It took nine years of civil war in Ukraine for the various provocations conducted by the NATO alliance to finally erupt into an international conflict. That happened when Russia illegally invaded Ukraine in February last year. Within a month of the invasion, it became clear that the conflict’s underlying logic was that of a proxy war between the US and Russia. For that to happen, it merely required the intervention of Boris Johnson in Kyiv — a visit that let the Ukrainians know they had no right to negotiate.
After many more months of disastrous combat, the official reading took a new turn: This was not only a NATO war against Russia; it was designed to be a “long war.” That may have been the plan from the beginning, as Hillary Clinton seemed to indicate only days after the Russian invasion. But anyone paying attention to contemporary history can easily understand that the US has developed a taste for long wars.
As many observers noted early in the conflict, Vladimir Putin miscalculated. The Russian invasion didn’t play out as expected. These commentators assumed, possibly mistakenly, that Putin was counting on a swift victory after overpowering the smaller neighbor. Instead of being over in weeks, the war will soon be going on two years of combat.
But neither did the proxy war play out according to Western expectations. The US expected most nations of the world to condemn Russia’s illegal act, compounded as it was by claims of war crimes. Biden predicted that sanctions, embargos and promises to supply weapons would fuel Ukrainians resistance and eventually turn Russia into a “global pariah.”
The moral argument failed to convince the vast majority of the world’s nations. It did gain the resounding adhesion of every European nation, despite traces of reluctance among the populace. The reluctance remains latent, but real, and could emerge at any time. It has become a factor of instability for many European governments or governing parties, as the recent Slovakian election demonstrated.
Beltway strategists counting on a rapid reduction of the Russian “ruble to rubble” were genuinely shocked to see Russia’s economy resist the assault. Putin’s military gained and then successfully defended a decisive advantage in Ukraine. Throughout the second year of combat, most commentators agreed that the conflict had become a war of attrition. In strategic terms, this meant that the side most capable of enduring over time would eventually prevail. The strategic focus then turned to enduring rather than to finding ways of prevailing.
Another long war erupts
No one was expecting a second violent civil war in a prominent country to turn, in an instant, into a long war, but the world woke up on Saturday to see precisely that happening. Hamas surprised a seriously unprepared Israeli intelligence by mounting an attack that humiliated the entire security community in Tel Aviv and Washington.
The Ukraine conflict took months to become officially recognized as a war of attrition in which the US was engaged “as long as it takes.” In contrast, within hours The New York Times featured this headline: “Israel Warns of Long War as It Moves to Drive Out Militants.” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced: “We are embarking on a long and difficult war that was forced on us by a murderous Hamas attack.”
At the same time as promising a long drawn-out conflict, the Israeli leader promised to “take mighty vengeance for this black day,” meaning that the degree of suffering in this long war is bound to be great, a dismal prospect when one considers the amount of suffering that has been taking place for decades.
The media and politicians in the US immediately set about characterizing this conflict in the same terms as they have consistently used with Ukraine, as “unprovoked.” They blithely ignore the fact that both nations have been existing for years and even decades as cultural, ethnic and even religious powder kegs, whose history is scarred by systematic misunderstanding, violence and sophisticated acts of oppression between distinctive populations.
In such circumstances, only people suffering from real or self-induced amnesia will fail to notice that deliberate and systemic provocation has become a permanent feature of political life in societies that harbor two populations historically opposed. This is as true of Israel and Ukraine as it is of Ulster. The conflict becomes aggravated when it crosses borders or affects neighboring populations. In the case of Ukraine and Israel, each of the two civilly opposed sides received support from nations beyond their borders. For Israel, it is the US. For the Palestinians, the external ally is Iran.
In such circumstances, every political act or statement can resemble a provocation. In other words, even without examining the embarrassing details, those who deny the existence of provocation concerning any conflict are either ignorant or dishonest.
Why is the US so deeply involved in both Ukraine and Israel?
The day after the outbreak of hostilities, Sunday, October 8, Caitlin Johnstone helpfully listed no less than eleven quotes from American politicians or personalities characterizing the Hamas attack as unprovoked in her newsletter. As soon as the attack became known on Saturday, Al Jazeera’s television journalists interviewed countless Palestinian voices who were worried sick about its consequences. They had no difficulty listing the litany of provocations that help explain, but do not excuse, the violence of the assault.
At the same time, in the US, the clash in Israel has contributed to aggravating the growing division, especially on the Republican side, between those whose commitment to Ukraine is unequivocal and those who wish to suspend or reduce US financial support for Ukraine. As I discussed collaboratively with ChatGPT in “Outside the Box,” there is now a new binary set of insulting labels to distinguish the two sides: interventionists vs. isolationists.
This past week, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz successfully removed fellow Republican Kevin McCarthy from his role as Speaker of the House, creating a momentary vacuum in Congressional business. Washington is waiting, as a new speaker must be nominated. The issue that provoked this coup was US engagement in foreign conflicts, specifically the funding of the Ukraine war effort.
The outbreak of hostilities in Israel led former Vice President and current primary presidential candidate Mike Pence to attack his former boss, heavily favored in the polls, for being an isolationist. “Former Vice President Mike Pence,” Politico reported, “tore into Donald Trump and pointed to isolationism in the Republican Party as complicit in the sweeping Hamas attack on Israel, decrying American ‘retreat on the world stage.’ … Pence faulted ‘voices of appeasement like Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis that I believe have run contrary to the tradition in our party that America is the leader of the free world.’”
The Cold War heritage is still with us
The idea of “the free world” is a holdover from the Cold War, when the capitalist and communist camps were ideologically opposed. It makes little sense today, but the formula reminds patriotic Americans — especially Republicans — of their historical role as guarantors of the stability of the world order. Americans like to believe they are “the indispensable nation,” without whose leadership the world would descend into chaos.
In hindsight, one may wonder about a “stability” that was perfectly compatible with three years of active and incredibly destructive war in Korea, a good decade of the same in Vietnam, two decades in Afghanistan as well as various other long campaigns, most of which have never had a clear outcome. Is war the key to stability?
Judging by the nature of the alliances and postures of nations around the world with regard to Ukraine, the “free world” today is essentially the US, Canada and Western Europe, with some distant collaboration from Japan, Australia and South Korea. It’s more a North Atlantic club than a global reality. That doesn’t deter Pence from employing the theatrical metaphor of the “world stage.” The former vice president complains: “This is also what happens when you have leaders in the Republican Party signaling retreat on the world stage.”
How the situation in Israel will affect the Republican primary contest or US President Joe Biden’s effort at re-election will become clearer in the coming weeks. Israel was already dealing with an internal crisis affecting its status as a constitutional democracy, a fact that may have contributed to its vulnerability.
Many Americans have been conditioned to think of Israel as the equivalent of the 51st state, with far more influence over US foreign policy than any of the official 50 states. The events now unfolding in Gaza and Israel will make the coming debate in the US a particularly uncomfortable one. Public opinion, already divided over the Ukraine war, may vacillate further, aggravating the conflict between the interventionists and isolationists.
For Biden, this crisis is particularly painful. Some have pointed out that the goal of Hamas in mounting this assault was to scotch the deal that Biden was attempting to broker aiming at restoring diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Biden was counting on the ongoing negotiations to produce a major foreign policy success he could point to in his quest for re-election. That deal now seems compromised. In case of a prolonged military campaign, an intensified civil war, Saudi Arabia will simply not be able to consent to a plan that included the idea of a mutual security agreement. Already, according to Axios, “Saudi Arabia rejected targeting of civilians — but didn’t condemn the Hamas attack.”
If the Republicans are in a visible panic, it may be even worse for the Democrats. Biden’s popularity is at a historic low. One further piece of evidence that he is control of nothing, not even the relationship with the 51st state, will appear to validate the complaint of Republicans that he’s a weak president. The presidential election is just a year away. A long war in Israel will turn things extremely bleak for Biden.
It may get worse when the question emerges of whether the US, already involved in Ukraine but with no credible endgame, should become involved in Israel, a truly unresolvable conflict that has raged for seven decades.
Republicans have already focused on the fact that the US commitment to Ukraine might compromise a future “strong” response to China in a war many American interventionists in both parties seem to believe is inevitable. If Congress and the White House predictably commit to supporting Israel financially and militarily in the context of a long and brutal war, the question of Washington’s supposed leadership of the free world will once again come to the fore, but in the worst possible light for the current administration. The US now participates in conflicts but does not control them. And the conflicts predictably escape anyone’s control.
The coming weeks and months, and especially the coming year, will not be a comfortable time for anyone in the Beltway’s political class. Though individuals like Matt Gaetz can claim a tactical victory, nobody in either party has good news to report. Not even outsiders hoping to make an impact in next year’s election. Not even Donald Trump. What was already chaotic got significantly worse over the past week. It began with the vacating of McCarthy’s tenure as Speaker of the House, paralyzing Congress, and ended with the announcement of a new “long war.”
A new binary culture war has come to the fore between interventionists and isolationists. It won’t be pretty, and it is already costly, in terms of both finances and reputation. It is not good for the image of the indispensable nation, nor does it lend glory to the politicians who will use it rhetorically. There will likely be no heroes. Suffering will abound, and belief in political institutions in the US, Israel, Ukraine and most of Europe will inevitably take a serious hit. The global order is in shambles. And a lot of national orders along with it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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