middle east

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arriving in Cairo on Feb. 6. (State Department, Chuck Kennedy)

Lost & Fearful in The Middle East

by Patrick Lawrence | Feb 7, 2024

Of all the amateurish moments to arise as the Biden regime conducts its foreign policy, the White House’s official statement as B1–B bombers let loose over Iraq and Syria last Friday may be the taker of the cake.

As the ordnance fell on 85 targets in seven locations, many of them outposts of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, our addled president felt compelled to insist, “The United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world.”

How many times have we heard this since these latest operations in Iraq, Syria and Yemen began? Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, has said the same thing in the same words. Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, has, too. So has Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. So has John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman.

Once we are finished counting, we can consider the astounding stupidity that has led the Biden regime into this impossible contradiction. Reflecting the president’s compulsive support for Israel over the whole of his political life, the U.S. has incautiously stayed with the Zionist state as it seeks to widen the war all the way to Iran by way of Lebanon and Syria.

Now, as the war runs straight up to the Islamic Republic’s borders, Biden and his people take to insisting they do not want that wider war the Israelis are bent on provoking.

I honestly cannot think of other occasions in the history of American foreign policy that match this one for its sheer… what? … the sheer botch of it. There must be some, or many given America’s conduct these past seven decades, but they do not come readily to mind.

Escalation, to take the most obvious problem, is not the right way to deescalate. You cannot begin bombing other nations — illegally, let’s not forget — while killing noncombatants in the process (as the Iraqis and Syrians have charged), and tell them in simultaneous statements that you do not wish to provoke conflict.

Well, you can, but you cannot expect to be taken seriously.

‘Illusory Truth Effect’

B-1B bombers taking off from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas on Feb. 2 with targets in Iraq in Syria. (video still, Wikimedia Commons)

I start to think the Biden administration now resorts to one of the propagandist’s cardinal rules: Say something nonsensical often enough and people, even intelligent people, will begin to believe it. Psychologists have called this the illusory truth effect since researchers at Villanova and Temple universities discovered this common vulnerability among us in the late–1970s.

The reiteration effect has long worked on Americans, diabolically enough. But one of Joe Biden’s most fundamental failings is his assumption that he can sell abroad the sort of nonsense he has sold Americans for 50–odd years. I do not exaggerate when I suggest this misapprehension is one of the core defects of the Man from Scranton’s foreign policies.

A second, related problem merits brief consideration. To insist that the U.S. does not seek a region-wide war while bombing other nations amounts to asking others not to retaliate. It is to say, in effect, “We want to restore our failed deterrence policy. Please let us deter you.” Alastair Crooke, in a well-reasoned piece published last Friday, calls this “a form of militarized psychotherapy.”

This amounts to a gamble only a nation on its back foot would take. The Biden regime is likely to win it with the Iranians, who continue to abide by a longstanding policy of “strategic patience,” as Muhammad Sahimi, a prominent commentator on Iranian affairs, argued in a piece published Saturday in The Floutist.

But the Yemeni Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have already signaled they have no intention of changing course. Other groups active in Iraq and Syria are likely to follow the Houthis’ lead: It will persist, not desist, in my read.

I take the administration at its word when it insists it does not want another war on its hands, even if it seems to have no idea how to avoid the risk of starting one. It is simply too overexposed across the Middle East — too many bases, too burdened with a hardware-heavy war machine, musclebound, and altogether too vulnerable.

All the recent attacks on U.S. ships, ground facilities and personnel have unexpectedly exposed this weakness. And this brings us to what most fundamentally motivates Biden and the instant peaceniks who faithfully repeat what he says. (Or does he faithfully repeat what they tell him to say?)

What we have heard this past week is an implicit confession of fear at the top of America’s foreign policy cliques. If these people have bungled policy to an extent that may be unprecedented in the postwar decades, as suggested above, they find themselves, in consequence, utterly lost and afraid in the funhouse of their making.

History’s clock just chimed again, if I am right about this.

Israel’s Control Over Washington

middle east

Austin with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Dec. 18, 2023. (DoD, Chad J. McNeeley)

Biden is a schlemiel on the foreign policy side, as his record makes amply clear. But as argued previously in this space, it is not clear anyone else occupying the White House could have done much better these past months.

America is in its late-imperial phase, as we must always remember, and Israel controls almost every elected official in Washington to one or another degree. There is no way to conduct sound policy so long as the cliques in Washington insist on working within this circumstance instead of advancing beyond it.

The please-don’t-fight-back attacks the U.S. now conducts daily are but the front end of a strategy the administration wants to advance in the Middle East, we now read. As advertised in a pair of recent pieces in The New York Times, this is to be “New! Improved” just like the old laundry detergents.

In this case (as in so many others) we can read the Times as entirely in its role as messenger passing down the word from Washington’s upper reaches to the populace below. These pieces “what you need to know,” as the Times puts it in all those obnoxious headlines.

Patrick Kingsley, Jerusalem bureau chief, and Edward Wong, a diplomatic correspondent, previewed the new theme 10 days ago in a piece headlined, “How Leaders and Diplomats Are Trying to End the Gaza War.” As envisioned, this process has three tracks: negotiating a ceasefire in Gaza, “reshaping the Palestinian Authority” to assume power in post–Hamas Gaza and getting Israel to accept a Palestinian state in exchange for formal relations with Saudi Arabia.

Four days later Tom Friedman published “A Biden Doctrine for the Middle East Is Forming. And It’s Big.” It looks to me as if Kingsley and Wong gazumped everyone’s favorite Times columnist. Undeterred, Friedman cites his own reporting while repeating the substance of Kingsley and Wong’s.

Friedman also posits a three-track strategy. The first is “a strong and resolute stand on Iran, including a robust military retaliation against Iran’s proxies.” This we now witness, although “strong and resolute” seems a stretch.

Then comes “an unprecedented U.S. diplomatic initiative to promote a Palestinian state” and, finally, “a vastly expanded U.S. security alliance with Saudi Arabia, which would also involve Saudi normalization of relations with Israel.”

There are more “ifs” and qualifiers in these two pieces than you’ve had hot dinners. “If the administration can pull this together — a huge if,” Friedman writes.  There are so many “significant obstacles,” “divisive issues” and “long shots” that you have to wonder why these pieces were written and published.

‘Biden Doctrine’

middle east

Biden with pilots of Marine One on Jan. 21. (White House, Adam Schultz)

Straight off the top, anyone who still traffics in a two-state solution featuring an independent Palestine is at this point unable to face reality and discouraging others from doing so.

No such entity is any longer possible — nor was one, in my view, ever desirable. The Israelis, in any event, will never agree to an independent Palestine: The Netanyahu regime makes this clear every chance it gets.

What is this “reshaping the Palestinian Authority” all about? What does such a project even mean? Who will do the reshaping? Into what? And out of what? The PA at this point droops under its own sclerosis and corruption. Who is going to put it in charge of Gaza — by what mechanism? How is a “demilitarized Palestinian state” — Friedman’s phrase — to bear responsibility for its national security?

As to the Saudis, there seems to me nothing in these three tracks that has any chance of drawing them into formal relations with Israel. There has been too much desecration and murder these past four months for Washington — “the power trying to stitch it all together” — to come anywhere near reaching the end of this “track.”

Tom Friedman’s name for the “strategic thinking” pencil-sketched here is “a Biden Doctrine.” Let us suppress our splutters and leave our Tom to the grandiosity he prefers. There are several realities to consider as we assess these proposals.

One, at issue in these various tracks are geopolitical power and empire management, nothing more. What is the intent of the policy supposedly now in formation? Tell me it is anything other than the creation of a puppet regime comprised of malleable compradors in a hopelessly fragmented “Palestine.” Tell me execution of the policy the Times outlines will not entail a festival of bribery and coercion across the region.

Two, and related to the first point, there is no more place in this “strategic thinking” for any kind of Palestinian democracy or freedom than there is in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Read the Times’ copy, listen to the quoted sources: Where in any of it do Palestinians breathe or walk around or have anything to say? Shame on these two reporters, their columnist colleague, their editors and every source they cite: They participate in the same dehumanization that has defined American policy on the Palestine question for decades.

Do you think Palestinians and those who support their cause do not see these things? Do you think they do not read these policies in outline as essentially unserious?

I am convinced the Times’ reports accurately reflect an effort in Washington to find a way forward out of the utter mess Biden and his people have made for themselves. But to call what is apparently afoot a Biden Doctrine is to put lipstick on a pig.

These people seem to have no clue how to devise a genuinely useful policy. Fear, after all, inhibits all thought of innovation.

The Gaza crisis is a text in which we can read that genuine diplomacy, based on knowledge of the perspectives of others, will come to define our century more than mere power. It tells us, too, that Washington, as of now, has neither the intention nor ability to live and act well in this new time.

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