The Middle East Is a Costly Distraction
No American interests are served by our current posture in the region.
For those of us who live and breathe the swamp air in Washington, it is easy to miss a puzzling fact: the Middle East regularly sucks the oxygen out of the Beltway, despite its limited importance to U.S. national security. Following the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack and the Israeli response in Gaza, all other foreign policy issues in the United States—and most other domestic issues—have taken a back seat. Why does the Middle East command such outsized attention in Washington?
Consider: As a New York Times article revealed, on Oct. 7, President Biden conducted six separate meetings with his national security team and made eight one-on-one phone calls to different leaders. The Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer was hosted at the White House for a 4-hour meeting with the American secretary of state and national security advisor the day after Christmas to discuss his country’s war. Through the beginning of December, the war featured on more than 90 percent of the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.
Since the attacks, Biden has traveled to Israel; his secretary of state has been to Israel five times; his secretary of defense has gone twice. Contrast this with Ukraine, whose war the administration says “matters profoundly to America and to the entire world” because it “poses a stark and direct threat to security in Europe and beyond.” In the past five months, Biden and Austin have traveled the same number of times to Israel that they have to Ukraine since the war in that country broke out almost two years ago. Blinken’s five trips to Israel already outstrip his four trips to Ukraine, and he is headed back to the region at present.
Now, with a militia having killed three U.S. troops in Jordan who were supporting the U.S. presence in Syria (and Israeli strikes in that country), the Biden administration is facing down just the prospect it says it does not want: a substantial escalation of the wars the United States is fighting across the region.
This monomaniacal focus on the twists and turns in the Middle East has come at the expense of every other policy issue. For example, the administration dropped Ukraine like a hot rock after the Middle East erupted. Despite Jake Sullivan’s claim that “the security of Europe is at stake, and therefore the risk of American men and women having to go deal with another massive war in Europe, as we have before,” the Biden administration immediately shifted its attention—and its arms—away from Ukraine after the Hamas attack.
And the vacuum of the Middle East hasn’t only sucked the air out of Ukraine. For years, Washington has agreed that the unifying problem facing U.S. foreign policy is China. Yet since Oct. 7, the administration has taken its eye off the ball there as well. During Biden’s meeting with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping in November, for example, the president pulled away at lunch not to discuss the commanding heights issues between the world’s two leading powers, but to get into the weeds of hostage negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Even so, the meeting with Xi was, as the Times reported, “the most waking time Mr. Biden had spent to that point out of touch with the Middle East.”
Biden’s brain trust have little to show for all this attention beyond more death and more distraction. Since Israel invaded Gaza, the administration has urged Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pay more attention to the implications of civilian casualties. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. C. Q. Brown fretted that the Israeli goal of “eliminating Hamas” was “a pretty tall order,” and when asked whether he worried that the civilian death toll in Gaza would serve as a recruiting device for Hamas, he responded, “Yes, very much so.” The Biden administration has similarly announced its support for a rejuvenated Palestinian Authority to take control in Gaza after Israel finishes there. Netanyahu responded with an op-ed in a U.S. newspaper denouncing that vision as “a pipe dream.”
It’s not just Israel. The other pillar of U.S. policy in the region, Saudi Arabia, receives similar attention and displays similar indifference to its patron’s prerogatives. When Blinken traveled to Riyadh in October to try to run interference for the Israeli war, the Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman kept Blinken waiting overnight for a meeting that had been scheduled for the evening. MbS showed up the next morning. As for the enduring U.S. belief that Saudi oil production decisions are made on the basis of U.S. diplomacy, perhaps the less said, the better.
In sum, Washington’s key partners in the Middle East absorb American arms, attention, and diplomatic cover while defying core U.S. policy preferences. As Patrick Porter wrote, the United States seems “too scared to leave, too scared to coerce partners… loiter[ing] like a pitiful giant, its aid, diplomatic support and arms earning it complicity with little influence.”
The ability of U.S. partners in the Middle East to seize Washington’s attention and resources while jamming its policy objectives is peculiar because in economic, military, and population terms, the region is a dwarf. In the most charitable definition of the region, it comprises 3.2 percent of world GDP, less than 7 percent of world population, and no state in the region can project power outside the region, or even has a shot at dominating the Middle East militarily.
It is impossible to justify the amount of U.S. attention paid to the Middle East, and the deference to U.S. clients’ preferences there, on the basis of the region’s material importance to the United States. Hamas is not an actor with designs beyond the Palestine/Israel dispute. Israel is not doing Americans a favor by fighting a U.S. enemy on our behalf. If Israel—much less Saudi Arabia—wants U.S. aid, it should listen to U.S. advice. Meanwhile, as the recent deaths in Jordan demonstrate that U.S. aid and support for the war, combined with its promiscuous deployments throughout the region, is running real risks of escalation that could pull U.S. forces into a broader regional war. Should that come to pass, the costs to this point would pale in comparison.
Like the material calculus, there is no consistent humanitarian principle that can justify the amount of U.S. attention dedicated to the region. The casualties first in Israel and now in Gaza are appalling, but pale in comparison to other conflicts the United States has ignored. The Tigray war, which took place from 2020 to 2022 in Ethiopia, is estimated to have produced hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. That war received almost no attention in Washington.
As the Middle East consumes their days and rejects advice, U.S. leaders are left pleading that people pay more attention to their rhetoric and less to outcomes in grading their policy. At best, as one anonymous official helplessly put it, “If [the Israeli war in Gaza] really goes bad, we want to be able to point to our past statements.” But when they come from the world’s preeminent power, statements without outcomes give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
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The administration and its supporters protest that the prospect of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine would settle the region down, and makes current U.S. efforts—including, potentially, U.S. security guarantees to both Israel and Saudi Arabia—worth the struggle. But every indication is that this is a case of believing one’s own propaganda rather than a careful effort to weigh costs against the prospect of victory. Both the current Israeli government and the lack of a viable partner on the other side are obstacles to a two-state solution, making the situation in the Holy Land in 2024 less hopeful than it was in 1977 when George Kennan described it this way:
We have allowed ourselves to be maneuvered into a position where each of the two parties believes it can use us for its own ends, where each has the impression that it is primarily through us that its desiderata can be achieved, with the result that we are always the first to be blamed, no matter whose ox is gored; and all this in a situation where we actually have very little influence with either party. Seldom, surely, can a great power have got itself into a more unsound and unnecessary position.
With a $34 trillion national debt, an unprecedented challenge to the U.S. position in Asia, and a host of domestic pathologies to worry about, nothing about the Middle East can warrant the amount of attention the United States has spent on it. Squaring up to that fact would help pull U.S. involvement back to a level commensurate with our interests and make our overbearing clients in the region more likely to hear our advice.