For the past year, the news and editorial commentary of the Washington Post has favored a more aggressive posture on the part of the United States and the Pentagon. The Post favors a U.S. naval presence in the Black Sea to break the Russian blockade against Ukraine as well as a more aggressive U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific to challenge China. The twin notions of challenging Russia and China in their “home waters” conjures up images of daunting challenges that lead to increased defense spending and international tensions. And now the Post has added another adversarial challenge: the Middle East.
Last week, a Post front-page article charged that Russia and Iran were “testing U.S. red lines in the Mideast, and that their “provocative” acts were designed to exploit Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine and China. The reference to Russia was particularly gratuitous because the Kremlin’s role in the Middle East has been limited to a military presence in Syria for the past fifty years as Washington was able to exclude Moscow from most diplomatic dealings in the region. Russia’s only access to air and naval facilities in the Mediterranean has been in Syria, which has been the case since 1970, a decade before Moscow and Damascus signed their Treaty of Friendship.
Fifty years ago, moreover, Syria was a functioning nation-state able to inflict military setbacks on Israel in the first ten days of the October War of 1973. Syria can no longer be considered a functioning nation-state; it can only inflict damage on itself. Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown signs of impatience with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who lacks the leadership skills of his father, former president Hafez al-Assad. The fact that the United States still deploys hundreds of soldiers in Syria creates the possibility of a clash between Russian and American forces; thus far, their deconfliction channel has worked to avoid such conflict.
The only evidence that the Post writers could produce regarding greater aggression against the U.S. presence in Syria were “multiple examples of what U.S. military officials have decried as ‘provocative,’ ‘escalatory’ or ‘unsafe and unprofessional’ acts by Russia.” Post writers should be encouraged to exercise caution when relying on U.S. military officials in the field. They should be reminded of the false military reporting and intelligence from a non-incident in the Gulf of Tonkin nearly 60 years ago that led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. President Lyndon Johnson used this resolution to increase military deployments in South Vietnam and to expand the war against North Vietnam. Caveat emptor!!
The Post’s case against Iran’s so-called “provocations” is no better. The article refers to incidents in the Persian Gulf that involve the fast-attack boats of the Revolutionary Guard Corps against U.S. warships as well as the efforts of Iranian-affiliated rebels in Yemen against U.S. interests. The United States has overwhelming military advantages in the Persian Gulf, and the signs of a “shadow war” between the United States and Iran as well as between Israel and Iran are certainly not new. It is true that Iran is prone to testing U.S. red lines in the Persian Gulf, but imagine a scenario that found ships from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard taking up offensive positions in the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. hands are not clean in a region where the United States has been complicit in the humanitarian nightmare in Yemen. From 2015 to 2021, the United States has sold $55 billion in military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to support their war against the Houthis in Yemen. A congressional watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has concluded that neither the Department of State nor the Department of Defense has made any effort to learn about the misuse of this weaponry. What is known is that, during this period, 23,000 airstrikes killed or injured more than 18,000 civilians, according to UN estimates. The GAO endorsed UN findings that U.S. weaponry “may have been used in strikes that caused substantial civilian harm in a manner that violated international humanitarian law.”
The Post article echoes comments from official U.S. sources, alleging that the United States is “scaling down after decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” but there is no sign of a reduced U.S. naval and naval air presence in the region. The Obama administration announced a “pivot” from the Middle East to China more than a decade ago, but there has been no sign of a pivot. Meanwhile, the United States continues to levy serous economic sanctions against Iran, and demonstrates no willingness to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the Iran nuclear accord—without significant concessions on the part of Tehran. The Post credits the Biden administration with “putting greater emphasis on diplomacy with Tehran,” but produces no evidence of diplomatic activity.
The boilerplate conclusion to the Post’s article demonstrates a willingness to cater to the Biden administration. It quotes a National Security Council spokesperson, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House, stating that “There is nothing President Biden takes more seriously than the security of U.S. personnel deployed overseas.” Why would any member of the mainstream media, let alone the Washington Post, repeat a throw-away line from a member of the NSC, let alone a place of anonymity? And when will Post writers stop being stenographers for whichever administration occupies the White House?
President Biden visits both Israel and Saudi Arabia later this week, and the danger is that he will endorse the aggressive strategies that Israeli and Saudi leaders want to put into place against Iran. During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah due to the sadistic killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Instead he is traveling to Riyadh hat in hand to secure greater oil production from OPEC. Thus far, Joe Biden’s policies toward Israel and Saudi Arabia appear no different from those of Donald Trump.
In the wake of Biden’s visit, I will assess the dangers of any U.S security alliance in the Middle East that targets Iran.