America Fueled the Fire in the Middle East

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 Foreign Policy

Israel is in growing danger—but the responsibility lies more in Washington than in Tehran.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Iranian protesters stand in a crowd around a man who is feeding two large U.S. flags into a fire that already contains an Israeli flag. Protesters in teh background hod flags and chant beneath a night sky.
Iranian protesters burn U.S. flags during a protest to condemn the Israeli airstrike against the Iranian consulate in Syria, seen in Tehran on April 1. MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES
Iran’s decision to retaliate against an Israeli attack on its consulate in Damascus, Syria, by launching drone and missile strikes reveals just how badly the Biden administration has mishandled the Middle East. Having convinced itself on the eve of Hamas’s Oct. 7, 2023, attack against Israel that the region was “quieter than it has been for decades,” U.S. officials have since responded in ways that made a bad situation worse. The most one can say in their defense is that they have plenty of company; the Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations mostly made a hash of things, too.
The administration’s response to Hamas’s brutal attack on Oct. 7 has had three main objectives. First, it has sought to convey steadfast support for Israel: backing it rhetorically, conferring regularly with top Israeli officials, defending it against accusations of genocide, vetoing cease-fire resolutions in the United Nations Security Council, and providing it with a steady supply of lethal armaments. Second, Washington has tried to prevent the conflict in Gaza from escalating. Lastly, it has tried to convince Israel to act with restraint, both to limit harm to Palestinian civilians and to minimize the damage to the United States’ image and reputation.
This policy has failed because its aims were inherently contradictory. Giving Israel unconditional support gave its leaders little incentive to heed U.S. calls for restraint, so it is hardly surprising that they have ignored them. Gaza has been destroyed, at least 33,000 Palestinians (including more than 12,000 children) are now dead, and U.S. officials now admit that civilians there are facing conditions of famine. Houthi militias in Yemen, claiming to demand a cease-fire, continue to target shipping in the Red Sea; a low-level conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is still simmering; and violence has risen sharply in the occupied West Bank. And now Iran has retaliated against the April 1 bombing of its consulate by launching drone and missile strikes on Israel, raising the prospect of an even wider war.
Because Americans are accustomed to hearing that Iran is the embodiment of evil, some readers may be inclined to blame Tehran for all this trouble. Just last week, for example, the lead story in the New York Times announced that Iran was “flooding” the West Bank with weapons in the hopes of stirring up unrest there.
In this view, Iran is pouring gasoline on a region that is already in flames. But there’s a lot more to this story, and most of it reflects poorly on the United States.
Let me clear: Iran is governed by a brutal theocratic regime for which I have no sympathy, although I do feel for the millions of Iranians who live under its rule and who must endure the punishing effects of U.S. sanctions. Some of that regime’s actions—e.g., its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—are highly objectionable. But are its efforts to smuggle small arms and other weapons to the West Bank (or Gaza, for that matter) especially heinous? And is its decision to respond to Israel’s recent attack on its consulate—killing two Iranian generals in the process—even remotely surprising?
According to the Geneva Conventions, a population living under “belligerent occupation” has the right to resist the occupying force. Given that Israel has controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, colonized these lands with more than 700,000 illegal settlers, and killed  thousands of Palestinians in the process, there is little doubt that this is a “belligerent occupation.” Acts of resistance are still subject to the laws of war, of course, and Hamas and other Palestinian groups violate them when they attack Israeli civilians. But resisting the occupation is legitimate, and helping a beleaguered population do so is not necessarily wrong, even if Iran has done this for its own reasons and not from a deep commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Similarly, Iran’s decision to retaliate after Israel bombed its consulate and killed two Iranian generals is hardly evidence of innate aggressiveness, especially given that Tehran has repeatedly signaled that it had no desire to widen the war. Indeed, its retaliation was conducted in a way that gave Israel considerable warning and seems to have been designed to signal that Tehran did not want to escalate further. As U.S. and Israeli officials typically say when they use force, Iran is simply trying to “restore deterrence.”
Let’s not forget that the United States that has been “flooding” the Middle East with weaponry for decades. It provides Israel with billions of dollars of sophisticated military equipment every year, along with repeated assurances that U.S. support is unconditional.
That support hasn’t wavered as Israel has bombed and starved the civilian population in Gaza, and it wasn’t affected when Israel greeted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit by announcing the largest confiscation of Palestinian land in the West Bank since 1993. Washington didn’t blink when Israel bombed Iran’s consulate, even as it was condemning Ecuador’s recent assault on the Mexican Embassy in Quito. Instead, top Pentagon officials headed for Jerusalem in a show of support, and President Joe Biden made a point of emphasizing that his commitment to Israel remains “ironclad.” Is it any wonder that Israeli officials believe they can ignore advice from the United States?
States with unchecked power tend to abuse it, and Israel is no exception. Because Israel is vastly stronger than its Palestinian subjects—and more capable than Iran, too, for that matter—it can act with impunity against them, and it typically does. Decades of generous and unconditional U.S. support have enabled Israel to do whatever it wants, which has contributed to its politics as well as its behavior toward the Palestinians becoming increasingly extreme over time.
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