Just before the First World War, the writer Saki quipped that Crete makes more history than can be consumed locally: the same can unfortunately be said for the interminable flashpoint of our own day, the Middle East. Israel’s war of Biblical retribution against the people of Gaza has fortunately not yet widened into a great regional conflagration, as initially seemed likely, yet this is in large part due to American forbearance.
Since just mid-October — according to CENTCOM, the Pentagon’s strategic command covering the greater Middle East — US forces have endured 36 rocket and drone attacks by Iran-backed militias in Iraq, and 40 in Syria. Separate analysis tracks the startling uptick in attacks since the beginning of the Gaza War, with the various Shia militias coordinating their claims of responsibility under the new umbrella of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a grouping announced on 18th October.
The American response has been, depending on one’s point of view, either precise and carefully calibrated, or piecemeal and ineffective: US forces have performed strikes against militia units in the process of launching attacks, most recently outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq, killing five militants. If the aim is deterrence, it has not been effective — attacks continue daily. Yet America’s muted response, striking back roughly once for every dozen attacks, highlights both Washington’s desire to keep the Iraqi government broadly onside and inactive in the Gaza war, and the strategic bind the continued American presence in the Middle East places the waning superpower in.
The growing bellicosity of Yemen’s Ansar Allah or Houthi movement highlights the problem. Despite their distance from the Holy Land, the Houthis have been by far the most proactive Arab supporters of Hamas, declaring war against Israel, firing (so far ineffective) ballistic missiles from their plentiful armoury at Israeli targets, and most recently targeting and seizing commercial shipping in the vital sea lanes off Yemen’s coast. On Sunday, following a number of missile and drone attacks against commercial ships, the USS Carney destroyer was itself attacked by drones originating in Yemen, shooting down three in self-defence according to the Pentagon.
Washington provides Israel with arms and diplomatic cover: in return, it gains no discernible influence on Israel’s conduct of the war, wins the Biden administration enmity both at home and abroad, and forces US personnel to endure constant attacks in deployments whose strategic rationale is thin at best. Further, its capacity to respond is limited by its desire to avoid engagement in yet another Middle Eastern war: limited strikes in Yemen are as unlikely to deter the Houthis as the muted response to attacks in Iraq and Syria have achieved so far in deterring the Islamic Resistance. Yet any broader aerial campaign, which would necessarily cause civilian casualties, would be politically disastrous for the Biden administration, particularly if viewed — as it would be — as America being sucked into a war on Israel’s behalf.
The logic of the situation, as the anti-interventionist think tank the Quincy Institute observes, leads to total military disengagement from a region of endless headaches with no obvious strategic benefit, but that is easier said than done. Every US president since Barack Obama has declared a desire to draw down deployments in the region, and every one has found himself sucked back in by regional turmoil. At a time when the declining power finds itself overextended, beginning to lose a war in Europe that initially seemed successful, and worrying over its capacity to defend Taiwan in a looming, empire-breaking Pacific contest, the Middle East is like a tar pit from which Washington just cannot extricate itself.
With no obvious solution, no desire to escalate and limited political capacity to respond, America will likely find itself forced to endure constant attacks for the foreseeable future. Through its continued military presence in the Middle East, the United States has essentially trapped its troops in a hostage crisis of its own devising.