OpinionMiddle East

Wishful thinking and America’s regional defense architecture

The U.S. effort to stop the Gaza war hasn’t helped shore up the fragile trust that the moderate Arab countries—who wish to see an Israeli victory—have in Washington.

U.S. President Joe Biden. Credit: White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden. Credit: White House.
Efraim Inbar

The present American administration sees the war in Gaza as an opportunity to build a regional defense architecture against Iran to increase stability in the region and prevent a regional war. In its view, Saudi Arabia, after signing a defense treaty with the United States, will develop the military capability to stand up to Iran and will join the Abraham Accords. This, it hopes, will open the way for additional Muslim countries to normalize relations with Israel.

This is the “sweetener” on offer to Jerusalem, which will have to commit to a path to a Palestinian state, while the Palestinians will have to undertake major political reforms. Approval of a defense treaty needs support of two thirds of the Senate, which means that President Joe Biden needs Israel to help him to convince Republican senators to approve the American-Saudi deal. This, in the Biden administration’s view, is the way to prevent Iran from taking over the Middle East.

Unfortunately, some of the assumptions behind this American plan are misplaced and most of Washington’s measures do not serve its goal. 

Every defense alliance is based on deterrent capability and the willingness of the lead member of the alliance to employ military force. As we have seen throughout the war in Gaza, the United States, despite its strength, has failed to deter Iran from operating its proxies against American forces in Syria and Iraq. 

Hezbollah, too, has launched a war of attrition against an American ally, Israel. The Houthis, another Iranian proxy, opened fire on ships in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, an important international waterway, and were not deterred by limited American strikes.

Moreover, despite a warning from the U.S. president, Iran launched a direct missile and drone attack on Israel. Without American willingness to confront Iran militarily—a necessary component of deterrence—the defense alliance that the Biden administration wishes to construct will be built on shaky foundations. It appears that the Arab states are not convinced that the United States will come to their defense in the event of an Iranian aggression. 

Even though Biden initially saw the war against Hamas as a struggle of Western culture against evil, he later changed his tune. Election considerations and ideological impulses coming from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party led to a policy aimed at holding Israel back and preventing it from defeating Hamas, an Islamist group hostile to the United States and Western culture.

The American effort to stop the war hasn’t helped shore up the fragile trust that the moderate Arab countries—who wish to see an Israeli victory—have in the United States. In the political culture of the Middle East, where the use of force is part of the toolbox at the disposal of the region’s states, America’s fear of escalation and the possible need to confront Iran militarily damages the image of the United States as a desirable ally. Moreover, American pressure on Israel during wartime seems puzzling and does not convey strong support for its allies. 

Neither does the American obsession with a Palestinian state serve its alliance building. All the more so if Hamas is left to remain part of the Palestinian political establishment. Hamas, an Iranian ally, has a good chance of taking over the state that the Americans are eager to establish within the framework of an anti-Iranian alliance. This state would be a Trojan horse.

Moreover, the chances of a fundamental change in Palestinian politics leading to the establishment of a political entity with a monopoly on the use of force, and that has no armed groups fighting for leadership, are minimal. Would such a Palestinian state be much different from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Yemen—countries that are engaged in civil wars? Would a Palestinian state be able to free itself in our generation from its hatred for Jews and Israel? The United States is suffering from dangerous delusions when it comes to these questions. 

Washington will need Israel’s blessing to ensure a Senate majority for the defense pact and other sweeteners that Riyadh wants. The assumption that the Saudis, who until now have bought their influence, will now become fierce fighters, is problematic. The Saudis are insisting that they be able to enrich uranium on their soil, just like Iran. If this happens, it will spark a nuclear arms race with Turkey and Egypt, which are also seeking to get in on the act.

This is contrary to long-term American interests and policy that seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation. Israel should certainly not give its support to measures that could lead to a multi-polar nuclear Middle East. This would be a strategic nightmare, even if the upside is the Saudi flag flying over an embassy in Tel Aviv.

Unfortunately, the current foreign policy of the leader of the free world is confused and full of contradictions. 

Originally published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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