Is the United States Coming or Going?  Strategic and Tactical Contradictions of the United States Approach to the Middle East

The article is published in JPS Magazine

American policy is full of contradictions. Those contradictions have become especially evident since the war in Gaza began, but they emerged before. The contradictions make the United States a confusing actor, one subject to different strategic impulses and displaying enormous tactical inconsistency. For day-to-day and even year-to-year decision-making, the United States will likely continue to act in a confusing manner. But in the long run, those contradictions will likely be managed in a way that means a lessening American interest in the Middle East.

Four contradictions—Global and Regional

The first contradiction is internal. The United States appears to have entered an era of political polarization in its politics, and that polarization appears to have expressed itself not only in debates about internal political matters (immigration, the economy, identity politics) but also in global affairs (the war in Ukraine, relationship with China, policy toward Iran). Under the last four American presidents (Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden) the United States seems torn between very different conceptions of its interests and its role in the world; American leaders seem to have contradictory strategic visions.

But the second contradiction suggests that the first one may be a bit less severe than it seems. Those four presidents speak very differently from each other when addressing foreign policy issues, but there is an underlying direction from the ambitious and aggressive globalism of Bush to the more modest approach of Obama to the “belligerent minimalism” (as my colleague Marc Lynch describes it) of Trump, to the rediscovery of multilateralism of Biden. The abusive and bellicose rhetoric of Trump masks some important continuities in terms of the downscaling of United States security commitments and the greater reluctance for the United States to lead international responses to global crises. And yet rather than develop a clear strategic approach, the United States reacts to each crisis that emerges in an ad hoc manner that makes it difficult to predict.

Taking the first two contradictions together, the result is that strong polarization in the United States expresses itself on specific issues (for instance, on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, pursued by Obama and abandoned by Trump) but much less in long-term trends toward a scaling down of United States security commitments and even diplomatic involvement.

But there is a third contradiction involving United States policy toward Israel and Palestine. On the one hand, there is a strong tie to Israel that has traditionally been supported across much of the political spectrum in the United States. That tie may have been forged with American recognition of Israel in 1948, but it blossomed fully after the 1967 war. On the other hand there is a more recent American commitment to a “two- state” solution. In the last days of the Clinton administration, United States officials took a step they had refused to take in the past: they mentioned support for Palestinian statehood. President George W. Bush followed with a more robust rhetorical commitment to a two-state solution, and none of his successors have repudiated that goal. But their diplomatic efforts to secure it have steadily waned—and under Trump momentarily disappeared.

And there is a further contradiction underlying United States policy on this issue. On the one hand, the United States cooperated in building most elements global norms and structures in the twentieth century, including a host of international documents and the United Nations itself. On the other hand, the consistent insistence of the United States is that disputes involving Israel should be managed by direct negotiations between Israel and its neighbors, effectively creating a law-free zone where the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations, and international law are effectively treated as distractions rather than as providing the framework for negotiating rival positions and claims.

The United States and the Gaza War: The Contradictions on Display

These four contradictions clearly emerged long before October 7, 2023, but they have been on remarkably full display—and operating at the highest levels—since the current war began.
First, there has been sharp partisan division over the war. It is not merely between right and left, however, but generational as well. The Biden Administration fully supported Israel at first and has vetoed any attempts to impost a cease fire. But it has also tried to signal to younger and progressive forces that it is actually working to restrain Israel’s harshest actions and provide humanitarian relief. And it has been attacked by some for being insufficiently supportive of Israel and by others for enabling a war on Palestinians as a people.

Second, the Biden Administration came into office explicitly warning that the ground would not support any diplomatic initiative designed to resolve matters between Israel and Palestine; it also scaled back the American security commitment in the region, most notably by completing the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But on October 7, suddenly an activist impulse erupted, with the president taking an unprecedented trip to the region during active warfare, and his administration devising an ambitious regional plan not merely to aid Israel in defeating Hamas, but also in reconstructing Palestinian politics and securing normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Third, the Biden Administration has fully embraced the two elements of American policy it inherited—strong support for Israel and rhetorical commitment to a two-state solution—as if the two could be combined somehow. With an Israeli coalition that is united in its opposition to a two-state solution, and indeed with many Israeli leaders seeing the war as an opportunity to bury the idea and even to cease dealing with Palestinians as a national group, the United States has given only a general outline of how it plans to secure Israel’s security, a Palestinian state, and regional peace—and the approach seems more like a prayer than a policy to most seasoned analysts.

Finally, the Biden Administration has maintained the approach of mouthing general invocations to observing international law, but effectively treating Palestine as Guantanamo—a place where law does not apply and formal structures, from the United Nations to the International Criminal Court—, should not play much of a role. As Israel has launched an effort to disqualify United Nations bodies (and even disband the United Nations Relief Works Agency) the Biden Administration has been fairly quiet. But while it eschews formal structures, the Biden approach has actually been unusually multilateral, working with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Rather than monopolizing diplomacy as it has sometimes done in the past, the United States has worked to diminish regional differences and manage a multilateral effort to tame the fighting and bring about a postwar settlement.

Short-Term Incoherence but Long-Term Coherence

The incoherence of United States policy over the short term is quite clear: it is committed to leadership and downsizing, to close relations with an annexationist Israeli government and to a Palestinian state, to Israeli security defined in unlimited terms and to Palestinian rights, and to unilateral action and multilateral coordination. Of course if the United States secures the release of Israeli hostages, the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority and then a Palestinian state, Gulf financing for Gaza reconstruction, and full diplomatic relations between leading Arab states and Israel, it will have won a diplomatic lottery. But those in Las Vegas gambling their savings have better odds. The most likely outcome would seem to be a decimated, traumatized, and embittered Palestinian population, an Israeli leadership split between a center that is satisfied with the outcome and a right wing that sees it as an opportunity for annexation and even expulsion of Palestinians, and a deep sense in many regional societies that the United States has supported a war with horrific consequences.
There will be costs associated with such an outcome, most of all a situation in Israel/Palestine resistant to diplomacy but friendly to bloody conflict in many different forms; a divided region; and a pervasive sense in some quarters that the United States is a force for injustice.

But those short-term results and attendant costs should not be allowed to obscure an underlying trend: the moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iraq war of 1990 and 1991 is not only definitively over but the United States is both unable and uninterested in restoring it. Ever since the collapse of the Oslo Process in 2000 and the occupation of Iraq in 2003, the idea that the United States could lead to a new regional order has receded. All sorts of trends—domestic opposition in the United States from both left and right; disillusionment at the results of American overreach in Iraq and Afghanistan; the seemingly insoluble nature of Israeli-Palestinian violence; the rise of regional powers; the emergence of other global challengers that seem more ominous long term (including China especially, but also Russia); and the unreliability of American leadership—point in a different direction. The Gaza War of 2023-2024 will not be remembered like the 1956 Suez war is remembered for Britain (as a spectacular end to decades of imperial domination). But neither will it reverse the slow long-term trend to a region where the United States no longer aspires to grand ideas but instead pursues more limited interests, enjoys a more limited security presence, and remains diplomatically active without being dominant.

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