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Is the U.S. On the Verge of Another Forever War?

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Time is quickly running out to prevent further carnage in Gaza and a region-wide war, the ramifications of which will plague the Middle East and undermine U.S. interests for generations.

This past weekend, three U.S. service members were killed in Jordan following a drone strike by Iran-backed militias operating out of Iraq and Syria. President Biden has vowed to respond, risking further escalation at a time when sustained hostilities already stretch across the Middle East.

From Gaza to Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen, the political problems plaguing the Middle East cannot be resolved through military force. Across the region, we are seeing wars erupt without plausible political ends.

Israel’s onslaught in Gaza and the United States’ unwavering support for it lies at the heart of these conflicts. The hostilities in which the United States is currently engaged, from Yemen to Syria and Iraq, are directly related to U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza. A ceasefire in Gaza holds the best chance of ending, or at least considerably suppressing, those conflicts.

Israel’s war in Gaza is detached from its ostensible political aims. Following Hamas’ terror attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, Israel’s massive and indiscriminate military campaign has brought Gaza to the brink of destruction. Israel has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, roughly 70 percent women and children, and displaced more than 90 percent of Gaza’s population, with the risks of famine and disease spreading rapidly.

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this campaign is aimed at his goal of “destroying Hamas.” But the group’s military and political capabilities remain largely intact. U.S. officials estimate only 20-40 percent of the tunnels used by Hamas across the strip have been damaged or rendered inoperable. There is no reason to believe that the elimination of Hamas—or Hamas-like political forces in Gaza—is within reach.

Nor has Israel’s military campaign succeeded in securing the release of the more than 100 remaining hostages held by Hamas. Rifts within Israel over the limited progress made against Hamas and failure to secure the release of the remaining hostages are increasingly becoming public. Several senior Israeli military leaders now publicly worry that the dual objectives of freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas are mutually incompatible.

The families of hostages held by Hamas are losing patience with Netanyahu and are becoming much more vocal in pushing the government to make a deal with Hamas that could bring them home. War cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot recentlycalled for a ceasefire on the grounds that the longer the war endures, the lower the chances of returning these hostages alive.

Israel has demonstrated no long-term political strategy in Gaza aside from the systematic destruction of the enclave and its inhabitants. Netanyahu’s proud opposition to a two-state solution only leaves the option of endless war in Gaza.

Outside of Gaza, the regional effects of Israel’s military campaign have already been profound.

The risk of war erupting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon increases by the day. Airstrikes, artillery fire, and the exchange of missiles between Israel and Hezbollah are a regular occurrence. Since October 7, Israel has killed 160 members of Hezbollah as well as nineteen Lebanese civilians, while Hezbollah has killed twelve members of the Israeli Defense Forces and at least six Israeli civilians. Israel has recently increased its combative rhetoric and signals of potential war with Hezbollah. The war could easily move into Lebanon with the same problem as exists in the war in Gaza: the lack of clear and achievable political aims.

It is not only Israel that is shooting before aiming. The Biden administration hassignificantly increased America’s military presence in the Middle East and has conducted myriad strikes against Iran-backed groups since October 7. Biden has repeatedly insisted this buildup and its military actions against Iran-backed groups across the region are designed to “deter” such actors and promote regional stability. These campaigns are not reaching their goals.

In Iraq and Syria, Iran-backed groups have repeatedly targeted U.S. servicemembers in retaliation for America’s support for Israel’s campaign in Gaza, eliciting military responses from the United States. U.S. troops stationed across Iraq and Syria have thus far been targeted more than 160 times since October 7, with at least eighty-three suffering injuries. U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria are deployed without any coherent military objective while representing sitting ducks and a dangerous tripwire for war with Iran.

However, the stated aims of U.S. deployments in Iraq and Syria require thesuspension of disbelief. The administration cites the 900 U.S. troops in Syria as being part of a counter-ISIS mission. But as the most recent Inspector-General’s report revealed, U.S. troops in Syria engaged in “no kinetic activity” against ISIS in the most recent quarter evaluated. Similarly, U.S. troops in Iraq, numbering approximately 2,500, are ostensibly aimed at training and bolstering the Iraqi government—the same Iraqi government that is cheek-to-jowl with the very militias that are shooting at U.S. forces in the country.

Further south, Yemen’s Houthi movement has launched more than thirty drone and missile attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea in response to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. In response to these attacks, the United States has carried out multiple strikes against the Houthis, and the Biden administration is reportedly preparing for a broader and open-ended military campaign against the group devoid of concrete objectives. This also jeopardizes a fragile truce between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis after almost nine years of ruinous war while also threatening to compound Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

But Biden himself acknowledged the disconnect between the military campaign and its ostensible political aim: when asked about U.S. airstrikes against the Houthis, Biden responded, “Are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”

Rarely are the failures of U.S. Middle East policy summarized so succinctly.

America’s presence and policies in the Middle East are not deterring violence, nor are they stabilizing the region. Instead, they incite and risk major escalation. Washington should end its aimless tit-for-tat military exchanges with Iran-backed groups in the Middle East and bring U.S. troops home.

Coupled with this must be greater efforts toward reaching a ceasefire in Gaza. In addition to preventing more loss of innocent lives in Gaza, there will be no regional de-escalation without it. So long as the war in Gaza continues to rage, the Middle East will continue to spiral toward full-scale war.

A ceasefire in Gaza may not lead to a complete and total cessation of hostilities across the region.  Though these groups have repeatedly framed their actions as a direct response to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, each actor currently engaged in regional hostilities acts on the basis of their own incentives and will ultimately pursue their own self-interest.

But this does not invalidate arguments in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza. The burden of proof falls on those—both in Israel and the United States—who claim the war’s official aims are reachable through continued military action and how they intend for this cycle of violence to end.

Wars without reachable political aims result in violence only for the sake of violence. They should be rejected outright by all. Both Israel and the United States are fighting wars across the region that hold no promise of achieving their stated political aims. Time is quickly running out to prevent further carnage in Gaza and a region-wide war, the ramifications of which will plague the Middle East and undermine U.S. interests for generations.

Jon Hoffman is a policy analyst in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute. His research interests include U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Middle East geopolitics, and political Islam.