The Middle East: America’s Briar Patch

Photograph Source: The National Guard – CC BY 2.0

For the past decade, U.S. policymakers have indulged the notion that U.S. security interests would “pivot” from the Middle East to the Pacific.  Kurt Campbell, the godfather of the “pivot,” was serving as the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East in 2011, when the Obama administration wanted to conceal the humiliation of closing Camp Victory in Iraq, which symbolized our defeat there, by adopting a policy of “containment” against China.  Campbell is now the “Asian czar” on the National Security Council, one of several anti-China hardliners in key positions in the Biden administration.

The supporters of “containment” believe that such a policy worked against the Soviet Union during the Cold War and thus could be retrofitted against China.  The Soviet Union, unlike China, was somewhat self-contained with an economy that was not relevant to international economics and an overall foreign policy that found itself surrounded by hostile Communist states, including China.  A policy of containment will not work against the more vital and stable  China, but this aspect of the proposition will be discussed in a future oped.

It is foolish to believe that the United States could easily withdraw political and military resources from the Middle East, which has been our “briar patch” since we adopted a policy of one-sided support for Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967.  For the past six decades, no international issue has preoccupied the attention of U.S. presidents as much as the Middle East.  The renewal of violence between Israel and the Hamas government is a reminder of the harm that stems from Israeli unwillingness to pursue Palestinian self-government; the policy of “apartheid;” the racist legislation introduced by left-wing Labor governments in the 1970s to deny Palestinians their ownership rights; and—the ultimate Catch-22—its policy of demolishing houses built without permits that the Israelis refuse to issue.

Like previous administrations, the Biden administration continues to shield Israel from obvious war crimes.  Last week, President Joe Biden even praised Prime Minister Netanyahu’s forbearance, stating that “one of the things that I have seen thus far is that there has not been a significant overreaction.”  That same night, more than 160 fighter jets conducted overnight raids in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, where innocent civilians and children are being slaughtered.  The Israelis have destroyed power lines to sewage treatment plants and have made a water desalination plant inoperable.  Hundreds of thousands of Gazans have no access to water.  Israel’s regular denial of supplies for Gaza’s pathetic infrastructure has turned the area into an “outdoor prison.”

Biden’s ostrich-like policy includes not placing an ambassador in Jerusalem, and  blocking a statement at the United Nations Security Council critical of Israeli (and Palestinian) actions. The United States has consistently used its veto powers to protect Israel at the UN.  There is not even the hint of criticism of Netanyahu who has based his political career on opposing peace with the Palestinians.  Netanyahu presumably believes that continued warfare with Hamas is the best avenue for renewing his hold on the Israeli government and thus avoiding court trials for various corruption charges.  He makes no reference to a possible “peace process,” while various U.S. administrations indulge the illusion of such a process.

American militarism, and a bipartisan reluctance to place limits on Israeli actions have cost Washington influence and credibility in the region.  U.S. weapons and one-sided support for Israel have tied U.S. administrations ineluctably to Israeli militarism.  The United States needs to limit the supply of sophisticated military weaponry to Israel, which has misused this equipment, and end the policy of pulling Israeli chestnuts out of the fire.  The billions of dollars of unconditional military aid eliminates the United States as a neutral bystander or an impartial peace broker.

The United States intervened in Lebanon from 1982 to 1984 in the wake of the Israeli invasion there.  As a result, the United States lost 241 military personnel to a suicide bomber affiliated with Islamic Jihad, subsequently better known as Hezbollah.  President Ronald Reagan wanted to retaliate, but Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger blocked such a move and withdrew the Marine contingent.  Weinberger understood that the Vietnam disaster revealed the futility of using military force in distant areas.

Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, like so many Israeli leaders, believed that he could end the “Lebanese problem in one great sweep of Israeli armor.”  Netanyahu presumably believes that he can do the same in Gaza against Hamas.  Sharon’s ill-conceived maneuvers created a worse problem for Israel—the formation of Hezbollah.  Netanyahu’s campaign has led to serious communal violence in Israel for the first time between Israeli Jews and Arabs.  The sharp rise in Jewish nationalism and terrorism by the ultra-orthodox as well as street gangs has added fuel to the fire.

If geopolitical concerns drove U.S. policy rather than domestic cultural and political concerns, the United States would pursue a genuine even-handed policy in the Middle East.  But Washington has catered to Israeli interests exclusively since the Six-Day War in 1967, and currently the Biden administration is grappling with Israeli opposition to U.S. policy toward Iran, particularly the Iran nuclear accord.

The mainstream media contribute to one-sided support for Israel with praise for the “right of return” for Jews to Israel, while maligning the “right of return” for Palestinians.  Peter Beinart, writing this month in JewishCurrents and the New York Times, notes that in its first year the Israeli parliament passed a law providing that “anyone not residing in their property during the census forfeited their right to the property.”  As a result, Jews owned 7% of the territory of the Palestinian Mandate in 1947, and several years later had increased their ownership of territory to 95% because they had forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. The current confrontation started over the ownership of land, and the communal violence in Israeli cities points to a worsening of relations.  As long as Palestinians are denied the right to claim their former homes anywhere in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, the potential for severe violence will remain.

In addition to reassessing its military support for Israel, the United States must respond forcefully to the tactics used by the Israeli military and police in Gaza and the West Bank.  Once again, the Israelis are inflicting punishment in Gaza that is wildly out of proportion with Palestinian actions. Children, who represent nearly half the population of Gaza, are particularly vulnerable.

It is long past time to end the mythology that the United States and Israel share common values, which has allowed U.S. administrations to ignore Israeli war crimes.  The diminished need for Saudi oil lessens U.S. dependence on the Middle East; the inability to gain leverage over Israel despite outrageous amounts of U.S. military aid points to the institutional and bureaucratic obstacles to U.S. policy.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for