Biden’s failed Middle East policy

Caught off-guard by the stunning and savage Hamas attacks into Israel and unprepared for the resultant chaos, the Biden administration now faces a Middle East at war and on the brink of a catastrophe.

Despite denying any involvement in the attack, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei openly praised Hamas for it and suggested that a bloody Israeli ground invasion into Gaza may trigger Iranian entry into the fighting. Iran’s foreign minister darkly warned of a multi-front regional war against Israel. Meanwhile, tensions mount and rockets fly along Israel’s northern border as fears grow of an attack into Israel by Lebanese Hezbollah.

The grotesque images resulting from the massive blast on the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza will serve as a clarion call to more terror groups in the region to enter the fighting.

As senior U.S. administration officials and then President Biden himself raced to the region in a frantic effort to limit the size and scale of the conflict, it became clear that the administration’s minimalist Middle East policy is a calamitous failure. For two years, Biden and the National Security Council sought to increase focus on China and Russia while limiting focus on the Middle East. This was a strategic misstep that seems likely to force a reorganization of foreign policy.

After years of pulling forces out of the region, the Pentagon is now rushing to put them back. In response to the Israel-Hamas war, the Pentagon dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups. One of them, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, was slated to participate in a NATO exercise, but has now been diverted from Europe toward the Middle East.

Two carrier strike groups represent a massive American force: two dozen ships, more than 140 aircraft and more than 20,000 troops. Meanwhile, the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, has begun moving closer to Israel’s shores, potentially to aid in the evacuation of Americans if the situation escalates further.

Air assets, including A-10 attack aircraft and F-15 and F-16 jet fighters, have been redirected back to the Persian Gulf, reinforcing the U.S. military presence in the region. A ground force of thousands of Marines is streaming toward the region as a show of force to keep Iran at bay.

The White House has announced these ships, planes and people are in the region temporarily, but some are almost certain to remain for many months to come. The risk of a strike by Iran or an Iranian proxy group will remain far too great beyond the immediate crisis.

In 2021, the U.S. had two carrier strike groups committed to the Middle East. They’ve both since been redeployed, along with many other naval assets in the region, toward the Indo Pacific to counter China. This move of military power was consistent with Biden’s 2022 National Security Strategy, which focuses heavily on American competition with China and does not mention the Middle East until page 42 of 48. The National Security Strategy historically communicates a president’s national security priorities, philosophy and strategic vision. The few glancing references to the region disclosed much about this administration’s view of the Middle East.

From its inception, the Biden administration immediately sought to achieve a key Obama foreign policy objective by refocusing military resources away from the Middle East and toward countering China’s growing influence. The Obama Cabinet sought to prioritize great power competition with Beijing while ending our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, crises in the region — the Syrian Civil War, the stunning rise and sweep of ISIS and unrest in Libya — pulled the Obama White House back into the Middle East.

Like Obama, Trump’s foreign policy prioritized countering Chinese influence around the world, investing in new technology, critical capabilities and assets in space. Once again, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and support for terror groups in the region and its brazen 2019 attack on a Saudi oil facility, forced a push of forces — to include a carrier strike group — quickly back into the Middle East.

Beginning in 2021, the Biden team tried a more hands-off approach, cobbling together a regional security framework that tied Arab militaries to the Israel Defense Force in a partnership focused on hedging against Iran’s most destructive impulses. Biden pulled all American forces out of Afghanistan — a messy, chaotic, and tragic endeavor that sharply limits America’s ability to monitor and fight ISIS in that country. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin withdrew significant air defense assets, including more than eight Patriot missile batteries, from the Middle East.

Once again, Washington is being forced to realize that the Middle East demands a sizable U.S. military presence. The region is simply too volatile, too important, and too complex to be left without a strong American hand. It cannot be relegated to the periphery of American strategic vision.

However this current crisis ends, the U.S. must ensure that while we look to the Indo-Pacific, we remain steadfast in our commitment to stability and peace in the Middle East. The U.S. simply cannot deter Iran and its proxy forces without American power permanently in the Middle East.

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