Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

America Fueled the Fire in the Middle East

| Apr. 15, 2024

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

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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“America Fueled the Fire in the Middle East.” Foreign Policy, April 15, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt