Socialist Alternative

Conflict In Middle East Creates New Challenges for US Imperialism

Published on

The Israeli Defense Forces brutal assault on Gaza leading to 16,000 deaths and vast destruction has received fulsome support from the Biden administration and US imperialism. This makes them complicit in the war crimes and mass ethnic cleansing being carried out in Gaza and increased killings on the West Bank. It is also completely in line with the longstanding position that Israel is the US’s key ally in the region which must be backed at all costs. 

But that support has limits. The US does not want a regional war breaking out with Iran and its allied forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon, which back Hamas. This would have massive and hard to predict consequences. 

The situation in the Middle East today also cannot be separated from the New Cold War between US imperialism and Chinese imperialism for global economic and military hegemony. 

The US is using the war to reassert its dominant “security” role in the region, as guarantor not just for the Israeli regime but for a whole series of Arab dictatorships. This is at the same time as the IDF’s brutal campaign undermines the positions of those regimes as mass opposition breaks out on the streets from Jordan to Morocco. 

The reassertion of US power is indirectly pushing back against the increased Chinese role in the Middle East in the past period, through its Belt and Road investment program and increasing diplomatic efforts. But at the very same time that the US is asserting itself, its underlying strength is also waning. 

Growing Attacks On US Forces

US imperialism and the Iranian regime both want to use the crisis in Gaza to undermine the influence of the other. Neither side wants an all-out regional war across the Middle East, but the possibility is baked into the logic of the situation. The day after the IDF’s invasion of Gaza, Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon was skirmishing on Israel’s northern border, risking a repeat of the brutal 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon or possibly worse.

Besides the carnage in Gaza, at least 250 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank as right-wing settlers, backed by the IDF, have been using the war in Gaza as a cover to increase attacks including theft of land. This risks opening up another major front in the war, which would among other things lead to massive upheaval in Jordan. 6,000 people protested the Jordanian government’s lack of response in mid-October. 500 protesters tried to march from Jordan into the West Bank, risking an escalation. Jordanian police violently dispersed them before they reached Israeli checkpoints. The Jordanian monarchy is a key ally of US imperialism, and the US maintains and defends its airbases in return for access.

US imperialism can’t maintain its position without risking getting directly involved. A week into the conflict, militias under Iranian control began attacking US troops in Iraq and Syria. Biden also deployed two US aircraft carriers and 2,000 marines as a deterrence to Iran and its allies. On October 27th, Biden ordered airstrikes on the bases of two “Iranian-backed militias” in Syria in order to “protect and defend our personnel.”

A month later, the US military claims Iran and its allies have carried out 151 attacks against US troops. In one case, a drone ladened with explosives launched by an “Iranian-backed militia” crashed through the upper window of a US military barracks, but failed to detonate. Dozens of American troops could have been killed, guaranteeing some kind of escalation. A US defense official said “[Iran is] aiming to kill. We have just been lucky.”

At a press conference on November 15, a bipartisan group of US senators told reporters that the “US is lucky that no Americans have died from the attacks”, implying Biden isn’t doing enough to protect US military personnel. They introduced a resolution urging Biden to keep “all options on the table” to deal with Iran.

When asked how the US should respond, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pointed towards war with Iran, saying if the attacks continue, the “right response militarily would be in my view to hit the [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] training bases and infrastructure inside of Iran.” While Graham is a particularly rabid warmonger, this position would spread rapidly in the political establishment if there was a successful attack by Iranian proxies.

Crisis For Biden

With his approval ratings already at new lows over his handling of the situation in the Middle East, Biden does not need a public debate about whether he is committed to protecting US soldiers. All Republican primary candidates have blamed Biden for emboldening Iran by being too soft. Last month, Trump said “[Iran] didn’t have that level of aggression with me… This would have never happened with me.”

Biden wants to maintain focus on reining in China, not an escalating war with Iran and its proxy militias throughout the region. Biden knows a war with Iran would be deeply unpopular. In 2019, only 18% of Americans, including only 25% of Republicans, supported military action to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons, though this could change for a period if US troops are killed and a propaganda campaign were waged to support Israel by attacking Iran.

However, polls currently show Trump beating Biden in 2024. Only 14% of Americans believe Biden’s policies have made them better off. Biden’s weak political position can increase the pressure to “act decisively” against Iran in the next period depending on developments.

The Iranian government has its own crises. Just over a year ago the regime was rocked by mass protests and strikes that were sparked by the murder of Jina (Masa) Amini, but developed into a much deeper critique of Iran’s capitalist, anti-worker, reactionary regime, linked to struggles by workers and oppressed nationalities. Any opportunity to whip up anti-American sentiment would be welcomed by the regime.

This does not mean the Iranian regime wants an all-out military confrontation with US imperialism. They would prefer to use their nuclear ambitions as a bargaining chip to lift the sanctions that have scared off Western investors, and crippled the economy. Furthermore, US imperialism has surrounded Iran, and while not capable of invading and occupying Iran, dramatically outguns the Iranian military.

However, the Iranian military could cause lots of problems for US imperialism. Even a threat of missiles or mines could shut down the Straits of Hormuz, where Iran controls one side of this 30-mile-wide bottleneck at the end of the Persian Gulf through which one-fifth of the world’s oil production moves on tankers. Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen have also carried out drone attacks against “vital” Saudi Arabian oil facilities, recently seized a cargo ship in the Red Sea, and allegedly attacked an Israeli-owned ship in the Indian Ocean.

Analysts predict a wider escalation of the war along these lines could raise oil prices to $150 a barrel (almost twice as much as today’s prices). This would guarantee a new global economic downturn, with political implications all around the world. European warmongers would face renewed complications in justifying their support for the ongoing bloodbath in Ukraine, China would more firmly solidify its energy ties (and political ties) with Putin, and Biden would face even more challenges heading into a difficult election against Trump next year. 

These effects would become causes of new problems, and highlight why the massacre currently taking place in Gaza is intricately tied to the inter-imperialist rivalries that increasingly shape world politics and capitalism’s Age of Disorder. While these developments are increasingly the source of nightmares for capitalists, they are already creating a living hell for working-class people in many countries – nowhere more so than in the streets of Gaza and the trenches in Eastern Ukraine.

Overextension

The US is now also in danger of overextending itself in the New Cold War with significant commitments in Ukraine, the Middle East, and East Asia.

The chaotic and humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 was meant to free up US imperialism to complete its long-planned “pivot” to East Asia, including a massive military buildup in the Western Pacific. This buildup is indeed well underway.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was seen by the Biden administration as a major opportunity to consolidate its bloc, first and foremost by strengthening NATO. While certainly seeking to militarily degrade China’s main ally Russia, the other message of NATO’s massive support for Ukraine was meant for China itself, to demonstrate the consequences of any attempt to invade Taiwan.

But now, by the admission of Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the conflict is locked in a bloody stalemate. Reports in the Western media point to the military advantage actually beginning to shift to Russia in the coming months. On top of this there is increasing opposition within the Republican Party in the House of Representatives to sending more military aid to Kyiv. This wing is following Trump’s line that the Ukraine war is a waste of time and a distraction from the conflict with China itself.

Thus the escalating crisis in the Middle East comes at a very delicate point for the US and the Biden administration. And it was also unexpected. Literally a week before the October 7 Hamas attack on Southern Israel, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”

Compounding the other problems is that already low support for US imperialism globally, but especially in the neocolonial world, has taken another massive hit. The American media already admitted that it was losing the global battle for “hearts and minds” over the war in Ukraine. But the fulsome backing of the IDF’s brutal invasion of the Gaza Strip removes any remaining credibility to US claims that it is standing up for small nations and their right of self determination against the aggression of “dictators.” Of course the only thing US imperialism truly “stands for” is its “right” to dominate the world economy. And this domination is clearly waning.

Backing the Israeli military to the hilt is a bipartisan position in Congress, despite some limited dissent in the Democratic Party. But this is only making the wider situation more acute. Biden is seeking to tie military aid to Israel to further military aid for Ukraine. But this is far from a done deal. 

Now questions are being asked by the US’s Asian allies about whether the US is going to be bogged down in the Middle East for an extended period. Is this like the post-9/11 period where the US was “pulled back in” to the Middle East? Does the US have the capacity to fulfill all its commitments?

A recent New York Times article entitled “Is America Stretched Too Thin to Stay Ahead of China” (11/10/23) said that while US allies in East and South Asia had varying views about the conflict in Israel/Palestine:

“…what these countries all share are questions about how Washington’s entanglement with another distant war, on top of Ukraine, will be weighed against the needs of the Indo-Pacific. Many are asking: How many pledges of support to how many nations can the United States – a power stretched thin abroad and politically divided at home – actually handle?”

They go on to point to the specific problem of armaments and “military aid,” a central part of US imperialism’s “hard power”: “The defense industry in the United States has struggled with shortages of ammunition being provided to both Ukraine and Israel, including 155-millimeter artillery shells. guided munitions and more complex American systems are also being funneled to both conflicts, even as American partners in the Indo-Pacific wait for weapons deliveries of their own.”

A Radically Changed Situation

The situation today, however, is not at all the same as 2001. The US is locked in a global competition with China. Ukraine, the Middle East and the “Indo-Pacific” are all fronts in this conflict. In the Middle East, China has sought to build its economic and diplomatic influence in the region. Iran is clearly part of its bloc. The Chinese helped reestablish relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals, a diplomatic coup that helped to reduce Iran’s isolation. The US has pushed back on the Belt and Road economic partnerships by announcing a commitment to infrastructure investment in the wider region at the recent G20 meeting. 

The Israel/Palestine war has allowed the US to reassert its regional role in a very heavy handed way, moving two aircraft carrier groups to the Eastern Mediterranean as well as two thousand Marines. China has been reduced mostly to a spectator but it is certainly gaining indirectly from the collapse of US imperialism’s ideological “democracy vs autocracy” campaign and Beijing’s propaganda as a “peace maker”.

But in the end it is the situation in the Western Pacific that is most critical. The US will not lose sight of this but can indeed become bogged down and overstretched as it is arguably right now. The advantage in this conflict can shift as it has several times before. Both sides have serious problems with China, in particular, facing a profound economic crisis. But problems are also accumulating for US imperialism.

It can be argued that it is not in the “rational interests” of the US and Israel or Iran and China to see the war in the Middle East widen, and that would be true. But outcomes in a world dominated by conflicting imperialist interests are often far from rational. The only force that can end the madness that is fueling wars and global conflict is the international working class, because it has the power to end capitalism which is the root of modern imperialism. The international mass movement against the assault on Gaza is a very positive step and is already having effects. Socialist Alternative (part of International Socialist Alternative) has a consistent opposition to all imperialism. Join us in the fight for a socialist future!

MORE LIKE THIS

What Next For Gaza Solidarity Movement?

The radical campus protest movement against the Israeli state’s genocidal war on the people of Gaza has spread like wildfire from the original encampment...

Hands Off Rafah!

On the evening of Monday May 6, Palestinians taking shelter in the small city of Rafah in southern Gaza reported the encroachment of Israeli...

ON THE GROUND: Boston Gaza Solidarity Encampments

In the past few weeks, college students across the country have set up encampments at more than 50 universities in solidarity with the Palestinian...

NYPD Brutally Cracks Down On Gaza Solidarity Encampments

On Tuesday night, members of the New York City branch of Socialist Alternative hit the streets as campus police and the NYPD appeared by...