As the Israeli military enters the second month of its operation in Gaza, questions continue to swirl around the exact nature of U.S. support for the war, with major potential implications for American interests in the Middle East.
The Pentagon has been fairly transparent about its actions outside of Israel, including the decision to move two aircraft carrier strike groups into the Middle East, among other naval assets and missile defense systems. But two more sensitive issues remain shrouded in mystery: What exactly are American special forces doing in Israel? And what weapons is the U.S. now giving to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)?
What are American soldiers doing in Israel?
U.S. special operations forces are stationed in Israel and “actively helping the Israelis” in a number of areas, among them efforts to “identify hostages, including American hostages,” a Department of Defense official revealed last week.
The official did not share further details, but others told the New York Times that DoD “has dispatched several dozen commandos in recent weeks, in addition to a small team that was in Israel on Oct. 7 conducting previously scheduled training.” Other Western countries have also sent special operations forces “closer to Israel” in order to help with hostage recovery and potential civilian evacuations, according to the Times.
The Pentagon also dispatched a Marine Corps general with substantial special operations experience to advise Israel’s ground operations, but the general left the country prior to Tel Aviv’s ground incursion.
One official told journalist Spencer Ackerman that the U.S. is considering emergency “contingencies” in which U.S. special forces would directly assist with hostage recovery, but those plans remain hypothetical, according to the official. The only solid evidence of “direct” U.S. involvement has been a series of unarmed drone flights over southern Gaza that are helping to locate hostages.
Some eyewitnesses claim to have seen soldiers with American flag patches on the ground in Gaza, but no news outlets have substantiated this allegation. It’s also plausible that an Israeli-American soldier could have been wearing such a patch without permission from the U.S. or Israeli militaries.
As for the identity of U.S. soldiers in Israel, a White House photo from President Joe Biden’s October 18 visit appeared to show the president meeting with several members of Delta Force, the Pentagon’s premier counterterror and hostage recovery unit.
It is unclear if any non-special operations U.S. military units are currently operating in Israel. The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment from RS about its operations in Israel.
Increased secrecy around weapons transfers
The Biden administration has taken flak in Congress for his attempts to conceal details about American arms transfers to Israel amid the war, including a proposed measure to skip congressional notification requirements that would provide lawmakers with an opportunity to object to specific weapons sales.
“There is no reason we cannot both ensure needed U.S. assistance is provided to Israel in an expeditious manner and ensure Congress is able to fulfill its constitutional oversight duty,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) — the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — told the Washington Post last week.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), for his part, said Congress “should not make exceptions to this practice” and argued that it is the legislature’s responsibility to “review these funds and ensure their use is in the best interests of the American people.”
While lawmakers have reportedly received full briefings about what weapons are being sent to Israel, the White House has avoided publicly sharing information about its support, a sharp contrast with the detailed accounting of the Biden administration’s aid to Ukraine.
The administration has not explained this discrepancy, but it most likely stems from simple political logic. While Biden has been proud to boast his team’s support for Ukraine, he stands to face far more blowback for supporting Israel, whose actions in Gaza have drawn significant criticism both within the U.S. and abroad.
This logic played out recently when it came to light that the U.S. is planning to supply rifles to the Israeli national police, which is controlled by far-right Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has promised to give guns to settlers in the West Bank. Former State Department official Josh Paul also told RS last week that multiple units of the Israeli police had previously been flagged for alleged “gross violations of human rights,” which should legally preclude them from receiving American weapons.
The only other planned weapons transfer to Israel that has been publicly disclosed is a previously approved shipment of $320 million in precision bomb kits known as Spice Family Gliding Bomb Assemblies. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) will reportedly fight this sale by filing a "resolution of disapproval" that would block the transfer if it received a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress. The kits are "the sort of capability Israel has been using for the last month to devastate Gaza," according to Paul.
High stakes for U.S. interests in the region
Another likely reason for the secrecy around U.S. involvement is the fear that American support for Israel will hurt Washington’s standing in the Middle East, especially given the region’s widespread opposition to Israel’s offensive, which numerous Arab commentators have called a “genocide.”
If people in the Middle East come to believe that U.S. troops are directly involved in hostilities, it could have dire consequences for perceptions of American actions in the region. As a recently leaked cable from the U.S. embassy in Oman noted, Israel’s campaign is already “losing us Arab publics for a generation.”
That impact could be felt far beyond the region, according to Stephen Wertheim, a historian and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The costs, in American prestige and power, have already proved substantial,” Wertheim wrote in the New York Times. “And they could get much worse.”
And the potential consequences of direct U.S. involvement would not be limited to public opprobrium, argued Ackerman, the journalist.
“If SOF should enter Gaza as combatants, how might Iran, whose regional strategy is predicated on leading an ‘axis of resistance’ to the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, feel compelled to respond?” he asked. “What would it choose to do? What would the impact be on Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.?”
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
U.S. Special Forces participate in a 2014 training exercise on the deck of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. (Seaman Everett Allen/ U.S. Navy photo)
U.S. Special Forces Green Beret Soldiers, assigned to 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) during training at TwentyNine Palms, Calif., 2016 (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Efren Lopez/Released)
An Israeli drone strike killed a top Hamas politburo member in a major suburb south of Beirut on Tuesday, according to reports from Reuters and Lebanese media at the scene, where a fire continued to burn in the hours after the attack.
Israeli officials did not confirm responsibility for the attack, but one top adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Reuters that “whoever did this did a surgical strike against the Hamas leadership,” not against Lebanon itself. (By contrast, prominent Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon congratulated the Israel Defense Forces for the strike and encouraged future strikes outside of Gaza.)
The adviser’s comment likely aims to limit the chance that Hezbollah, which is a strong supporter of Hamas, will feel obligated to respond to the attack. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah is scheduled to deliver a speech Wednesday, which observers will watch closely for any indications that the militant group intends to expand attacks on Israel.
Hezbollah will “definitely” respond to the strike as an escalation but will likely try to avoid sparking a full-scale war with Israel, argued Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute, which publishes RS.
“Instead, Hezbollah will likely strike deeper into Israel but without revealing its new capabilities,” Parsi wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. However, such a move “may very well spark a full war, particularly if very successful,” he added.
Saleh al-Arouri, the Hamas leader who was killed, helped found the Qassam Brigades, the movement’s militant arm. He was serving as the deputy chairman of Hamas’ politburo and the leader of the group’s military operations in the West Bank at the time of his assassination. Israel destroyed Arouri’s house in the West Bank in October, but he is believed to have lived in Lebanon since 2018.
Five others died in Monday’s attack. Their identities remain unknown, though some local media have reported that two additional members of Hamas died in the strike.
The drone attack is a rare example of Israel striking Beirut directly. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati described the move as “a new Israeli crime aimed at dragging Lebanon into a new phase of confrontations after the continuous daily attacks in the south.”
Hamas, for its part, said the move would not affect operations against Israel and argued that it represented “evidence of the enemy's failure to achieve its objectives in Gaza.”
The attack is the latest escalation in a months-long shadow war between the U.S. and Israel on one side and Iran and its regional allies on the other.
In Syria and Iraq, American forces have been attacked by militias sympathetic to Iran over 100 times since October, leading to some injuries but no deaths. The U.S. has responded with a handful of strikes. An Israeli airstrike killed more than 20 people, including several Hezbollah members, in eastern Syria over the weekend.
Meanwhile, the Houthis in Yemen have dramatically cut back Red Sea shipping — and thus transits of the Suez Canal — by attacking merchant ships that they claim are tied to Israel. The U.S. has formed an international task force to stop the attacks and sank at least three Houthi boats on Saturday as they attempted to board a cargo ship.
The latest strike is a reminder that “as time has passed and Biden has refused to push for a ceasefire, we are getting closer and closer to a full war in the region,” argued Parsi.
“The most effective way of de-escalating is by securing a ceasefire in Gaza,” he continued, noting that an end to hostilities there would likely stop Houthi attacks as well as strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. “Biden is not only facilitating the slaughter and ethnic cleansing in Gaza, but he is increasingly also failing to keep Americans safe and America out of war.”
In the past week, a pair of major stories have blown the doors off the dominant narrative about the Ukraine war, opening the possibility that a ceasefire — or even a peace deal — may be more achievable than previously thought.
The first comes from Politico, which reported Wednesday that American and European officials are “quietly shifting their focus from supporting Ukraine’s goal of total victory over Russia to improving its position in an eventual negotiation to end the war.”
The U.S. and Europe, according to Politico’s sources, have already started to push Ukraine to shift toward defensive operations following a failed counteroffensive earlier this year — a shift that would focus on giving Kyiv a strong hand at the negotiating table.
The report suggests that President Joe Biden’s recent comments about Ukraine having won “an enormous victory already” could be the first step in an effort to shift the narrative around eventual concessions. If the reporting is true, then the West is far more open to accepting the idea of territorial concessions in Ukraine than previously thought.
But, as Politico notes, a move toward a pro-negotiation posture will face substantial political difficulties given the Biden administration’s previous insistence that it will defend Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve Kyiv’s key aim of removing Russian troops from the entirety of Ukraine, including Crimea.
And, despite public pronouncements from the Kremlin that it’s ready for talks, Ukraine and its strongest Western backers have long argued that they see no hope for negotiation until Russian President Vladimir Putin is removed from power. His goal, they argue, is nothing short of the full subjugation of Ukraine, and a negotiated peace would represent Chamberlain-style appeasement.
That brings us to the second story, which the New York Times (somewhat inexplicably) published on the Saturday before Christmas. Putin, the Times reports, has been signaling since at least September that he is ready for a ceasefire along the current lines in Ukraine.
A “senior international official” told the Times that Putin’s public comments about the war are mostly bluster and that the Russian leader has shown consistent interest in pausing the war on current lines. A former Russian official confirmed that the Kremlin is content to stop the fighting as it currently stands but added that Putin is “not willing to retreat one meter.”
Moscow’s willingness to enter a ceasefire agreement is based on its view that average Russians, despite supporting the war effort in principle, would happily accept a “victory” that falls short of some of the Kremlin’s professed aims, the Times reported.
Notably, this openness to talks is nothing new. According to the Times, Putin first signaled his interest in a ceasefire back in the fall of 2022, when a Ukrainian counteroffensive swept Russian troops back to the lines that have more or less held since. The revelation suggests that the Biden administration’s long standing argument that there is no partner for peace in Moscow is, at best, misleading.
It also raises questions about what Mark Milley, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knew when he argued in December 2022 that the war would likely not end in a decisive military victory for either side and that the time appeared ripe for a negotiated peace. Was this a clever response to Putin’s overtures? The possibility is hard to ignore.
Taken together, these stories suggest that an opportunity is opening to pursue talks, whether quietly or in a more public forum, to bring this brutal war to an end after nearly two years of fighting. They are also a reminder of a common theme in modern war: No matter how long or hard you fight, you almost never achieve all of your stated goals.
Of course, neither of these stories bears on the thinking of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has his own domestic issues to deal with and promises to keep. Of particular importance is his commitment to joining NATO, a move that Putin had sought to block by invading in the first place.
And, while Russians may be ready for an end to the war, the Ukrainian public has made clear its opposition to losing any territory. Russia’s invasion has left Ukrainians so frustrated that they’ve even decided to move Christmas from January 7, the Russian Orthodox date, to December 25.
Just a few days ago, a majority of Ukrainians celebrated their first Christmas in December. “It’s historical justice,” a Ukrainian soldier told AP News. “We need to move forward not only with the world but also with the traditions of our country and overcome the imperial remnants we had.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The blockade of Poland-Ukraine border crossings by Polish truckers could finally be coming to an end, according to Reuters, which reported Wednesday that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is making progress in his efforts to settle the dispute. The main issue is the truckers’ demand that the European Union reinstitute a system of permits for Ukrainian trucks entering European territory that was suspended due to Russia’s invasion and blockade of Black Sea ports. Though the current regulations will likely stay in force until at least June, the recent election of Tusk — a former president of the European Council — has reportedly facilitated talks to end the blockade, which some officials now say could be over before the new year.
— Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar met with Putin on Wednesday during a multi-day trip to Moscow, with talks focused on building a multipolar world order, according to the New York Times. Jaishankar’s visit highlights India’s unique place in international politics as a powerful state with strong ties to both Russia and the West. The Ukraine war was also reportedly on the agenda, though it is unclear if the diplomat broached the possibility of peace talks.
— Russia threatened a harsh response if the West follows through on its plans to seize Russian Central Bank assets stored in the United States, according to the Guardian. Among the options for retaliation are seizures of Western assets under Russian control or even a full breakdown in relations between Washington and Moscow.
— The Kremlin lashed out at U.S. claims that Russia rejected a prisoner swap, arguing that talks are “extremely delicate” and that a resolution to the issue could be “hampered by being actively discussed in public,” according to Reuters. The comments confirm that talks are ongoing to secure the release of ex-Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, both of whom the U.S. government considers wrongfully detained. The U.S. envoy for hostage negotiations toldPBS that the U.S. is in frequent contact with both men and their families, adding that he hopes to “get them both at the same time.”
U.S. State Department news:
The State Department did not hold a press briefing this week.
American militarism has many authors. From lawmakers on Capitol Hill and policy makers in the executive branch to the defense industry and its army of lobbyists, many in Washington and beyond have an interest, whether political or financial (or both), in keeping the Pentagon’s coffers overstuffed and the global U.S. military machine humming.
Unfortunately America’s fourth estate doesn’t do a very good job of keeping an overly militaristic U.S. foreign policy in check. On the contrary, it too is a key pillar that buttresses America’s dependence on aggression abroad. Looking back at much of the mainstream media’s national security coverage this past year — from Ukraine and Gaza to China and the military industrial complex — 2023, with few exceptions, was no different.
The War in Ukraine
Mainstream media failures in covering the war in Ukraine this year ranged from seeming to downplay questions about who blew up the Nord Stream pipeline and ignoring key flashpoints that could have expanded the conflict into a direct U.S. war with Russia.
But back in June, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman provided a window into how many top journalists and pundits view U.S. foreign policy more broadly, and the war in Ukraine specifically: through the lens of American exceptionalism. Krugman used the D-Day anniversary this year to lament that Americans and other Western democracies weren’t sufficiently supportive of Ukraine’s war against Russia, saying then that if the country’s counteroffensive fails (which by now it has), “it will be a disaster not just for Ukraine but for the world.”
As RS noted at the time, Krugman’s argument “follows a problematic pattern among many in the media whose historical reference point will always be World War II and in turn believe the United States can apply that experience to any other world problem no matter how dissimilar or unrelated it is, or whether even a military solution is required.” Of course there were many calling for a more diplomatic approach to ending the war then and the evidence six months later suggests they were right.
A month before Krugman’s article, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Anne Applebaum published a lengthy article running along the same themes. The piece was based largely on an uncritical relay of an interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that crescendos to a call for taking back Crimea — a maximalist military objective that most sober observers believe to be unachievable — and overthrowing Putin, all in the name of a global struggle between good and evil. Except, as QI’s Anatol Lieven pointed out then, most of the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way.
“It is not that people in these countries approve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Lieven wrote in RS. “It is that they do not perceive such a huge difference between the regional hegemonic ambitions and criminal actions of Russia and the global ones of the United States; and they are thoroughly sick of having their opinions and interests ignored by Washington in the name of an American moral superiority that actual U.S. policies in their parts of the world have repeatedly belied.”
The China boogeyman
This year kicked off with a turn-it-up-to-11 media hyperventilation about the infamous Chinese spy balloon that, according to the Pentagon at least, turned out to never have spied. But the incident was indicative of how Washington and the mainstream media generally deal with U.S. policy toward China: freak out first and maybe — just maybe — ask questions later.
CBS’s flagship news magazine 60 Minutes is a primary offender of this approach. Back in March, 60 Minutes ran a lengthy piece seemingly aimed at scaring Americans about the size of China’s navy and about the U.S. is lagging behind — classic China threat inflation that is common in Washington. Except the navy officers 60 Minutes interviewed didn’t see it that way, and neither did experts RS interviewed about the segment.
“The U.S. Navy appears to believe it’s ready to take on China,” RS reported then, adding, “[b]ut lawmakers who stand to benefit from hyping the China threat don’t. And that in a nutshell is the military-industrial-complex, or in this case, the military-industrial-congressional-media-complex.”
Back in August, an NBC Nightly News segment perfectly illustrated how the mainstream media, perhaps inadvertently, builds public support for confrontation with China. The segment hyped a fairly routine, if even U.S. prompted, Russian and Chinese military exercise in international waters off the coast of Alaska. NBC News presented the event as a five-alarm fire. However, experts, and even the U.S. military, didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
The war in Gaza
If anything can represent how mainstream U.S. media has, for the most part, covered the tragic Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s response, it’s this headline from CNN on December 6:
The “man in military fatigues” was of course an Israeli soldier, which CNN later acknowledged. But the episode is emblematic of a general problem of mainstream media leaning in on the Israeli narrative of the conflict, which prevents Americans more generally from getting a full understanding of the conflict, including not just legitimate Israeli claims but also Palestinian concerns about the occupation and the prospects of a future state. That in turn leads to the promotion of misguided notions like support for Palestinian rights equaling support for Hamas.
Roots of the problem
We also saw many instances this year of why, in part, an American exceptionalist view of U.S. foreign policy tends to guide mainstream U.S. media coverage. First, news outlets often publish essays and opinion pieces arguing for a more militaristic American posture by writers who are funded by foreign governments or the defense industry. Most often — as was the case this year with the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Bloomberg, for example — those potential conflicts are not disclosed.
Second, there are other media outlets that are openly underwritten by titans of the defense industry. And once again this year, we saw the potential impacts of those investments. For example, one particular November article in Politico — whose foreign policy coverage is sponsored in part by Lockheed Martin — uncritically relayed baseless concerns from the Pentagon that it was running out of money, a notion that one military spending expert told RS “doesn’t hold water.”
The examples above from this year are part of just a small sample of how mainstream media outlets generally cover U.S. foreign policy. There are exceptions of course but the incentives to feed the stream of militarism are far greater than the forces against it. Will 2024 be any different?