It seems unlikely that America will make it to this November without being forced into a very public reckoning with a decade of disastrous foreign policy failures. Taken separately, any one of America’s impending losses in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and possibly Asia would be a significant military and diplomatic blow. Three major regional collapses occurring within months of each other would be a geopolitical event akin to the disintegration of the Soviet Union — an empire that appeared immutable until, very suddenly, it was gone.
While it is impossible to predict the military, diplomatic, political and economic consequences of a rapid-fire series of American defeats abroad, the defeats themselves are easy enough to foretell. If the US succeeds in its attempt to halt Israel’s military campaign in Gaza with Hamas still in power, and pivots to international recognition of a Palestinian state, as the US State Department has recently signalled it hopes to do, it would be impossible for either Israelis or their regional enemies to see the October 7 terror attacks, backed by Iran, as anything other than a massive Iranian victory and US-Israeli defeat.
Ukraine appears to be on a similar glide path towards military and diplomatic defeat, made in the US. While Washington has shovelled over $100 billion in military and related aid into Ukraine, it has refused to provide the Ukrainians with the offensive weapons they need to repel Putin’s offensive. As a result, the Ukrainian army has begun to bleed out, while appearing to lack any serious capacity to hit targets of military or political significance inside Russia. Come springtime, it seems likely that Putin will go on the offensive, seize the remainder of the Donbas region, and then use his overwhelming superiority in airpower and missiles to bombard Ukrainian cities until Zelenskyy shows up at the negotiating table. The likely result of such negotiations is Ukraine ceding large chunks of Ukraine to Putin, who will declare victory in the war he started in 2022.
Barring major shifts in tactics on either battlefield, both of the above scenarios, in which Iran and Putin emerge the victors, and recipients of tens of billions of dollars in US military aid and diplomatic support are the losers, seem more likely than not — and no amount of blather will be able to disguise them, especially during the upcoming US election season. Israel’s ties to the Gulf States will evaporate, as their oil-rich kingdoms seek to cut deals with Iran in the hope of protecting themselves from another October 7 on their own soil, while the goal of wiping Israel off the map will seem plausible again to a new generation of poverty-stricken young Arabs in shattered countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt. A similar dynamic will likely take hold in Europe, where Germany and other EU states will be incentivised to cut deals with Putin at the expense of their smaller, weaker Eastern neighbours. In both regions, America will cease to function as the local hegemon.
But the bad news hardly stops there. Seeing major US military allies in Europe and the Middle East defeated, Chinese military planners may spy an excellent opportunity to blockade Taiwan, or even invade the island, and then dare the US to evict them. Having already lost two major proxy wars — and being unlikely to risk direct military confrontation with China in her own backyard — it seems safe to predict that the US would decline to fight.
Taken together, these near-simultaneous defeats would be a setback of an entirely different order from the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, or even the collapse of America’s fantastical nation-building enterprise in Iraq. Yet the most frightening thing about the above scenario is not the fact that each component of the catastrophe seems plausible enough, but that all three of these likely disasters is the product of an Alice-in-Wonderland approach to reality that defines America’s global vision. In each case, the defeats of key American proxies over the next 12 months can be understood as the products of tactical failures rooted in failed US military doctrine, which is in turn grounded in strategic choices and assumptions that have proven to be wildly delusional and yet stubbornly and mystifyingly resistant to change.
Israel’s war in Gaza and Ukraine’s war with Putin’s Russia have a lot in common. Both conflicts are bloody. Both countries are fighting defensive wars against foes who targeted civilians in surprise attacks across internationally recognised borders with the hope of causing the political and social collapse of their enemies. In both cases, the attackers — Hamas and Putin — openly proclaimed their genocidal intent, and then committed large-scale atrocities in the hopes of terrifying their foes into submission. Allowing that strategy to succeed would have horrific consequences for potential conflicts around the globe — of which there are dozens. More concretely, failure in either theatre would threaten major global arteries and US trading partners in the EU and the Gulf States. In other words, both Ukraine and Israel are conflicts in which America’s interest in supporting its allies is crystal-clear.
To his credit, Joe Biden, one of the last true products of Cold War politics still active in American political life, had no problem recognising that both wars were worth fighting. Yet the way that America demanded that each war be fought — expensively, predictably, with a focus on minimising the loss of civilian lives on the side of the aggressors — has been a recipe for its allies to lose. In exchange for accepting US aid, both Ukraine and Israel have found themselves trapped in the distinctly American paradigm of managed conflict, in which the idea of actually winning wars by inflicting maximum pain and destruction on one’s enemy is seen as a relic of barbarism. As a result, the US has somehow managed to give Ukraine the incredible sum of $150 billion in military aid over the past two years, while denying it the real-world weapons systems that it would need to achieve any semblance of battlefield parity with Russia. It is frankly impossible to see how Ukraine is supposed to win the war it continues to fight, which raises the question of why the US is encouraging the Ukrainians to fight on.
The same insistence on fighting an American-style war in exchange for military aid and diplomatic backing has badly hamstrung Israel’s campaign in Gaza. In Mosul, the US and its allies rooted out 3,000 Isis irregulars at the cost of killing more than 10 times that number of civilians while reducing the city to rubble. In Gaza, the Israelis are facing a battle-hardened army of 30-40,000 Hamas troops ensconced in an underground fortress that stretches through 300 miles of tunnels beneath one of the world’s more densely populated urban areas. By accepting the use of American-style tactics to fight a war for its own survival, Israel has managed to bring upon itself the twin disasters of global obloquy and military stalemate. Why suffer both?
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas attack on Israel share something else in common, too, which is their common origins in Barack Obama’s Iran Deal, the greatest US strategic blunder since George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. While Bush’s attempt to re-make Iraq as a democracy in the wake of 9/11 was a gigantic unforced error by the world’s only hyper-power, Obama’s Iran Deal, designed to rectify the expensive failure of Bush’s policy, has arguably proved to be an error of even greater consequence. While Bush’s failure in Iraq was the result of a shallow and overly optimistic understanding of the region he blundered into, it also showed that the US was capable of fielding an enormous army and wreaking havoc on its foes — thereby encouraging those foes to be cautious. By contrast, Obama’s parallel fantasies about reformists in Teheran have emboldened America’s most aggressive enemies, resulting in the global spread of chaos.
What Bush’s botched attempt to remake the Middle East by force and Obama’s failed attempt to re-make the Middle East by courting America’s enemies both share in common is a similar set of delusions about the nature and uses of American power that in both cases were widely shared across the political spectrum in Washington. As insane as it now seems, Bush’s belief that Iraqis would embrace democracy if only they were freed from the tyrannical yoke of Saddam Hussein was more or less an article of faith across Washington, with liberals and conservatives both pointing to the experience of Eastern Europe after the Cold War.
I once had the opportunity to directly question that analogy in an interview with one of Bush’s closest advisors, Condoleezza Rice, during which I pointed out that countries like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia had been functioning democracies before Nazi and Soviet armies occupied them. In response, she asked me if I thought that people in Muslim countries were inherently different from Europeans. To suggest that the histories and cultures of Iraq and Gaza might lead people in those places to react differently to attempts to create or impose Western-style democracy, Rice implied, was a form of racism. As intended, our conversation ended there. However, following the loss of a trillion dollars and perhaps 300,000 dead Iraqis, and the conquest of Gaza by Hamas, it has turned out that Rice was wrong: Like Czechs and Poles, Iraqis and Gazans are also the products of their own histories and cultures, which apparently resist one-size-fits-all solutions.
Obama’s arrogance proved to be of a very similar academic-imperial type, inflected by technocratic-leftist apologias for America’s past sins rather than triumphalist neoconservative blather. On the surface, though, the Middle East policies of Bush and Obama seemed nearly opposite, Where Bush fought a massively expensive and destructive war, Obama promised peace. Where Bush imagined reshaping the Middle East in America’s image, Obama talked about eschewing militaristic adventurism while allowing the peoples of the region to realise their own destinies. What both visions shared, however, were their origins in a vision of geopolitics in which other people in faraway lands have no choice but to enact their assigned roles in the fantasy-play of Washingtonians, and in which America’s superior economic and military power allow it to bend reality to its will.
Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Iran was ostensibly centered around an arms control agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), colloquially known as the Iran Deal. For all the technical talk about centrifuges and uranium enrichment rates, though, the agreement was less about arms control in any conventional sense. Rather, it was a device to take Iran’s nuclear programme off the table so that Tehran could be cajoled into becoming an American client, thereby defusing regional tensions and helping to prevent the US from being drawn into future Middle Eastern wars.
The JCPOA therefore did little to halt Iran’s progress towards testing, manufacturing and deploying nuclear weapons. Instead, it put the nation’s nuclear programme under US protection, in exchange for the Iranians agreeing to adhere to a set of sunset clauses that would allow it to build up its capacity to manufacture and test a bomb once Obama was safely out of office. In addition to offering the Iranians a more secure pathway to a bomb than the one that they were pursuing, Obama also promised Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that the US would guarantee Iran’s “equities” in the region — meaning that Iranian assets like the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon would be placed under US protection.
Behind this rather generous package of geostrategic chips was a grand plan that Obama described as “balancing”, which, under the term “regional integration”, became formalised as official policy in the Biden White House. According to this vision, the US would no longer simply side with traditional allies in the Middle East such as Israel, the Gulf States, Turkey and Egypt, each of whom had in different ways displeased or disappointed the US President. Nor would the US see Iran as an enemy. By seeking to “balance” its one-time allies against its one-time enemies, America would thereby avoid getting sucked into regional wars, while continuing in its role as the regional powerbroker.
Obama’s idea of a US-brokered regional “balance” was indeed a novel approach to maintaining security in the region. That’s because a strategy premised on punishing your friends while strengthening your enemies would strike any sane strategist as insanity. The inevitable result of forcing allies and enemies to constantly compete for imperial favour is greater chaos, leading to endless regional warfare. Which is exactly what happened.
The unravelling of the Middle East under Obama began from pretty much the moment that he started his “balancing” act. First came the “Arab Spring”, where Obama backed the Muslim Brotherhood against US-allied governments in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. When the resulting Muslim Brotherhood governments failed to keep their hold on power, Obama switched sides a second time and turned to Iran. As part of his courtship, Obama kept his promise to recognise Iran’s “equities” in Syria by breaking his own “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed government — effectively abandoning the Syrian rebels to a horrific large-scale slaughter whose scale was between 25 and 50 times larger than the current death toll in Gaza.
It was in Syria that the flaw in Obama’s strategy of appointing Iran as the new US-backed local hegemon became apparent. Namely, that the Iranians weren’t actually strong enough to fulfil the role that the Americans had assigned them. While capable of destroying weak states like Lebanon and Iraq by providing training and arms to sectarian Shiite militias, Tehran was too weak to project decisive force in Sunni-majority regions. When Assad proved unable to crush the rebellion in Syria, even with substantial help from Iran and foot soldiers from Hezbollah, Obama opened the door for Russia to intervene in the Syrian war under the guise of monitoring the disposal of Assad’s chemical weapons, in order to prop up the bet he had made on what now appeared to be the losing side.
Putin’s willingness to help Obama out of a jam came at a price. In addition to achieving Russia’s long-time goal of a port on the Mediterranean, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine — an open violation of international borders that Obama let pass. Not content with gobbling up Crimea, Putin then seized a large portion of the Donbas region, setting the stage for his future invasion. Again, Obama’s response was purely pro forma. All this, for the sake of Iran maintaining its Syrian “equities”, as a precondition for signing the JCPOA and becoming enmeshed in the US-led regional security order.
A decade later, it seems safe to say that the results of Obama’s grand strategy of “balancing” have been predictably dismal for both the Middle East and for Europe. It is no wonder that Biden has attempted to change course by backing Israel and Ukraine in their defensive wars against the regional bullies that Obama unleashed. Yet Biden’s half-measures in each case have manacled US allies with failed Bush-era counter-insurgency tactics while at the same time leaving the cornerstone of Obama’s grand strategy — the Iran Deal — untouched.
The beneficiary of the topsy-turvy incentive structure that Obama created has turned out to be the world’s worst actors: Vladimir Putin, and an Iranian-led alliance structure that includes Qatar, Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas. The idea that the US will bring an end to the Ukraine war by “balancing” Putin’s triumphant Russia against the terrified and militarily impotent states of the EU is similarly a recipe for more chaos and destruction.
In theory, a new American President could reverse Obama’s mistakes by executive fiat, which is more or less what Donald Trump did when he took office in 2017. After all, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia were all notably more peaceful, more stable and more prosperous during Trump’s presidency than under Obama or Biden. Yet the continuing political crisis afflicting the US, which began with Trump’s presidency, suggests that Washington lacks the capacity to see the world clearly, or act effectively. The Democratic Party’s strange allegiance to Obama’s failed notions of “grand strategy” has notably made it impossible for the US to respond to Iranian-backed militias that have halted shipping in the Red Sea and repeatedly injured and killed US servicemen. A second Trump presidency, meanwhile, will plunge America into even greater internal chaos that will likely make the sane conduct of foreign policy — or any other kind of policy — impossible.
But the Israelis and Ukrainians do not have this luxury. Unlike American advisors and soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have no other homes to go back to. At this moment, the only way out of America’s current cul-de-sac is for Israel or Ukraine, and preferably both, to defy American advice and strategic aims — and actually win the wars they are fighting.