Navigating the Fault Lines: Biden’s Missteps in Middle East Policy

Published March 13, 2024

The Shoval Perspective

On October 2nd, five days before the massacre, Jake Sullivan, the United States National Security Advisor, published a foundational article in Foreign Affairs. This essay is significant because it presents the manifesto of American foreign policy and the secret of its success. Sullivan writes:

“Although the Middle East remains beset with perennial challenges, the region is quieter than it has been for decades.”

I would not have mentioned this embarrassing anecdote if it did not symbolize the misguided perception of reality, which consistently undermines its foreign policy.

At the heart of the Biden administration’s Middle Eastern strategy lies a perilous echo of past misjudgments, reminiscent of America’s historical foreign policy blunders in Vietnam and Afghanistan. This approach, characterized by an unwavering commitment to American ideals and a dichotomous view of combatants and civilians, threatens to pave the way for a strategic debacle in Gaza. By doing so, the Biden administration not only dictates Israel’s policy that undermines the potential for a decisive resolution but also disregards the critical lessons gleaned from past wars.

The Tet Offensive, launched by North Vietnam against the United States and South Vietnam in 1968, stands as a critical juncture in the Vietnam War. Coverage by American media, marked by its hostile and critical tone, played a key role in eroding the will of the American public to continue the conflict. This shift in perception transformed what was a tactical victory on the battlefield into a substantial strategic defeat, illustrating the profound impact of public opinion on military engagements. The significance of this victory on the battlefield was underscored by the stark casualty ratio: approximately 1,500 American soldiers were killed compared to around 45,000 Viet Cong, a disparity of 30 to 1.

Before the offensive, the Johnson administration maintained an optimistic narrative of progress in the war, as the Viet Cong were on the verge of capitulation. However, just when the U.S. was close to a military victory, it broke spiritually. It replaced the goal of victory with the goal of minimizing losses through diplomacy. The U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, marking the end of the fighting, the release of prisoners, and recognition of South Vietnam’s independence. Unsurprisingly, in April 1975, after the American forces left, the communists violated the Paris Agreement and conquered South Vietnam.

The failure pattern in Vietnam repeated itself in Afghanistan. In both cases, a tactical victory was converted into a strategic defeat. The reason for the defeat is not only the American spirit or guerrilla warfare tactics but also the American inability to break the enemy’s spirit, stemming from a pathology of projection. Americans project their worldview onto non-Americans. This projection is at the heart of the failure. An example of this is the attitude towards the Arab Spring. Time and again, the U.S. thinks it can export democracy and is surprised to discover that when Islamic peoples are given the freedom to vote, it ends with them choosing fundamentalist Islam.

However, this failure was not inevitable. In World War II, the U.S. decided to decisively defeat the enemy by breaking the military power and the civilian spirit. Afterwards, it established strict military regimes that carried out deep denazification. A significant effort to cleanse German society from Nazi influence included the establishment of 545 courts, and 400,000 Germans were placed in detention camps between 1945 and 1950. Hundreds of thousands of Nazi supporters were barred from any public office, the U.S. army took over newspapers, radio stations, theaters, cinemas, magazines, and publishing houses. 30,000 different book titles were banned and destroyed. But the U.S. did not stop at denazification; following the Potsdam Conference, the Allies decided on the expulsion of about 12 million people. The victory was absolute, and the results followed. Germany and Japan returned to the community of nations.

One of the cornerstones leading to the failure of American power is rooted in the American conception of humanity that developed after World War II. Broadly speaking, the average collective perception of what America is has drifted from the tradition of Madison and Hamilton and has moved closer to that of Paine, Franklin, & Jefferson. The new prevailing perception views the relationship between the individual and the collective through the framework of the social contract. It imagines the state as a collection of individuals who have reached a consensus. These are “self-evident truths” to modern Americans. For them, all humans are equal because they were created as individuals, and because humans are free individuals, they can unite to achieve common goals. Humans are thus perceived primarily as sovereign subjects, and only then as members of a community. Hence, the role of the state is as a tool for realizing the interest of the individual. In this view, the citizen precedes the state, and the state serves the citizen.

While this might be a good idea at home, when this idea is applied to the international arena, it is a recipe for disaster. The shift in America’s post-World War II identity fundamentally altered its approach to international relations, emphasizing individual rights and equality as cornerstones of its foreign policy. This transformation, grounded in the social contract theory, posits the state as a facilitator of individual interests, viewing citizens as sovereign entities who collectively form a consensus-based governance. In this framework, the individual’s primacy dictates that the state exists to serve its citizens, contrasting sharply with previous doctrines that placed the collective or state interests above individual rights.

In “The Guide for the Perplexed,” Maimonides proposes the fallacy of projection as one of the central errors in understanding reality.

This ideological pivot has profound implications for U.S. foreign engagements, where the distinction between the ‘evil’ combatants and the ‘innocent’ civilian populace becomes paramount. By applying domestic principles of individualism and equality universally, the U.S. attempts to mitigate collateral damage and preserve civilian lives in conflict zones. However, this noble intent often translates into a flawed execution on the global stage. The insistence on differentiating between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ coupled with an unwavering belief in universal principles of freedom and individual rights, frequently undermines the complex realities of international conflict. As a result, this approach has sometimes led to unforeseen disasters, demonstrating the limitations and challenges of applying a predominantly individual-centric ideology to the intricate web of international relations.

Since World War II, the U.S. has sought to make a distinction between the “evil” fighting force – Viet Cong, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hamas – and the “good” civilian population, which the villains exploit. The Americans do not let facts confuse them. This is the exact same pattern that continues to repeat itself even today. Recent polls have shown a significant increase in Palestinian support for Hamas, especially following the attack on Israel on October 7. 72% of Palestinians support the Hamas massacre. In fact, when looking deeply at the data, 85% of Palestinians in the “moderate” Palestinian Authority support the massacre. The U.S. seeks to implement a policy in Gaza similar to what it implemented in Afghanistan and Vietnam, preventing Israel from achieving victory and carrying out denazification, in the name of an abstract concept of “humanity” that ignores the concrete reality.

Another consequence of the American concept of “humanity” lies at the base of the Biden administration’s ongoing disregard for Israeli concerns about an Iranian nuclear threat. The American experience with the MAD doctrine against the Soviets is projected onto the Middle East. But its foundational assumption is flawed. Western rationalism – common to Russians and Americans – differs from Arab or Iranian rationalism. Assuming that a person is a person, and ignoring the cultural component that makes them a person, leads to dangerous strategic outcomes.

These two failures lead to the current policy of the Biden administration. On one hand, it prevents Israel from achieving victory, expelling the enemy, or carrying out denazification. This is an absurd policy; instead of shortening the conflict as any fight would by cutting supply lines, the American government demands Israel to transfer supplies (ostensibly civilian) that go directly to Hamas in the middle of the fight. On the other hand, the administration’s overarching strategy in the Middle East imagines that the Iranians are not an urgent and severe strategic problem. Biden continues the approach of Obama, who said before leaving office: “America’s allies need to learn to share the region with Iran.”

He believes it is possible to turn Iran into a status quo state, which would allow him to stabilize the region and deal with the threat coming from China and Russia. The administration assumes that the Iranians are rational, that they will not use nuclear weapons, that their capabilities are limited, and that all their threats are nothing more than empty rhetoric. Therefore, it seeks to appease them at Israel’s expense. Last year, the administration pushed Israel to reach a maritime agreement with Lebanon as part of its strategy. Today, the same approach is evident as Israel does not receive U.S. approval to attack Hezbollah, even with tens of thousands of Israeli refugees unable to return to their homes in the north, facing over four months of threats from Hezbollah bombings. In other words, the administration assumes Israel is hysterical and going to drag the U.S. into an unnecessary confrontation with Iran.

If there is something to learn from Jewish history, it is to believe enemies when they promise to destroy them. And this includes believing senior Hamas official Razi Hamad who promised:

“Israel must end, we are not ashamed to say this, with all our might… This was only the first time, and there will be a second, third, and fourth… We are a nation of martyrs…. The elimination of Israel. Exactly… No one should come to us with complaints about what we did on October 7, what we did is justified.”

Instead of implementing in Israel the same mistakes that were made in Afghanistan and Vietnam, the administration would do well to push Israel to advance the successful policy that the Americans themselves implemented in Japan and Germany.

Dr. Ronen Shoval is a Visiting Fellow in Jewish and Political Thought at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the deep interplay between theology, politics, and society.

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