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The United States Is Trapped in the Middle East

As a result of Israel’s offensive on Gaza, the United States is again becoming deeply entrenched in the Middle East. This is a humiliating blow to President Biden, who promised to reassert U.S. imperialism by moving away from direct involvement in the region.

Samuel Karlin

February 22, 2024
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As a result of Israel’s genocidal offensive in Gaza, the United States has been forced to expand its presence in the Middle East. President Biden has sent warships and thousands of troops to the region, and the U.S. military is now exchanging direct fire with Iran-aligned groups. This increasing U.S. entrenchment is not something Biden will be able to get out of easily.

Biden promised to end the “forever wars” in the Middle East, a promise he has been unable to keep. Two years ago, leading foreign policy analysts were discussing a “post-American order” in the Middle East, but today, the whole world is being shaken by Biden’s policies toward the region.

The crisis in the Middle East is a crisis for Biden’s whole task of strengthening a declining U.S. imperialism. Biden had a period of success after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which allowed him to use the NATO alliance to reassert U.S. influence in Europe. That success is now in question two years into the war. The United States is getting sucked back into the Middle East as Biden’s main foreign policy success is waning, leading the capitalists to question whether Biden’s strategy to rebuild U.S. power is their best option.

Now Biden’s inability to resolve the regional crisis, which has international implications, is greatly threatening his domestic stability ahead of the November presidential election. He has been dubbed “Genocide Joe” by an anti-imperialist movement in the heart of imperialism, and he faces a plummeting approval rating and opposition from within government institutions and his own party. As a result, Biden may actually lose to Trump in the upcoming presidential election. Such a scenario would further exacerbate the domestic and international crises that are developing.

How the various crises develop remains an open question. But it is likely that whatever happens, the United States will find itself trapped in the Middle East. This would be a blow to U.S. imperialism at a moment when it is hoping to reorient to China, and it is already a humiliating outcome for Biden’s original strategy to reestablish the United States as a world hegemon.

Biden and the Middle East

After the chaotic foreign policy of the Trump years, Biden promised to rebuild U.S. global hegemony by leaning on the traditional alliances of U.S. imperialism, which had been maligned and damaged by Trump. Biden sold this strategy as the best way to move toward a strategic confrontation with China, becoming the preferred candidate of the U.S. capitalist class, which has a consensus on the need for the United States to contain China’s rise as a world power with imperialist ambitions.

In implementing this strategy, Biden moved away from the War on Terror, which had kept the U.S. bogged down in the Middle East for decades. The humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in many ways marked continuity with Obama’s pivot to Asia, a strategy that accelerated under the Trump administration. To address the power vacuum that this withdrawal left — one that China sought to take advantage of — Biden hoped to maintain U.S. interests through a Saudi-Israel defense pact, a policy carried over from Trump, who pursued Arab rapprochement with Israel through the Abraham Accords. Biden attempted to pair this rapprochement among U.S. allies with soft-power methods to contain Iran, the biggest U.S. adversary in the Middle East and an important ally to Russia and China.

This policy was developed by the Biden administration to stabilize U.S. interests in the region without committing to direct intervention. But it has been in shambles since the October 7 attacks, and every day that Israel continues its offensive, it becomes increasingly unattainable. In fact, on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s latest visit to the Middle East, the Saudi government informed Blinken — and announced publicly — that it would not normalize ties with Israel without the recognition of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Of course, Saudi Arabia’s snub does not signal any serious concern for Palestinians from the Saudi regime. Instead, class struggle has bubbled up throughout the region, as the Arab masses rally in support of the Palestinian cause. This has limited the power of the Arab regimes, like Saudi Arabia’s, to pursue their own desire to normalize relations with Israel, forcing them to demand concessions from the United States.

With U.S. diplomatic weakness on display, Biden is also facing pressure from Republicans to project more military strength as the United States and Israel face attacks from the Iran-backed “Axis of Resistance,” of which Hamas is a part. The activity of this alliance has challenged the capacity of the United States to guarantee economic stability, most notably with Yemen’s Ansar Allah (the Houthis), who are targeting commercial shipping in the Red Sea. On top of this, the death of three U.S. troops stationed in Jordan was fodder for the Right, which quickly called for more escalation. Biden, for his part, responded by striking targets in Iraq and Syria, but he seems committed — at least for now — to a policy of not crossing any of Iran’s redlines, such as attacks on Iranian territory. Despite those on the Left who put faith in the Axis of Resistance, the fact is that the alliance, Iran and Hezbollah in particular, have shown their lack of commitment to the Palestinian cause by limiting their “resistance” enough that their own national and regional interests are not put at risk.

Both the policy of the Biden administration and that of the Iranian regime are to avoid direct conflict, as both countries are facing structural crises that could be exacerbated by upcoming elections. But as long as Israel’s offensive continues with U.S. backing, the United States will face more hostility in the region. In fact, the Palestinian struggle has united the Arab masses across countries that have long been divided by imperialism and national bourgeois regimes that prop themselves up on sectarian divisions.

As Toby Matthiesen argues in Foreign Affairs,

Now, after nearly four months of catastrophic war, Israel’s assault on Gaza has awakened a pan-Islamic front encompassing Sunni Arab publics, who overwhelmingly oppose Arab normalization, and the militant Shiite groups that constitute the core of Iran’s resistance forces. For the United States and its partners, this development poses a strategic challenge that goes far beyond countering Iraqi militias and the Houthis with targeted strikes. By bringing together a long-divided region, the war in Gaza threatens to further undermine U.S. influence and, in the long run, could make numerous U.S. military missions untenable. This new unity also raises significant obstacles to any U.S.-led efforts to impose a top-down peace deal that excludes Palestinian Islamists.

Biden’s ability to move away from the region depends on a Saudi-Israel pact that can contain Iran. This pact now cannot move forward unless a Palestinian state is established. But there is no clear leadership for such a state that Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia could all agree to. The Palestinian Authority is discredited after decades of serving as a proxy for Israel’s interests. The most popular Palestinian leadership at the moment is Hamas, which the United States and Israel will not back for obvious reasons. In short, as unconditional support for Israel becomes untenable, in turn the two-state solution that the United States and many world leaders call for now is increasingly utopian.

Biden and Israel

Even with challenges from Arab allies, Iran and its allies, and domestic pressures, perhaps the biggest challenge for Biden’s administration is Israel. Any policy Biden proposes to stabilize the Middle East will require the approval of Israel. But getting diplomatic agreement from Israel is at best a herculean endeavor, as Netanyahu’s regime faces its own set of crises that will not be easily resolved.

Since Israel rejected the latest proposal for a pause in fighting, the bourgeois press has been reporting that tensions are rising between the Biden administration and Israel. While the administration is losing patience with Israel, the disagreements are tactical. The weight this alliance holds for U.S. power is the reason Biden has been willing to suppress the movement in the United States, even as this further places his reelection at risk. It is why he continues to give Israel billions in funding and diplomatic support alongside tepid calls for “restraint.” And even as other imperialist powers and even some sectors of the U.S. regime are finally calling for a ceasefire, these calls must also be understood not as a break with the Zionist regime but as an attempt to stabilize the relationship and preserve some legitimacy for the U.S.-Israel alliance.

As Philippe Alcoy explains in Revolution Permanente,

Make no mistake, North American leaders don’t care about the lives of Palestinians. Their concerns lie elsewhere: in the strategic interests of U.S. imperialism in the region, and the possible consequences of war for Biden’s re-election campaign in November. Because of the two states’ closely aligned interests, the U.S. cannot allow Israel to become isolated and weakened in the region and on the international stage. At the same time, it must avoid being drawn into a new Middle East conflict by its Zionist ally, which would be too dangerous for the United States’ strategic interests and international hegemony.

Israel serves the vital role of an enforcer of U.S. interests in the Middle East. While the U.S. benefits from having Israel as a regional attack dog, Israel benefits from its relationship with the United States; an ally in the world’s main imperialist power allows it to project strength well beyond its size and population. For this reason, neither country can afford to seriously abandon the relationship, even in the current context, in which Israel is creating conditions that greatly harm U.S. imperialism’s broader interests.

Further complicating the relationship is the deep structural crisis of Netanyahu’s regime. Before October 7, Israel’s population and government were divided over an attempted judicial reform put forward by Israel’s Far Right, which incited massive “pro-democracy” protests. After the Hamas-led attacks, Netanyahu used the situation to coalesce a wartime cabinet and unite the Israeli masses around the genocidal siege on Gaza, under the guise of “defeating Hamas.” Five months in, cracks are emerging in this strategy of wartime unity.

As Alcoy explains,

Internally, the hostage issue is becoming a major factor of pressure and division within the war cabinet and the government. On the one hand, there are sectors that favor a negotiated solution to bring back the more than 130 hostages still in Gaza as quickly as possible. According to a poll, 57 percent of Israelis rank the return of the hostages as a higher priority than overthrowing Hamas in Gaza. At a demonstration for the release of the hostages, Hagar Brodutch, a former hostage freed last November, told the crowd: “136 coffins are not a picture of victory. The security cabinet must make the release of the hostages its top priority and accept any agreement that will bring them home. Time is running out.” This is causing divisions within the war cabinet, where former soldier Benny Gantz, who returned to the national unity government after October 7, is in favor of immediate negotiations for the hostages’ release.

Protests in Israel demanding that the government prioritize a hostage exchange have grown in size and militancy. With families of the hostages at the forefront, some demonstrations have drawn thousands of protesters, many of them demanding Netanyahu’s resignation. Much like the democracy protests earlier in 2023, the current protests are not ideologically anti-Zionist. There are, however, growing anti-war sentiments that may indicate a possible rejection of Netanyahu’s plan to continue the offensive for the long term.

To prevent his ouster, Netanyahu is increasingly relying on his alliance with the Far Right, which seeks to continue the offensive and even escalate regional confrontation with Iran. In fact, if Netanyahu is ousted, he could face jail time for corruption, adding to his incentives to continue the war on Gaza. Paradoxically, it is his continuation of the war to preserve his security that will deepen the domestic crisis. At this point, Netanyahu’s ouster is nearly certain; it is just a matter of when. Along with the question of “when” are questions such as how long he’ll be able to continue the offensive, what consequences its continuation will have for regional stability, and how deep the United States will be dragged into the mess.

Biden and Trump

As the U.S. presidential election approaches, international stability is unraveling, thanks in large part to the United States’ main ally in the Middle East. All this is resulting in a profound loss of U.S. credibility around the world. The capitalists have plenty of reason to jump ship, looking for someone other than Biden to represent their imperialist interests. Except Biden’s rival is Trump, who comes with an unpredictable foreign policy.

Trump has been mostly silent on the issue of Israel and Palestine. Here and there he has criticized Biden and claimed that if he had been president, this crisis would have never happened. While Trump remains ambiguous about his position, his previous presidency is worth reflecting on.

Trump was the one who initiated the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab governments, the very framework that informed Biden’s attempt to create a Saudi-Israel pact. Trump was also the one who negotiated the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, setting the stage for the chaotic exit that happened under Biden. Trump’s more unilateral approach also came with escalation of the U.S.-Iran relationship. In his previous term, he engaged in provocative actions, like assassinating Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, betting that Iran would back down in the face of U.S. military power and “maximum pressure” economic sanctions. In the current, deeply unstable context of the Middle East, a possible return to such a policy raises alarms for capitalists around the world, since they want a return to international stability.

Even though he is no anti-interventionist, Trump has positioned himself this way, tapping into his base’s exhaustion with U.S. interventions abroad, which seemingly never end. Trump puts forward the idea that the main war is “at home,” suggesting the U.S. should focus its repressive forces on issues like immigration and crime; both are dog whistles that Trump could use to pursue domestic stability through war on some of the most oppressed sectors of the U.S. working class, like Black and undocumented workers.

As Trump rises in the Republican Party, Biden is facing increasing opposition. Before October 7, Biden was already unpopular and could not afford to lose any support in a tight race against Trump. Now he has lost the support of Arab voters, including in the important swing state of Michigan, which has a large Arab population. His loss of Arab support also comes with the loss of the youth vote, and signs that he may even be losing some of his support among Black voters, who are one of the Democrats’ most important bases of support and who are also influential in swing states.

If Biden’s support for Israel was not enough of a concern for his reelection hopes, his memory issues are leading many, including Hillary Clinton, to question if he is too old to serve another four years. Politico is now openly speculating that the Democrats might need a plan B to replace Biden as the candidate. While this could resolve the Biden issue, it would leave unchanged the fact that the Democratic Party as a whole has backed Biden’s Middle East policy, including support for Israel’s genocidal campaign. Nor does it guarantee that a replacement would be popular enough to defeat Trump.

It’s possible that Trump could win and launch his “war at home” policy, mixed with a rejection of U.S. commitment to international allies, leaving open the question of how the U.S. might orient itself to the Middle East a year from now. This has created a wait-and-see attitude among world powers, which are considering how to move forward in pursuit of their own interests.

For now, it seems that the crisis in the Middle East will fuel Biden’s domestic troubles and risk another Trump term. But whether Trump or another Democrat benefits from the disaster of Biden’s foreign policy, and even if Biden somehow makes it to reelection, the United States has already been weakened and has no clear way out of the Middle East.

Given Biden’s inability to stabilize the Middle East and U.S. imperialism, the continuation of Israel’s offensive, and the open question of how the U.S. election will shape international politics, there is an opening for the working class to intervene with its own policy. Already it is clear that the working class, most notably in the Arab world and the imperialist countries, has become a factor that the various capitalist powers need to consider in how they pursue their interests.

By resisting the imperialist-backed genocide in Gaza, the international working class can and must take advantage of this extra space for class struggle. The struggle for Palestinian liberation must unite workers in the imperialist countries with workers around the world, especially in the Middle East. This struggle must win over the Jewish and Israeli working class, which — while still deeply Zionist — contains some sectors beginning to confront the deeply reactionary Zionist state, which pursues its bourgeois ambitions at the expense of Israeli workers’ interests.

Despite the importance of the international movement, the role of the working class is limited. While some sectors of the working class have taken up the struggle by putting out statements, demanding their unions call for a ceasefire, and in some cases even refusing to ship weapons to Israel, the role of the working class in the movement must develop to be at the forefront. It is essential for workers already taking up the struggle for Palestine to unite their actions internationally and massify the movement. Workers must resist the attempts by capitalists to contain the struggle through the union and NGO bureaucracies as well as the growing attempts by capitalist governments from South Africa to Saudi Arabia to find bourgeois solutions to the growing support for Palestine.

The capitalists clearly cannot resolve the contradictions of the imperialist system, contradictions that are driving imperialist barbarism and war. The working class can chart a course forward by uniting internationally in a fight for a socialist way out of these crises.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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