The hypocrisy gap between US diplomatic pronouncements and US actions is no surprise to world audiences, but the disconnect on display since October 7 has put the nail in the coffin of the American Century. American officials have been invoking caution against a “wider war” for months as they shuttle from capital to capital across the Middle East, portraying themselves as smokejumpers ahead of the fire. They are discounting the war raging in Gaza as if it were a sideshow. It’s true the situation could get much, much worse, but from the point of view of the region the “wider war” is already here. It’s been burning for decades, not just in Gaza but across the Middle East—and the US lost the future years ago.
The US Disconnect and the Pivot to Asia
For the last decade US policy hasn’t centered on combatting terrorism or protecting energy supplies, and certainly not on promoting democracy or cooperating on the climate; instead, it’s been obsessed with China. That has been the inspiration driving US diplomatic efforts to tie up loose ends in the Middle East. Facile treaties such as the Abraham Accords provided Washington with the illusion that they could quickly and easily box up boring old problems like the Palestinians for deep storage. The transition to drone warfare, or “over-the-horizon” strategies, offered a way to literally keep troublesome actors under the gun while freeing up US forces for future engagements elsewhere. This was not a Middle East policy, but the absence of one as Washington attempted to pivot away from regional disappointments to shiny new priorities in Asia.
That redirect looked fine on paper, but Washington can’t just erase history that is inconvenient for its team-building project ahead of the big game with China. Inconvenient chapters of Western colonialism before and after World War I; selective employment or disregard of UN rulings on Palestine in 1948, 1967, and 1990; and other unflattering chapters are not forgotten in the region. More than anything, however, it is the twenty-year obscenity of the War on Terror that is the elephant in the room.
President Biden’s caution to Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel should avoid the mistakes the US made after 9/11 might have been imagined by his speechwriters to signal statesman-like humility; however in the Middle East the remark was met with stunned disbelief. The scorched-earth revenge dignified with the name The Global War on Terror led to the deaths of 940,000 in the post 9/11 war zones, and the displacement of 38 million others, whose lives remain suspended in a landscape littered with infrastructural and environmental damage. This was not an error of judgment, but a war crime, or rather a series of war crimes: violations of sovereignty, collective punishment of civilians, indiscriminate use of violence, lack of accountability, crippling sanctions . . . the region knows very well what wider war looks like, and they are still living it.
The ability of the US to dismiss its violent post–9/11 record as a mistake that others can learn from is the most explicit example of the disconnect between Washington and the world. US policymakers speak as if only they enjoy the ability to define what is war or a war crime and to determine who will remember the past or be held accountable for death and damages. The disconnect is even more evident in hearing the West demand Russian accountability for war crimes in Ukraine while ignoring its own history in the region. But it is Gaza that is the breaking point now. With thirty thousand dead and missing; 90 percent of the population displaced and unable to access food, fuel, or medicine; and destruction of half the buildings, including hospitals, schools, and infrastructure, it is clear Israel is waging total war on a captive population in punishment for the acts of a few. The US releases toothless soundbites urging restraint while simultaneously increasing military aid and blocking UN cease-fire resolutions, then has the gall to speak of its policy as one of avoiding a “wider war.” What the US means is that it seeks to avoid a war that would be inconvenient for its pivot to Asia. What the world hears is that the victims of the war in Gaza, just like the victims of the War on Terror, don’t rate consideration.
The Chinese Counterweight and the Politics of the Street
Ironically, the feeble US response to Israel’s war on Gaza is hastening the very transformation the US fears. For the US, China is the new threat on the block, but from the perspective of the region China offers a needed counterweight to Western unilateralism.
So far, the China alternative hasn’t exactly built a more humane world. States like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, insulted by criticism of their human rights or environmental records, or blocked from acquiring US weapons or aircraft, have found they can encourage the US to reconsider by hosting joint naval exercises or investment forums with China. The US need to keep the neighborhood quiet in the wake of October 7 has raised the stakes and increased the US payoffs for rulers in the region, but the violence in Gaza makes the China option for de-Westernizing the world order even more appealing now.
But the US focus on competition with China is blinding it to an even more important transformation led by the anger building in the Arab streets at the lack of action on Gaza. Citizens’ popular fury at Israel, the US, the UN, and now their own governments is building. Images of the violence in Gaza and the West Bank are on every phone screen; but phones don’t just bring images of dying children and bombed hospitals, they bring ways to respond.
Forty years ago, young Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, horrified by the Soviet invasion, travelled to join the Afghan resistance with the help of the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. States wielded control over these militias by controlling access to funding, travel documents, and weapons. Today’s situation is much more fluid; phones provide tools for learning about, supporting, or even joining distant struggles, and the longer states refrain from acting to end the war on Gaza, the more individuals and non-state groups are likely to act on their own. This is the transformation the US should be noticing, but its eyes are fixed on China.
Deaf to All But Military Lobbyists?
Only magical thinking allows Israel to imagine that this war on Gaza will end Palestinian resistance. History shows that a military response is the least efficient method to end terrorism; political engagement or criminal justice strategies are far more effective. Retaliation against civilians, as the US discovered but failed to learn, temporarily weakens organizations but only aggravates the conditions feeding terrorism.
Despite the evidence of the failure of military solutions, the US not only tolerates Israel’s war, but supports it with unprecedented military assistance. This aid is an arms sale the American people pay for and a lucrative opportunity for defense companies who know well that war brings a higher profit margin than peace. The flush budgets of the War on Terror created a defense industry hydra with a DC lobbying machine that now drowns out other policy options. Not only is it advocating for arming Israel, but also offering the specter of Iran as a justification for new deployments and arms deals. The US has been obsessed with floating conspiracy theories about Iran in the machinery behind Hamas or the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, or the militia attacks against US troops in Syria or Iraq, as if no one in the region would have objected to US interventions or to the Gaza situation without Iranian meddling.
The Disconnect Enables the Slaughter
This military response to Gaza will never make Israel more secure, will worsen the potential for any future US cooperation with the region, and will only benefit the defense industries, contributing to the massive wealth transfer within the US itself as budgets in health and social services are slashed to fund military aid.
But most importantly, this war is killing tens of thousands of civilians. Nearly two million people have been displaced, their communities rendered uninhabitable, and their surviving children traumatized. Only profound disconnect enables the US to imagine that this is how you win the peace.
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