaza, with plans to meet several friendly Arab leaders, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in Jordan immediately after his visit to Israel, appears to be a strategic move that faltered miserably due to his impulsive pro-Israeli attitude and questionable acceptance of Netanyahu’s version of what caused the explosion at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, which killed over 500 people. 

From Biden’s perspective, the visit was a well-timed stroke which could help bolster his domestic approval ratings because of sentiments in the US, where there is significant sympathy for Israel and a shared identification with Israelis as victims of Islamist extremism, particularly in the wake of the recent Hamas attacks in southern Israel. However, this decision carried some foreign policy risks — and eventually it turned out to be a grave misstep. 

Biden could not have foreseen the tragic turn of events that coincided with his visit to Tel Aviv — a sudden mass casualty incident. The blame game is in full swing, with Israel and Palestinian groups pointing fingers at each other for the devastating loss of life. Western media and intelligence experts seem to be in agreement that it’s too early to definitively determine responsibility for the explosion. In fact, there is every possibility that this will remain elusive. 

In the broader Arab, as well as Muslim world, the prevailing presumption, which is not likely to alter, is that Israel, amid its extensive bombardment of multiple targets in Gaza, including several civilian zones, must bear the responsibility. 

After all, throughout its previous engagements in Gaza and Lebanon, Israel has a history of either deliberately or inadvertently targeting hospitals, ambulances, refugee facilities, UN camps and more. There are few sanctuaries when the Israeli military is in the pursuit of “restoring deterrence”, a term that often serves as a euphemism for reprisals. 

As a result, Biden had to abruptly cancel his planned meetings with Arab leaders in Jordan, including his meeting with Abbas. This development has left him appearing isolated and somewhat misguided, rendering his trip a notable misjudgment in the realm of US diplomacy, notwithstanding any political advantages it might offer on the domestic front.

After his contentious visit to Israel, rather than engaging in damage-control measures, Biden ventured into two more precarious actions that have affected his standing in the highly polarised global political landscape, especially in the global south. 

One, his administration used the US veto to thwart a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. The resolution, put forth by Brazil, sought to give precedence to a ceasefire, aligning with the widest consensus in the global community. Its intention was to quell the mounting crisis in Gaza, where innocent civilians endure more loss of life and suffering with each passing minute. 

The second was his decision to suggest generous financial support — $10 billion — for Israel in his White House speech. 

Both these measures have inflicted further, avoidable, harm on US interests, intensifying the ill-advised strategy of demonstrating unwavering support for Israel while simultaneously pursuing vital conversations with America’s Arab allies. 

Instead, what remains is unswerving support for Israel during a time when thousands of Palestinians have lost their lives, with the prospect of thousands more facing a perilous situation. This is not a favourable image for Washington. What makes this all the more regrettable is that Biden’s initial steps, along with his diplomatic efforts, have yet to convey a sense of impartiality in safeguarding the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. 

This approach seems unlikely to yield positive results, especially in a situation where numerous countries, including Arab and Muslim states, are deeply engaged in the ongoing volatility. In the past couple of years, the US has sought to diminish its entanglement in the Middle East, redirecting its attention to other parts of the world, notably the Far East and East Asia, with a substantial emphasis on countering China. Nevertheless, the Middle East appears poised to witness continued surges of animosity, despair and extremism. 

The problem lies in Biden’s apparent lack of readiness to address this complex situation with the impartiality and sagacity it demands.

Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan.