As Israel continues to raze Gaza, Biden has set two aims for his administration: to provide unconditional support to Israel and prevent a regional war. It will be hard for the US to achieve both aims.

Joe Biden speaks to reporters on the White House lawn on December 20, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

As Gaza is razed to the ground, President Joe Biden has asserted what he takes to be the United States’ two geopolitical priorities: to provide unconditional support for Israel and to prevent the war from widening across the region. So far he has pursued these aims in tandem — disbursing $14 billion to assist the Israeli slaughter while trying to deter intervention from outside actors. But as the developments of the past week have shown, such objectives are not easily reconciled.

With the United States now mounting reckless attacks on Houthi forces in the Red Sea, there is reason to believe that the White House is simply too impulsive and inept to manage the unfolding crisis. The result could be a conflict that escalates out of its control and compromises its fragile regional hegemony.

Washington knows that Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to “eliminate Hamas” is a smoke screen, whose primary purpose is to keep him in power and out of jail. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has so far proven more adept at destroying civilian targets than at seriously wounding the militant group, which is too strong and embedded to succumb to its assault.

Even so, the United States has given its blessing to Israel as it exacts vengeance after October 7 — hoping to assassinate Hamas’s senior figures and hobble its capacity to govern, while inflicting such immense suffering on the Gazan population that they lose the will to resist. Biden seems content to block a cease-fire until this comes to pass. Each blood-spattered presidential statement reiterates his “unshakeable” commitment to the war effort.

Israel views escalation as necessary to realign the regional balance of forces, blunting opposition to the Zionist project and laying the foundation for the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza.

Conterminously, American grand strategists are eager to complete the “pivot to Asia” decreed by Barack Obama — a program of economic strangulation and military encirclement intended to contain the rise of China. This means partially extricating themselves from the Middle Eastern theatre, avoiding direct involvement in “forever wars” and instead using local client states to enforce their interests. Under both Trump and Biden, the push for Arab–Israeli normalization sought to bind such clients into a reliable regional power bloc. It aimed to establish a durable “security architecture” that would allow the hegemon to focus its attention elsewhere.

Yet the ongoing torture of Gaza threatens to undermine this geopolitical vision. It has already cast doubt on the détente between Israel and Saudi Arabia, incited armed retaliation from Hezbollah and the Houthis, and increased the likelihood of military confrontation between Tel Aviv and Tehran — a conflagration in which the United States, despite its attempts to draw back from the region, may be compelled to intervene.

The best-case scenario for Biden, therefore, is a finite war in which Israel abandons its maximal aims, yet manages to deal a significant blow to the armed resistance struggle (perhaps resuscitating the Palestinian Authority in the process). The pursuit of this outcome explains the apparent inconsistency of the US approach. On the one hand, it has furnished Israel with weapons, intelligence, and diplomatic cover for its campaign, in full awareness of its genocidal intent. On the other, it has lamented the soaring civilian casualties and pushed for a more “targeted,” less intensive operation, conscious that an extended and intractable war has the potential to spread beyond Gaza.

Israel, however, has a different endgame. It is more than happy for its allies and adversaries to be drawn into the violence — and to prolong it indefinitely. Its ultimate goal is the depopulation of Gaza, the direct assertion of its sovereignty over the Strip, and open warfare between Western powers and the Axis of Resistance. It views this escalation as necessary to realign the regional balance of forces, blunting opposition to the Zionist project and laying the foundation for the mass expulsion of Palestinians.

Given these opposed interests, it is unclear whether American pleas for “restraint” will have a meaningful effect on the Israeli killing machine. The latter is now in the hands of a government with powerful neofascist elements, which seem prepared to assert their autonomy from the United States and pulverize their opponents on their own terms.

The targeting of Hamas officials in Lebanon — a direct provocation to Hezbollah — appears to reflect this outlook. Yet, at the same time, Netanyahu’s order to withdraw thousands of troops from Gaza, announced on new year’s day, looks like a response to US pressure for a lighter and nimbler phase of combat. These mixed signals suggest that Israel has not yet decided how much to depart from US diktats.

But judging by the events of the past few days, Israel may not need to make a serious effort to embroil the United States in its military quagmire. As Ansar Allah, the Houthi movement that controls much of Yemen, continued to seize Red Sea cargo ships linked to Israel — disrupting global supply chains in protest at the siege of Gaza — Washington abandoned any rational calculus of its own interests. A prudent administration would have accepted the inevitability of such reprisals and worked to minimize the risk of escalation. But Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, enraged by this defiance of imperium, and humiliated by their failure to assemble a proper international deterrence force, instead responded with hysterical aggression: sending in the US Navy, whose helicopters sank three Houthi vessels and killed ten of their crew members on December 31.

Within American security circles, pressure is building for an assault on the Iranian warship stationed in the Red Sea: an action that could light the fuse across the region and give the gift of all-out war to Israel.

Now the White House seems ready to further inflame the situation. On Wednesday, it corralled eleven other countries into issuing a joint ultimatum to Ansar Allah, warning that it would “bear the responsibility of the consequences” if it did not desist. US officials are briefing that they have drawn up plans for direct military strikes on Yemen, with potential targets ranging from coastal radar installations to munition storage facilities. They have also called for the United Nations to take coordinated action against the Houthis, while placing the ultimate blame with Iran for supposedly helping to coordinate their attacks. Within American security circles, pressure is building for an assault on the Iranian warship stationed in the Red Sea: an action that could light the fuse across the region and give the gift of all-out war to Israel.

The United States, of course, has already tried to crush Ansar Allah: supporting the vicious Saudi-led war against the group, which led to the deaths of 377,000 people and failed to secure victory for the puppet regime of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. If it is now gearing up for round two, the Houthis do not seem too concerned. Soon after receiving their “final warning” from Washington, they detonated an unmanned surface vessel in the waterways, reportedly within a couple of miles of American ships. Their leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, has reminded the United States that a war on Yemen would be more costly and unwinnable than its adventures in Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The Saudis are well aware of this, and have kept a level head amid the upheaval — unwilling to get dragged back into the Yemeni debacle or to needlessly antagonize Iran. Were Biden a more capable handmaiden of empire he would surely follow their lead, attempting to contain the current conflict, bring Israel to heel, “restabilize” the region and return to work on the New Cold War. But old habits die hard for this champion of the Iraq invasion and architect of Obama’s drone campaign. His propensity for military intervention appears unscathed by its track record. If it is once again loosed on the Middle East, the first casualty will be the people of the region. The second will be American power.

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