There was a world in which Washington’s devotion to Israel helped rather than hindered US dominance and its long-term prospects. It has passed.
Ed McNally PhD student in political theory at Oxford and a contributor to New Left Review and Jacobin
Cross-posted from Conter
artisans of American power are not accustomed to viewing things from the perspective of its victims. We all need to sleep at night somehow. But even those of this sociopathic disposition should be alarmed by President Joe Biden’s unstinting support for Israel in recent months.
It goes without saying that the backing of the United States for Israel’s racial war has been catastrophic, in the deepest sense of the word, for the Palestinian people. For Palestinians, not just in their historic homeland but around the world, Israel’s war threatens to constitute a second Nakba — a completion of the project of dispossession launched in 1948.
Yet Biden’s decision to go all-in behind the Israelis after 7 October increasingly looks like a nightmare from the cold, hard vantage point of the putatively liberal West, too. In something of a dark achievement, the US posture towards Gaza can be seen as both a grand-strategic misstep andan ethical disaster. The history of American foreign relations, and indeed of statecraft in general, is replete with morally unspeakable decisions. But in many such historic cases, ethical standing was calculatedly sacrificed on the altar of strategic advantage.
No such calculus is discernible here. Rather, Biden’s ongoing green-light for genocide in Gaza seems to have been more a schizophrenic reflex than anything close to an intelligible strategic judgement. The Americans are now in search of some plausible deniability — articulating red lines and voicing concern about the extent of civilian death — but the damage has been done. Done not only to the Palestinian people of Gaza, with their homes and communities turned to dust, their families dumped in mass graves, and their children dying alone under the rubble, but, in the final analysis, to the interests of the American empire.
It is sixteen years since John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argued that after the end of the Cold War, Israel had become a “strategic liability for the United States”. They added, in their landmark book pointing the finger at the ‘Israel lobby’ for ensuring Washington’s policy-makers stuck to this self-defeating approach, that there was “no compelling moral rationale for America’s uncritical and uncompromising relationship with Israel”.
This notion, that support for Israel is a misdirection of American imperial interests, is one that some on the left dissent from and find uncomfortable. Many comrades prefer a neat and familiar mechanistic logic, according with the oft-stated intent of policymakers: the US backs Israel because it serves as guarantor of American power in the region, underpinning a security order favorable to the West and its allies. If there wasn’t an Israel, we would have to invent one, Biden likes to pronounce.
Yet imperial interests are not static. There was a world in which Washington’s devotion to Israel helped rather than hindered US dominance and its long-term prospects. It has passed. Propping up an ever-more rogue ally in a region of much diminished strategic significance does more harm than good for the beleaguered hegemon. In a partial recognition of this shift, realist thinkers and critics of US foreign policy have been arguing for some time that there should be some degree of retrenchment from the Middle East.
Some counsel near-total American withdrawal from the region, others ‘offshore balancing.’ Prudence, some hard-headed strategists insist, dictates focusing on China, the only ‘peer-competitor’ Washington has faced since its rise to global dominance. Scholars of petro-politics strengthen the case for quitting militarily by demonstrating that, contrary to whole worlds of common sense and fine-spun fictions, the American presence in the Persian Gulf is immaterial to the flow of oil. Dispense with the fable that US military force is a necessary precondition for ‘energy security’, and the case for US Central Command’s continued existence appears shaky.
In ending the most interminable of America’s forever wars and proceeding with rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf dictatorships, Biden seemed to have taken on board this strategic logic to some extent. Two leading supporters of a more ‘restrained’ US role in the world claimed Biden as their own in Foreign Affairs after the Afghanistan withdrawal. In the same journal, Jake Sullivan, the President’s National Security Advisor, boasted in an article that went to print before 7 October of America’s “disciplined” approach to the region, which was “quieter” than it had been “in decades”.
By acting as the proud sponsor of Israel’s creation of hell on earth in Gaza, Biden has upended all this in an instant — in nakedly self-defeating fashion. Israel’s devastating killing continues to risk a severe regional conflagration, which would mean a third arena of major competition for Washington, already over-stretched by the conflict in Ukraine.
Though many realists panicked that the US commitment to Kyiv was a foolish distraction from China, doubling down on a strategically redundant front, it did have undeniable advantages for the Americans. Acting as the protector of Ukraine from an illegal foreign invasion not only helped Washington reconstitute the West politically. It also lent some plausibility to its claim, as a civilisational bloc, to be defending a ‘liberal’ or ‘rules-based’ international order.
In a warming world, facing decades likely to be defined by multipolar competition, such claims to the ethical high ground — against the supposed evil of autocratic rivals — are of great significance to America’s attempt to cling onto ‘global leadership’. In this sense, strategic and ethical imperatives are not easily separable. Hence the magnitude of Biden’s mistake: the guardian of the liberal international order openly aiding the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of refugee children, in full view of the world. The strategic insanity compounds the ethical abdication, and vice versa. Beijing could not have scripted it. Behind closed doors, European officials realised this danger early on: “Our fear is that we’ll pay a heavy price in the global south because of this conflict.”
Biden’s decision may cast a longer shadow still: as Gideon Rachman acknowledged in the Financial Times, and swing-state polling makes clear, a second Trump presidency has “become more likely because of the Gaza conflict”, with Democratic support for Israel profoundly alienating key electoral constituencies. Distilled, the essence of this approach is even more irrational and erratic than the ‘neo-conservative’ adventurism that drove US foreign policy in the early 2000s: Biden appears willing to imperil the American republic in order to enable an increasingly fanatical and insignificant foreign state, governed by the far-right, to carry on the killing of innocents and the dispossession of refugees on a historic scale.
How can this be? Great structures of power give rise to both calculable self-interests and an overdetermined miasma of ideologies and mystifications. It seems that Biden is too lost in the haze of the latter to make clear-eyed assessments of the former. His “personal historic commitment to Israel” has not bent to contemporary realities, an ally of the administration told the Washington Post.
So too in the case of some realists, whose affinity with Israel trumps the strategic discipline that is supposedly their distinctive contribution to debates about American grand strategy. For liberals and realists alike among the American elite, the colonial reflex has triumphed, leaving them cheerleading a techno-barbarian war with no strategic dividend.
Clearly, imperial time does not run in a straight line: before America’s modern empire of capital came settler barbarity; the wars of conquest, the elimination of the native. Israel in its retrograde savagery could be seen as the ghost at the feast, if only Washington’s enlightened strategists didn’t so revel in its presence. Perhaps this brutal colonial war on a people who refuse to be subjugated, then, is more warmly nostalgic than haunting for the Americans. “They’re a brutal, ugly, inhumane people, and they have to be eliminated”, Biden said, so revealingly, of Hamas last week.
It may be that the force of these settler pathologies and colonial reflexes foreclose the possibility of a more restrained and rational approach. But as the catastrophe in Palestine worsens with every passing moment, it would be better late than never for some moral-strategic recalibration. Here, the imperatives would be one and the same: the United States could bring its dangerously rogue ally to heel, militarily constrain it to prevent the perpetration of yet more crimes against humanity, and then accelerate drawdown from the Middle East. That would be both a boon for the peoples of the region and, more likely than not, an aid to the longevity of American power.
President Biden’s way portends decline: personal, national, and imperial. So be it?