Biden's "Indispensable Nation" Is on The Brink of A Wider War

A regional war that could involve America is frighteningly close. Biden's speech talked past it

Biden's "Indispensable Nation" Is on The Brink of A Wider War
Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Epoch of Weimar Beer-Belly Culture in Germany Hannah Höch, 1919

Edited by Sam Thielman

ON WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY, BASES in Iraq and Syria where U.S. troops operate—Al-Tanf in Syria, al-Harir in Erbil and al-Asad in western Iraq—came under assault from drones. A separate attack on Friday, this one by rocket, reportedly targeted a diplomatic outpost near Baghdad International Airport. In the Red Sea, a U.S. destroyer, the Carney, shot down Iran-supplied cruise missiles fired by the Houthis in Yemen. The Pentagon says the missiles were "potentially" headed toward Israel. That would both be a first for the Houthis and at the absolute edge of their missile range, but regardless, the U.S. has now fired its first shots in a war that began in Israel and, chillingly, may not end there. 

In the Mediterranean waters near the Levant are two gigantic Chekhov's guns, the strike groups of the aircraft carriers Ford and Eisenhower. I don't remember a time when the U.S. had two carrier strike groups positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean. A two-carrier deployment to the same Middle Eastern waterway is something that only happens in times of crisis, and usually, that waterway is the Persian/Arabian Gulf, not the Med. 

Ostensibly, the mission of the carriers is to deter Hezbollah from properly raining down its formidable arsenal of Iranian missiles on Israel. But if Hezbollah opts not to be deterred, the U.S. will either have its bluff called or be compelled to strike Hezbollah in southern Lebanon—or at minimum, block and tackle for the Israeli air force—at which point the U.S. military will be a combatant in a war far beyond Gaza.

In frightening ways, people I spoke to yesterday drove home to me how close we are to a regional war. Lebanon already hangs by a thread, beset by an economic crisis the World Bank calls "likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-19th century." Its foreign minister, fearful of where escalating exchanges between Hezbollah and the IDF will lead, went on CNN Friday to ask Israel to declare a 48-hour ceasefire. My former Guardian colleague Raya Jalabi reports for the FT that Hezbollah is under diplomatic pressure, which I assume means pressure from Iran, to deescalate. But, she continues, no one knows Hezbollah's red lines. Meanwhile, Israelis are fleeing from the north in anticipation of a second front opening

None of this came through in President Biden's speech last night. Biden said laudatory things about the importance of resisting both Islamophobia here at home, following the murder of six-year old Wadea al-Fayoume, and appropriately dwelled on it, appropriately presenting it as a social cancer on the level of antisemitism. But I was more taken by his primacist rhetoric, the way he slipped into the mode that, as I wrote earlier this year, tells itself the world is a grenade and America the pin. "We are the essential nation" he said, before properly quoting Madeleine Albright in calling the United States "the indispensable nation." American leadership, Biden insisted, "is what holds the world together." 

Does this look to you like America holding the world together? 

THERE IS, JUSTLY, discussion of how more than a decade of American Mideast strategy lies in ruins. But with the looming prospect of a wider war, one involving America, one absolutely no one wants and whose outcome cannot be predicted, it's worth looking at how those ruins are strewn. 

Since the attempted U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, three U.S. administrations reforged a basis for a persistent American security presence in the Mideast that centered around thwarting Iran. Iranian expansion throughout the region, through a belt that spanned from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and non-contiguously in Yemen, was not a sui generis phenomenon. It was the direct result of the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which the Bush administration pursued on the delusion of it yielding regional shockwaves that would benefit U.S. clients and cower adversaries like Iran. A requirement for the post-2011 strategy to work was to deepen ties with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel, each of which suppressed democratic movements or eroded their own apartheid-asterisked Jewish democracy

But while it was a fallback plan, the objective aligned American clients in the Arab world with Israel. That tempted its architects into believing it could be the basis for an enduring Middle Eastern stability – rather than a precarious alliance amongst states with divergent interests and relationships to both Washington and each other, all arrayed against an adversary that, while far from invincible, has a proven capability to inflict real damage. Here was a durable basis for hegemony, and one they could say derived from the security concerns of their closest allies, partners, clients, oil dealers and weapons customers. If the Palestinians had to be sacrificed, that was nothing new. 

All the threats that U.S. forces in the region have faced over the past 48-ish hours emanate from positioning those forces in accordance with that regional strategy: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. (The one to really hold your breath over is in the Persian/Arabian Gulf.) Hopefully the Iranian leadership is neither stupid nor vainglorious enough to seek war, and hopefully Raya's reporting on Hezbollah indicates as much. But every moment the devastation of Gaza continues adds pressure on the Iranians to respond. The past 48-ish hours represent Iran talking not to the imperial periphery in Israel, but to the metropole in Washington. They're saying that they possess options, and the placement of U.S. personnel around the Middle East provides them with opportunities. 

That is something Biden needed to tell the country last night, instead of urging Americans to accept another $105 billion in foreign mostly-military aid while his administration restarts student debt collection. In Ukraine, the U.S. sponsors a combatant. In the Middle East, it risks being a combatant. This is where his policy of backing Israel's culling of Gaza can easily lead.

While gesturing again at a two-state solution—unlike his remarks on Islamophobia, that was a throwaway line—Biden made no effort to explain how the current Israeli assault on Gaza will yield a just peace, a stable peace, or any peace at all. And this is after flying back from attending a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet. In humane and respectable language, Biden merely offered a faith in violence. But as the war continues, America will find itself pulled closer and closer into that violence, and we are not far away after only two weeks. 

LASER-FOCUSED ON GETTING THOSE HOSTAGES RELEASED: "Netanyahu Appointee on Israeli Hostages in Gaza Reprimands European Envoys for Supporting Oslo Accords," reports Haaretz

As we were finishing this edition, Hamas released two American hostages "for humanitarian reasons." Can that perhaps begin a step back from the brink?