The U.S. is creeping toward war in the Middle East. A drone attack at a U.S. base on Sunday killed 3 American troops and injured 34 others. The attack—claimed by Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which opposes Washington’s support for Israel—has prompted President Joe Biden to vow retaliation. His Administration is readying retaliatory strikes “over the course of several days” that mark a dangerous escalation that could spiral out of control.
Are Americans ready for war? Not at all.
Pro-Israel sentiments aside, the U.S. public and its leaders are deeply divided today about Middle East policy. War will not only lead to recession and drain U.S. resources to the benefit of China, but divisions at home could do harm to U.S. foreign policy for years to come. It’s time, then, for Biden to de-escalate tension and push Israel toward peace.
Each major U.S. war since 1900 was buoyed at its outset by a big story that research shows galvanized national consensus and buy-in to the costs of war. A story about the existential danger of Soviet expansion and stopping communism brought robust initial support for Korea and Vietnam. In the 2000s and 2010s, the big story was about Sept. 11 and defeating terrorism. This “war on terror” narrative helped generate strong initial public support for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (88% in 2001) and Iraq (70% in 2003).
So, where is the U.S. national story today? Well, there is none. The anti-terrorism narrative disappeared with the decline of al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the late 2010s, and no other transnational group group has taken their place. Americans have also grown tired of Middle East wars, like the one the U.S. is walking into now. By 2019, 59% said Afghanistan “was not worth fighting” and only 27% said interventions in other countries made the U.S. safer. In short, with terrorism down, U.S. energy independence up, and Iran more a nuisance than existential threat, the U.S. is left today with no big, unifying story for deep Middle East engagement, especially war.
The absence of a big story is showing up today in debates about the Middle East. Polls show that 84% of Americans worry about getting pulled into war. Some 65% want a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza, not U.S. military action. Biden’s efforts to rally the nation with eloquent statements haven’t worked either (as other presidents attest, that happens with no big story). Only 33% approve of Biden’s handling of today’s crisis.
Opposition to Biden’s approach on Gaza will only expand with a wider war. Young voters strongly oppose Biden’s unwavering support for Israel’s disproportionate use of force in Gaza, which has killed at least 26,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children. Progressive Democrats are balking too. A new U.S. war today will create deep revulsion from these quarters. Revulsion will also come from Republicans, too. The powerful nationalist wing of the GOP is uncomfortable with war today. Donald Trump complained recently about too much bombing in the Middle East and some MAGA leaders want brakes on or oppose military action.
This should all give U.S. decision-makers pause. As research shows, pursuing unpopular wars can create a lot of public resistance to wars that are in the national interest. Direct U.S. involvement in a Middle East war today would be terrible at a time when Washington needs to remain nimble and engaged to manage major challenges in Asia and Europe.
Biden needs to bring the temperature down. He should rule out any strikes inside Iran, which denies involvement in Sunday’s attack. He should also reconsider further airstrikes against the Iran-backed Yemen’s Houthis and return to the defensive posture of intercepting incoming attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea. This strategy was working effectively—no deaths or major damage—before the U.S. strikes in Yemen and can work going forward. In general, striking Iranian proxies does little damage to their capabilities, but does a lot to enhance their legitimacy. Stepping back helps get the U.S. off the escalation ladder to war.
The Biden Administration can concurrently reduce accessible targets for Iran-backed groups. That means pressing (and perhaps, mandating) U.S.-flagged vessels avoid the Red Sea and redeploy troops in Jordan, Syria, and Iraq to more secure regional bases further afield from Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza. The U.S. regularly moves highly exposed troops for force protection.
Most crucially, Washington needs to push Israel to a ceasefire in Gaza. Its war is quickly becoming a regional war at odds with U.S. interests. A ceasefire will cool regional tensions, stop further escalation, keep the U.S. homefront from exploding, and bring policy in line with true U.S. national security interests (most of which now lie outside the Middle East).
In short, adjust Middle East policy now before it’s too late.
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