Biden Should Not Follow Netanyahu Into War With Iran

The Israeli government appears to want to goad Tehran into a military response to divert attention from the slaughter and famine in Gaza and to trap the U.S. into joining the fight

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Reprinted with permission from Responsible Statecraft.

The U.S. and Israel have been raising the alarm of a possible Iranian retaliatory strike in response to last week’s Israeli attack on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Damascus. The president once again pledged “ironclad” U.S. support for Israel in the event of an Iranian response, and the head of Central Command, Gen. Erik Kurilla, was reportedly headed to Israel Thursday to coordinate with Israeli leaders ahead of the expected strike. The administration is moving in the wrong direction. The U.S. ought to be distancing itself from Israel’s illegal attack, but instead the Biden administration is moving to shield Israel from the consequences of its own actions.

Israeli forces have routinely struck Iranian and other targets in Syria for more than a decade, but the attack on the consulate in Damascus was a major escalation both in terms of the location and the rank of the Iranian officers that were killed. The Israeli government appears to want to goad Iran into a military response to divert attention from the slaughter and famine in Gaza and to trap the U.S. into joining the fight. The president has made it that much easier for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by volunteering to walk into the trap.

The U.S. is at considerable risk of becoming involved in a direct conflict with Iran thanks to the reckless actions of the Netanyahu government and the president’s lockstep support. This does not serve legitimate U.S. security interests. The U.S. cannot afford another conflict in the Middle East, and siding with Israel exposes U.S. forces to significant unnecessary dangers. The U.S. is under no obligation to come to Israel’s defense if Iran retaliates against an Israeli strike, and the president has no authority to commit the U.S. to fight a war for another country, especially when that country is not a treaty ally.

President Biden said this week that the U.S. would do “all we can to protect Israel’s security,” but this knee-jerk response is the wrong one under the circumstances. Why is the U.S. putting itself on the hook to protect a state that is more than capable of fending for itself? It is an unnecessary commitment, and it is unwise. It risks fueling a regional war that the administration has said it wants to avoid, and it rewards Netanyahu for his rogue behavior.

American troops have already come under attack because of our government’s support for the war in Gaza. The administration’s response to the war over the last six months has already been detrimental to U.S. interests and harmful to America’s reputation. This latest commitment to protect Israel while the war in Gaza continues compounds these earlier errors and does even more damage to our country’s global image.

U.S. intelligence has reportedly warned that an Iranian response is “imminent.” It remains unclear exactly what form Iranian retaliation might take, but it seems very unlikely that the Iranian government will choose not to answer a direct attack as brazen as this one was. The response could involve missile launches from Iranian territory, as we saw in the response to the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani in 2020, or it could be some combination of missile and drone attacks from various Iranian proxies. Whatever shape the response takes, the U.S. should steer clear of the ensuing conflict. The U.S. should not lift a finger to assist an Israeli government that went out of its way to provoke this fight.

The war in Gaza has been a wake-up call for the United States that its “ironclad” relationship with Israel is a serious liability for American interests. Jon Hoffman of the Cato Institute recently laid out the case against continuing the “special relationship” with Israel: ”A special relationship with Israel does virtually nothing for the United States while actively undermining U.S. strategic interests and often doing violence to the values that Washington claims to stand for.” Given how little the U.S. benefits from this relationship, the automatic and “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security that Biden endorses makes no sense.

Perhaps there was a time when extensive U.S. support for Israel made some sort of strategic sense, but that time is long gone. Today this support makes the U.S. complicit in Israeli violations of international law, exposes the U.S. to intense regional hostility, and puts U.S. forces at greater risk in exchange for very little. When the Israeli government isn’t actively undermining U.S. diplomacy with other states in the region, it is openly ignoring Washington’s preferences and defying Washington’s requests. The U.S. gets all the headaches and costs that come with foreign entanglement without gaining a reliable, constructive partner.

U.S. officials have often called the relationship with Israel “unshakeable” and several presidents have taken pride in ensuring that there is no “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel in public, and that is why the relationship has become such a bad, dysfunctional one. In practice, preventing any “daylight” between our governments has meant catering to the Israeli government’s preferences at the expense of our own position. The “unshakeable” relationship has remained that way largely because the U.S. keeps indulging its client regardless of the consequences. It isn’t possible to have a balanced, respectful relationship with any country when the other government expects and receives such extraordinary deference. Instead, it creates a toxic relationship in which one government always takes advantage of the other.

Reflexive U.S. backing for Israel has not only enabled the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza and implicated the U.S. in war crimes, but it has also encouraged dangerous Israeli behavior in the wider region for years. Unconditional U.S. support for the war in Gaza has led the Israeli government to believe that it can keep pushing its luck with more provocative actions against other regional states as well. Now the Israeli government is potentially facing some real blowback, and the U.S. should want no part of it.

U.S. and Israeli interests have been diverging for decades, but U.S. policy has failed to keep up. The president remains wedded to a version of the relationship from the previous century with a country that no longer exists. We need to bring U.S. policy up to date and to bring it into line with the current realities of the Middle East, and to do that the U.S. has to give up this idea of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel.

Daniel Larison is a columnist for Responsible Statecraft. He is contributing editor at and former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLarison and at his blog, Eunomia, here.