The U.S. has a bad habit of backing its clients to the hilt in their wars. That puts the U.S. in the unenviable position of being implicated in the war crimes that the clients commit while Washington refuses to use the leverage it clearly has to rein its clients in.
Just as the U.S. did for years in supporting the Saudi coalition war on Yemen, Washington has reflexively backed Israeli military campaigns over the years, and it has not restricted its military assistance despite repeated attacks on civilian targets. In the current war in Gaza, the Biden administration has not only resisted pressure to call for a ceasefire, but it has also set no red lines that might trigger a reduction or cutoff in aid.
The message that the U.S. has sent through its actions is that there will be no consequences for the Israeli government no matter what it does in Gaza. Washington needs to be using its influence to limit the harm done by this war and ideally to bring a halt to the fighting, but instead it is abdicating its responsibility. The current approach is a disaster for the people of Gaza and it is a blot on America’s reputation.
There is still time to prevent even worse outcomes, but it will require a dramatic change in U.S. policy.
The Washington Post recently reported on the administration’s unwillingness to put conditions on U.S. assistance to Israel. According to the report, conditioning military aid was considered a “nonstarter” in the administration because it would be unpopular and because of Biden’s “personal attachment to Israel.” These are poor excuses to justify supporting the status quo and backing the war without qualification. The U.S. could use the considerable leverage that it has to restrain the Israeli government, but the administration doesn’t want to because of a combination of fear, ideology, and sentiment.
In any relationship between the U.S. and a client, it is irresponsible to rule out a cutoff of military assistance. There must be limits to what the U.S. will permit its clients to do with the weapons it provides them, and when those limits are reached it is imperative that the U.S. halts further assistance. The U.S. should not be aiding and abetting another government when it commits war crimes, but by giving any client an effective blank check, the U.S. is guaranteed to be an accomplice.
It makes no difference if U.S. officials issue hollow warnings about following the law when the U.S. is enabling the client’s war. The only thing that is likely to focus the attention of a client government in the middle of a war is the prospect of losing some or all of the backing from Washington that it has come to rely on.
The Post report also said that the administration believes that Israel’s war has been “too severe, too costly in civilian casualties, and lacking a coherent endgame,” but the people running the foreign policy of the most powerful country in the world are throwing their hands up in frustration and claiming that they can’t do anything about a war that they are actively supporting. If the administration is convinced that the Israeli response has been too harsh and the costs have been too high, they have an obligation to make every effort to change that.
There is no excuse for giving up on trying to rein in a client before they have even made the attempt.
It is telling that the same administration that prides itself on the importance of American leadership simply will not lead if that means breaking with a client. When the U.S. has extraordinary influence that might be used to mitigate or end an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, we hear over and over how pitiful and powerless the U.S. suddenly is. We heard much the same thing during the debate over U.S. involvement in Yemen, and it was just as ridiculous then as it is now.
The U.S. may not be able to control everything that its clients do, but it can control whether it provides them with weapons and diplomatic cover to make it easier for them to wage their wars.
Defenders of the blank check approach will say that a client won’t stop its war just because Washington disapproves. That could be right, but in practice when client governments begin to fear that they are losing U.S. support they tend to look for a face-saving way to stop fighting. Maybe the client will keep fighting without U.S. backing, or maybe the threat of removing U.S. support will force them to rethink what they are doing. There is no way to know what the reaction will be until the administration tries to apply the pressure it has so far refused to apply.
One of the pitfalls of offering automatic, uncritical support at the start of a conflict is that it makes it politically more difficult to reduce that support when things go wrong. That is why the U.S. should be much more careful about how and when it provides support to other states’ wars. Especially when the U.S. has no formal obligations to support another state at war, the default response from Washington should be to refrain from making any major commitments.
Unless vital U.S. interests are clearly at stake, there is usually no compelling reason for Washington to throw its support behind another country’s war.
The U.S. is already overstretched around the world with too many commitments, so it is foolish to volunteer to be involved in additional conflicts. Such involvement not only adds to the immediate burdens on the United States, but it also risks entangling our country in larger conflicts as well. When a war breaks out, the U.S. response should not be to rush to take sides, but to press for a halt to the fighting before it escalates further.
Even if entreaties for peace from Washington are rebuffed at first, it is much better for our government to be playing the part of a would-be mediator instead of being an enabler of bloodshed.Giving U.S. clients a blank check is an invitation to abuse and to what international relations scholar Barry Posen has called “reckless driving.” That is bad for the U.S. and for regional peace and security, and in the long run it is also bad for the clients themselves. It is long past time that Washington put conditions on the military assistance it provides to its Middle Eastern clients, including Israel, and it should not be afraid of cutting off that assistance when the clients start driving recklessly.