The US and Qatar froze $6 billion earmarked for Iranian entities last night – money Donald Trump claims came from US taxpayers and was used to fund the murder of Israelis by Hamas.
Trump’s claim is entirely false. The money is from Iranian oil sales and none of it has been spent. But its planned release was part of a US foreign policy agenda that has been comprehensively upended by the atrocities of 7 October, giving President Biden’s rivals ammunition that could detonate throughout the 2024 election cycle.
Blindsided. On 29 September Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, told an audience in Washington the Middle East was “quieter today than it has been in two decades”. Eight days later Hamas terrorists killed more than 1,300 Israelis including at least 25 Americans.
The view of Israel from DC now encompasses:
- war crimes that make the rules-based order supported by the US for seven decades look powerless and unenforceable;
- a grave security threat to America’s closest military ally; and
- a potentially fatal blow to the signature Biden foreign policy goal of normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Big sticks. Tony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, flew in yesterday to say America would “always be there” for Israel. Before that, Biden assured Benjamin Netanyahu of his support in a series of phone calls.
Between them they have ensured no one can accuse the White House of wavering on Israel. Two US carrier battle groups in the eastern Mediterranean will signal to Iran and its proxies that the price of expanding this conflict could be ruinous. But in the meantime Team Biden is having to recalibrate at pace, and find a way to counsel restraint.
Inside the beltway. Fact-free needling of Biden by Trump and his allies won’t go away. They know how conspiracy theories about the death of a US diplomat in Benghazi sapped momentum from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, so expect more on Iran’s $6 billion. Expect also
- Republican attack lines contrasting US strength under Trump against Isis with supposed US weakness under Biden against Hamas; and
- the horror of 7 October and the 2021 withdrawal from Kabul to be bracketed as foreign policy fiascos on Biden’s watch.
Coast to coast. A risk premium imposed by the war has pushed world oil prices close to $100 a barrel since last weekend and could still be feeding inflation as the US election approaches.
Abroad. Normalising Israel-Saudi relations was to be Biden’s crowning foreign policy achievement, allowing the US to pivot away from the Middle East at last and focus on China. As of 7 October that dream is on hold. It would need concessions from Israel on the Palestinians and from Riyadh towards Israel that are now politically impossible. In addition:
- The older dream of a two-state solution is barely visible even in the rearview mirror.
- The Biden/Sullivan plan to revive the Iran nuclear deal by appealing to Tehran’s self-interest looks fanciful.
- The administration’s promise to keep cash and hardware flowing to Kyiv will be hard to keep; Congress is bound by law and instinct to put Israel first, and the White House is going to be preoccupied with the challenge of backing Israel while trying to prevent a wider war.
In 1973, on the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Nixon told Kissinger to “send everything that flies” to Israel. Fifty years on, Biden and Sullivan have ironically been pursuing what they call the Israel model with Ukraine, but it involves building alliances and not taking many risks. Progress there has ground to a halt.
America’s resolve in defence of its allies is being tested by a ruthless new disorder. Isolationists will look the other way, but there will also be pressure for a new “Israel model” – one which sends everything that flies.
Dennis Ross, former US envoy to the Middle East, in Foreign Affairs on the imperative to disarm Hamas.
Susan Glasser in the New Yorker on Jake Sullivan’s journey to the West Wing.
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