The start of a new World War? (Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)

November 10, 2023   8 mins

Less than a month ago, President Biden was asked on camera if the United States could simultaneously bring conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East to a palatable conclusion. “We’re the United States of America, for God’s sake,” he responded, “the most powerful nation in the history of the world.” A few weeks later, facing domestic pressure to order Israel to cease its bloody bombing campaign against Gaza, Biden administration officials instead proclaimed their total powerlessness to influence its ally. Similarly, Biden’s early proclamations that America would support Ukraine “for as long as it takes” have run into the brick wall of American political dysfunction: as long as it takes, it transpires, in practice means just under two years.

Different wars with different causes, both Gaza and Ukraine reveal, in their own unique ways, the limitations of American imperial power. Neither would have been launched by either Russia or by Hamas — perhaps with Iran behind it — without the confidence that America’s ability to defend the world it created in its own image was radically weakened. The Pax Americana is already dead: the world is now suffering more wars than at any time since 1945. Worse, a vast gap has opened up between America’s stated commitments to its allies, and its ability to enforce its will: entire nations could be swallowed in the gulf between rhetoric and reality.

To remedy this, we must first cast off the illusions that led us here. In all this recent horror, it has been a salutary experience observing the contrast in reactions summoned up by the punitive air campaigns carried out by America’s geopolitical foes, such as Syria and Russia, and those carried out with America’s military and diplomatic support by its ally Israel. Pundits who rightly condemned Assad’s reckless bombing of hospitals, schools, bakeries and civilian homes now urge us to consider the painful necessity for Israel to bomb the same civilian targets in Gaza. Equally, many of those now loudly outraged by Israel’s air campaign previously welcomed Assad and Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of what they called terrorists in Syria. Objectively, it is difficult to see any significant moral difference between the two campaigns, between their rival sets of supporters, or between the rival great powers enabling them.

Indeed, in just one month, Israel’s air strikes against Gaza, the heaviest bombing campaign since the Second World War, have caused between a quarter and half the deaths of the entire four-year long bloody siege of the similarly-sized city of Aleppo. But it is misguided to view any of this as a failing of the American-led liberal order: it is the American-led liberal order, working as it was always intended to work. Morality is only cited to punish America’s enemies: when it’s America’s allies whose actions disgust the world, nuances and diplomatic cover can always be found.

Yet for all the political damage it has caused the US, it is doubtful whether Biden’s delicate dance — shielding Israel from international condemnation while washing his hands of the bloody results — is even in Israel’s best interests. A month ago, the sheer unbridled bloodlust displayed in the atrocities carried out by Hamas won Israel a degree of international sympathy unseen in decades. It would have taken political dysfunction of the gravest and most reckless kind to have squandered this sympathy, and incredibly, Israel’s government has managed to do so in just a few weeks. Every day, every smartphone in the world brings forth new horrors from Gaza: whole families extinguished, dead children pulled from the ruins of their homes, entire districts reduced to rubble in an instant. Even those supportive of Israel’s campaign to root out Hamas have been horrified by the methods chosen to do so. By inviting such carnage against the Palestinian people, eroding Israel’s legitimacy, Hamas have already won a dark and twisted victory.

Just last week, following the mass killing of civilians in Jabalia refugee camp in an Israeli attempt to strike one Hamas commander, Biden sent his Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Jerusalem to warn the Israeli government that it must take far greater care to avoid civilian harm, telling the cameras in anguished tones: “I’ve seen images of Palestinian children pulled from wreckage of buildings. When I look into their eyes through the TV screen, I see my own children. How can we not?” But on the same day, just as Blinken girded himself to shore up Arab support for America’s position, Israel bombed ambulances at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital, killing even more civilians and stoking even more outrage. America can neither deter direct attacks on its closest ally, nor rein in Israel’s excessive response: the greatest power on Earth is a helpless spectator to events directly impacting its own standing.

Before Gaza City has even fallen, then, the war against Hamas has become a diplomatic disaster of the greatest magnitude for both Israel and the United States. Biden has hitched his political survival and America’s global reputation to an Israeli government wildly unpopular in Israel itself, whose leader Netanyahu is blamed for redistributing military resources towards the illegal settlements of the West Bank, enabling the Hamas incursion. Netanyahu seemingly has no strategy other than remaining in power and out of jail for as long as possible, whatever the consequences for his country or the wider region. There is no plan for what to do with Gaza or its people once Hamas is defeated, and no belief that the US can use the tragedy to finally resolve the conflict. America’s aim of reordering the Middle East into a peaceful equilibrium favourable for Israel and united against Iran is now in tatters. Arab states, long subjected to moral pressure to take the West’s side on Ukraine, can rightfully point to America’s hypocrisy when lecturing on human rights and the need to protect civilians. In Gaza, America’s dwindling moral case for imperial hegemony was finally buried beneath the rubble.

At home, Biden’s voter base is bitterly divided: the dramatic scenes of the new pro-Palestinian activist base obscure the broader new consensus among a majority of younger voters — the future Democratic base — against continued American support for Israel. This is itself now the greatest single strategic threat to the Jewish state, creating a far more perilous dynamic than Hamas’s brutalities or Hezbollah’s missile armoury. The root cause of this situation is the Israeli hubris caused by decades of seemingly limitless American support, which allowed the Palestine conflict to smoulder unresolved. With Israel confident that America’s backing was eternal, and America confident that its power could always shield Israel from external threats, the two countries found themselves locked in a dysfunctional embrace. Israel is now dependent on American support as never before, while American support for Israel has never been so domestically contested. Instead of ensuring Israel’s security, decades of American indulgence permitted Netanyahu to lead the country towards disaster.

Soon, according to US officials, international and domestic pressure will force Biden to insist upon a ceasefire. Yet any Israeli halting of hostilities before the total destruction of Hamas will be perceived worldwide as a Hamas victory, and a defeat for both Israel and the United States. A more astute American president — indeed, a truer friend of Israel — would have constrained Netanyahu’s response from the start, pushing the Jewish state to accept higher military casualties as the price of assuaging world opinion. But the current situation, in which America assumes the blame for the civilian casualties of Netanyahu’s punitive campaign while unconvincingly wringing its hands over the bloodshed, was the worst of all responses.

As Gaza holds the world’s attention, Ukraine’s leadership is struggling to maintain focus on its own existential conflict. But in its own distinct way, the Ukraine war is another tragic example of the widening gulf between America’s imperial commitments and its dwindling capabilities. On the very first day of the invasion, Russia began the war as a far richer, stronger and more powerful country than Ukraine, and nearly two years later, for all its battlefield reversals since then, that basic equation has not changed. Again, the gap between what Biden promised and what he could deliver has proved fatal. By promising US support of a duration and extent greater than he could deliver, Biden encouraged the Zelenskyy administration to pursue war aims that have now proved beyond Ukraine’s abilities. By allowing Zelenskyy to determine the endpoint of victory, and publicly abstaining from outlining what an acceptable outcome would look like, Biden encouraged Ukrainian planners to broaden their goals from a return to the country’s de facto 2022 borders to a return to its de jure 1991 borders and then improbably onwards to the total defeat and disintegration of the Russian state.

To this end, the combined effort of the United States and Europe turned to arming and training the Ukrainian army for its much-vaunted summer offensive, in the hope of forcing a humbled Putin into peace negotiations. Instead, after months of bloodshed and sacrifice, the Ukrainian army has achieved a tenuous hold on two depopulated hamlets a few kilometres from their starting point. With the Ukrainian offensive stalled, the momentum has now swung back to Russia, incrementally biting into the Ukrainian lines, though with great losses of its own, all across the eastern front. This winter, Ukraine will find itself on the defensive once again. Much of the Ukrainian army’s superiority in morale and technical ability was wasted this summer on the misguided southern offensive and on the fruitless attempts to first hold and then recapture Bakhmut, and the country will find itself entering 2024 in a far worse position than it began 2023.

Within the Ukrainian leadership, the recriminations have already begun. Ukraine’s top general, Zaluzhny, has described the war as a stalemate, and been condemned for his frankness by Zelenskyy’s staff. Ukraine’s fairweather friends in the West, the grifter pundits who talked up every defeat as a victory, helping Western publics view the war as already practically won and Russia’s still untested industrial and military capabilities worthy only of mockery, are now rightfully the target of Ukrainian ire. Outright Ukrainian victory was not impossible, but the work of reordering Western industry necessary to achieve it simply was not done. As US officials leak that Zelenskyy will soon have to face reality and come to the negotiating table, and sources close to Zelenskyy — including his former strategic advisor, Oleksiy Arestovych, now planning a presidential run of his own — brief against him in dramatic terms, Ukrainians will have every right to believe that the initial false promises of unlimited American support given by Biden were, in the end, worse for the country than clearly defined but sustainable support would have been at the beginning of the war.

In both cases, the gap between the Biden administration’s public professions of unlimited support and its private reservations have led its allies into perilous positions. American leaders are given to claiming that their country is not just a state, but an idea: but that idea is increasingly untethered from objective reality. American political turbulence has made even medium-term strategic planning impossible to pursue: allies whose defence relies on American support should observe this worsening trend with alarm.

For countries such as Britain, helpless chicks under America’s wing, the primary lesson is that we should either increase our ability to defend ourselves alone, or limit our self-insertion into the affairs of stronger rival states. For countries such as Israel or Ukraine, fated by geography to exist at the sabre’s edge, the approach of wisdom will be more painful. Israel has no choice but to destroy Hamas, and Ukraine no option but to continue defending itself: if peace talks with Russia were ever viable, there is no reason for Moscow to pursue them now. In both cases, the likelihood is that the wars will grind on to grim and morally unsatisfactory conclusions. In each case, given the constraints on American political will and capability, perhaps a frozen conflict with the ever-present risk of escalation is the best that can now  be achieved.

There is no anti-imperialist glee to be found in the situation we are in. For all its faults, the world that follows American hegemony will hardly be more peaceful or humane than that we have come to know: if anything, the withering of America’s reach is already shaping up to be bloodier than the fall of the Soviet Union. Faced with such a prospect, the task that remains is to help America manage its own decline in as painless a way possible, preventing the conflicts nibbling at the edge of its empire from coalescing into a single war that will consume us all.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.