America in West Asia again is return of folly - Hindustan Times
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America in West Asia again is return of folly

Feb 06, 2024 10:11 PM IST

The moral argument that Israel’s right to self-defence should be supported lies crushed under the weight of Israel’s response to the attacks of October 7.

It came back into West Asia to support Israel’s war on Hamas. But the United States (US) has become entangled in a regional conflict involving a spread of Iran-backed militant forces that are more resolute and better placed than before in resisting the West and its regional allies.

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Yunis.(AFP) PREMIUM
A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Yunis.(AFP)

The US and Iran have been exchanging indirect fire for weeks, probing here, escalating there. But neither party is seeking a regional war. However, the US has begun retaliating through airstrikes against Iranian assets in Syria and Iraq in response to casualties it suffered in Jordan. This action comes against the backdrop of an ongoing exchange of fire with the Houthis in Yemen and the Red Sea. And more is likely to follow. America’s deepening military involvement in the region raises fears of a pattern from the recent past repeating itself: Needless American intervention in West Asian affairs that bodes ill for itself and the region, and that keeps the US distracted from more important geopolitical challenges.

Many interpreted America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 as a defeat of US imperialism and a sign of its declining power and influence in international affairs. In reality, however, the decision to withdraw marked a major course correction in American foreign policy. Twenty years of conflictual involvement in the heart of the Muslim world had yielded only partial success. American territory was made secure against (largely Sunni) Islamist terrorism, and the regional base from which it emanated was severely degraded as Al Qaeda ceased to be the lethal force it was on September 11, 2001.

But the other goal of promoting liberal democracy in the region was a disaster. The swift collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late-2001 misled the Bush administration into believing that a democratic State could be built from scratch in Afghanistan and elsewhere too. The belief was reinforced when the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq collapsed within weeks of the invasion in 2003. The Iraqi State was dismantled but the decision turned out to be catastrophic for the Iraqis in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, property, social goods and cultural heritage. Worse, it gave rise to the Islamic State, which has been degraded but not eliminated. Meanwhile, the Taliban began to find their way back to Kabul.

But the greatest blowback of the intervention was the dramatic spread of Iranian influence across the arc that covers Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with a prong into Yemen finishing the shape. Across this geography, a multitude of violent forces, some quasi-State in character, are now resisting the return of American intervention.

And why has the US returned to a region that it was wise to get out of? In the past, it was right to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it was unwise to attempt the political transformation of culturally alien societies through military means. Likewise, it was fair for the US to support Israel’s war on Hamas but it is foolish in the extreme to shield Israel as it destroys Gaza and attempts ethnic cleansing and as its words and deeds cause international legal opinion to argue that genocide is “plausible”.

This absolute support of Israel makes little rational sense if we assume that States use their foreign policy to do what is in their own interest. It is threatening American soldiers and assets in the region while sowing the seeds of long-term resentment against itself and its western allies. It is also fracturing America’s domestic landscape where polls suggest that young and progressive Americans across the colour spectrum increasingly view the Palestinian perspective with sympathy.

The moral argument that Israel’s right to self-defence should be supported lies crushed under the weight of Israel’s grossly disproportionate response to the attacks of October 7.

But the deeper moral commitment to Israel as a State of the people who experienced genocide is also strained because the Israeli State’s conduct towards the Palestinians breaches practically every code of decency and morality. It is reasonable to ask if a State that practices the very things — occupation and besiegement, discriminatory governance, eviction and violence against settled populations, using dehumanising language against another national community — that makes genocide possible remains entitled to the moral status that it once enjoyed as the State of those who suffered and survived genocide. In this moral sense, Israel has become a legacy issue for American — and western — foreign policy.

America’s absolute support for Israel is strategically unwise and morally untenable. Worse, that support now threatens to pull the US into a swamp from which it may take years to get out. The military, economic, political and diplomatic resources that this involvement will lock up in the region will directly benefit its key rivals, Russia and China. Russia is already poised advantageously in Ukraine. China would be glad to see the adversary wear thin with no cost to itself. There is still time for the US to stop what Barbara Tuchman, the American historian of international relations, once described as “the march of folly”.

Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi-NCR. The views expressed are personal

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