Joe Biden’s two-front war
Economically more and more debt, diplomatically more and more enemies, militarily more and more wars. Daniel Lazare sees imperial overload
Imperial overstretch - the phrase that historian Paul Kennedy made famous in his 1987 bestseller, The rise and fall of the great powers - can be understood in various ways.
Militarily, it is the moment when an empire finds itself fighting more wars in far-flung places than it can handle. Economically, it is when military costs outweigh financial resources, forcing the empire to borrow ever more heavily (the case with 17th century Spain) or squeeze the poor back home. Intellectually, it is when stale ideas lag farther and farther behind modern events. Instead of thinking through problems afresh, political leaders fall back on tired old clichés - that they think will get them out of trouble, but only plunge them in deeper.
Joe Biden’s October 19 address on the Israel-Hamas conflict is a case in point. Televised from the Oval Office, it was an attempt to drum up support for what is now a two-front imperial war - one in Ukraine and the other in the Middle East. A string of platitudes from beginning to end, it described the Hamas October 7 attack as “pure, unadulterated evil” and vowed to back Israel to the hilt, while at the same time promising self-determination for the Palestinians. It put Vladimir Putin in the same ‘evil-doer’ category as Hamas, declaring that, while they “represent different threats”, both share one thing in common - “they both want to completely annihilate a neighbouring democracy - completely annihilate it”.
“You know,” Biden went on, “history has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror ... they cause more chaos and death and more destruction” - a statement that many people in the Middle East believe holds equally true for a US war machine that has yet to pay a price for spreading anarchy from one end of the region to the other. As if two wars were not enough, Biden also used his speech to engage in sabre-rattling vis-à-vis Russia and Iran. If Putin attacks Nato itself, he warned, “we will defend every inch” (Putin has given no such indication, of course). Iran, he added, will be held “accountable” for supporting Russia, Hamas “and other terrorist groups in the region” - a reference, presumably, to Hezbollah.
Does that mean that more war is on the way? If so, Biden’s message to Americans was ‘Sit back and relax’, because there is nothing the US cannot handle:
We are, as my friend Madeleine Albright said, the indispensable nation ... In moments like these, we have to ... remember who we are. We are the United States of America - the United States of America. And there is nothing, nothing, beyond our capacity if we do it together.1
American imperial power is thus as infinite and inexhaustible as Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, etc imperial powers were in their own day too.
All of this might have been more convincing if America’s vital signs were not otherwise pointing down. Government is in such disarray that the US lacks a functional legislature due to Republican infighting in the House of Representatives. The country’s top presidential contender is facing four criminal trials and one civil trial and could well end up in jail if he continues violating judicial gag orders not to attack what is in fact a full-court Democratic legal offensive.
A drug epidemic is claiming more than 100,000 lives a year, homelessness is exploding and housing costs are mounting, with nearly a third of New York City tenants paying more than half their income in rent.2 With the federal deficit doubling to $2 trillion over the last 12 months, the cost of servicing the $33.6 trillion federal debt has risen to $910 billion per year - half of what the US spends on the military.3
Yet the $105 billion that Biden requested last week in emergency military aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan will add still more debt on the pile. It is not as if the White House has to borrow: after all, it can always raise taxes instead. But it will not, because Republicans would veto a tax hike in the House, and because the administration is afraid an increase will tank the economy.
But there is another reason the White House will not raise taxes: because Biden is afraid of the response. Americans are tired of war after 20-plus years of non-stop fighting since 9/11. But they will be even more tired if they have to pay the bill up front, rather than putting off the cost of America’s growing military adventures to some later date. The effect will drive them straight into the arms of Donald Trump, who is now up by six points against Biden and the independent, Robert F Kennedy Jr.4
Since a second Trump administration is something the political establishment is desperate to avoid, its only choice is to pump up the deficit even more and then stand by and watch, as interest-rate payments (currently about 15% of expenditure) eat up a growing share of the federal pie.
This is what imperial overstretch looks like: more wars, more debt and more mindless odes to American greatness. Axios.com described the Hamas assault and its aftermath as “the heaviest, most chilling week since president Biden took office just over 1,000 days ago”. In addition to the war, it said that administration strategists are weighed down by other woes, such as Vladimir Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s meeting in Beijing last week to strengthen their joint anti-US alliance, growing tensions with Iran and North Korea, plus “a massive spread of doctored or wholly fake videos to manipulate what people see and think in real time” - in other words, a supposed avalanche of disinformation that is leading to stepped-up calls to censor the internet.
Bob Gates, secretary of defence under both George W Bush and Barack Obama, called it the greatest case of system overload since World War II:
There’s this gigantic funnel that sits over the table in the [White House] Situation Room. And all the problems in the world end up coming through that funnel to the same eight or 10 people. There’s a limit to the bandwidth those eight or 10 people can have.
As a neocon who championed US intervention in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Biden is as responsible as anyone for the debacle - particularly since his confrontational policies vis-à-vis Russia and China helped usher in a new round of violence beginning in February 2022. His vow last week not to give up on a two-state solution, because “Israel and Palestinians equally deserve to live in safety, dignity and peace”, was especially laughable, since his entire Mideast strategy has been predicated on burying the Palestinian problem so as to promote an Israeli-Saudi alliance against China and Iran.
It is this effort - part of the so-called Abraham Accords - that is now blowing up in Biden’s face like an exploding cigar. What have the Palestinians got after 30 years of the Oslo ‘peace process’? The answer is less than zero. Self-government in the West Bank is a joke. Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints limit movement at every turn, while Palestinian construction is virtually prohibited in the 60% of the territory (known as Area C) under direct Israeli control. Not only have Jewish settlements expanded, but radical nationalists have established 100 wildcat outposts that, while technically illegal, are government-subsidised regardless - outposts that the settlers then use to brutalise and harass their Palestinian neighbours with absolute impunity.
Gaza has meanwhile been under a state of siege since Hamas took control in 2006. Thanks to the Israeli blockade, nearly 80% of its 2.4 million inhabitants depend on international humanitarian aid for survival, with 60% suffering from food insecurity. Unemployment is more than 40% overall and more than 60% for young adults. Although the Oslo Accords supposedly allow fishing up to 20 nautical miles off the Gaza coast, Israel has never allowed more than 12 in its determination to squeeze the strip dry and sometimes limits it to just three.5
And then there is Hamas - the Israeli doppelganger, whose far-right clerico-fascist politics mirror Zionism as much as opposing it. By killing more than a thousand Israeli civilians and taking more than 200 hostage, Hamas’s savage October 7 assault played straight into Netanyahu’s hands by providing him with the excuse he needed to pound Gaza City with hundreds of electronically guided bunker-buster bombs, reducing it to dust and rubble. With more than 5,000 people dead - nearly half of them children, according to Al Jazeera - the result is the greatest disaster for the Palestinians since the Six-Day War in 1967 or maybe even the original Nakba in 1948. And all this before Israeli troops enter Gaza itself and engage in a rubble war with Hamas survivors that will inevitably summon up memories of the basement fighting that marked the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April‑May 1943.
But Hamas is nothing if not consistent. Its long-term goal has been to turn the Palestinian people into martyrs, so that “masses everywhere in the Islamic world will come forward in response to the call of duty, while loudly proclaiming: hail to jihad”, to quote its 1988 charter.6 But, with two US aircraft-carrier groups standing guard off the Israeli coast to prevent Hezbollah from intervening in the north, the strategy is a flop. After decades of US intervention, the Middle East is too weak to respond in a way that Hamas would like. Lebanon is bankrupt, Syria is exhausted after years of US and Saudi-sponsored civil war, Iraq is an American satrapy, Jordan is an unstable monarchy, while Egypt is ruled by a military dictatorship, whose sole raison d’être is to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out. Libya is broken beyond repair while Saudi Arabia and the other oil monarchies give new meaning to the word, ‘corruption’. Obtaining help from those quarters is like getting water from a stone: ie, unlikely in the extreme.
But Israeli strategy has also flopped. Since the 1970s, the Zionist goal has been to channel funds to Islamist forces in order to create a conservative counterweight to the radical secularists of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. In a recent letter to the editor, David K Shipler, an ex-New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem, said he was told back in 1981 by brigadier general Yitzhak Segev, the former military governor of Gaza, that the aim was “to tilt power away from both communist and Palestinian nationalist movements in Gaza, which Israel considered more threatening than the fundamentalists”. Netanyahu expanded on the theme, when he told the Likud Party’s Knesset members in March 2019:
Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy - to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.7
But bottling up Hamas has caused it to explode. Biden’s ‘America is back’ strategy of renewed confrontation and aggression is doing the same and may lead to other explosions as well - in the western Pacific most likely, but also possibly in the Persian Gulf. But this is what imperialism leads to when it enters its death throes - more war, more nihilism and then greater and greater collapse. Nationalism has never been more of a trap in Israel, Palestine, or the United States as well.
As distant as it may seem, a socialist workers’ federation has never been needed more.