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War on Gaza: A strategic blunder to hasten US decline

Military defeat and political victory define many liberation struggles. With Israel and the US haemorrhaging global support, the Palestinians may finally be on the verge of justice
Protestors rally for a Cease Fire in Gaza outside a UAW union hall during a visit by US President Joe Biden in Warren Michigan on 1 February, 2024 (Reuters)

The results of the Gaza war are still to become clear, but it is not too early to make a provisional assessment.

The horrific cost in terms of Palestinians killed, injured and displaced is unprecedented in the 75-year struggle between the Israeli state and the Palestinians. Even the Nakba in 1948 did not see this level of death and destruction.

So the first and most obvious point is that the Israelis will not suffer an outright military defeat. This is not surprising, for they are deploying a state-of-the-art military against a largely unarmed, at best poorly armed, population.

So military defeat in any conventional sense was never a likely outcome for Israel.

But even in the military register, the Israelis have not by any means had things all their own way. Given the asymmetry of arms, they have suffered high military casualties.

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They have not, and are not likely to, destroy Hamas or decapitate its leadership. Only one Hamas leader has been killed by Israel so far. And the unrelenting and barbaric nature of the Israel army's onslaught will ensure that Hamas will continue to recruit for decades to come.

Many Hamas fighters were orphaned in previous clashes with Israel. Tragically, there are many more orphans now. 

Palestinian paradox

Away from the theatre of war, the balance sheet is much more unfavourable for the Israelis. Politically they have haemorrhaged support around the globe, a fact crystallised by the now ongoing International Court of Justice (ICJ) investigation of Israel on charges of genocide.

This Palestinian paradox - military defeat and political victory - is not unusual in the history of liberation struggles. The Vietnamese Tet offensive of 1968 was a military failure, but it is widely agreed that it was a political turning point which left the US unable to rally support for the war as it had done before.

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In South Africa’s long struggle against apartheid, at least two defeats, the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the Soweto uprising of 1976, so exposed the white nationalist regime that it never rebuilt the pre-existing levels of support that it had enjoyed. 

None of these cases were final victories. Those took longer to achieve, and much more blood was spilt before liberation.

The Vietnamese lost three million souls compared to 55,000 US casualties before the war ended. But Tet, Sharpeville and Soweto did mark the fact that the tide was turning against the old order.

South Africa was defeated on the battlefield in Angola in 1988 at Cuito Cuanavale by a combination of Cuban and African liberation forces, in what was seen as a historic turning point in the battle against the apartheid regime. 

The whole narrative that if you criticise Israel you must be antisemitic has been thrown into disarray

And in 2023, South Africa’s decision to bring the case of genocide to the ICJ was historic in itself. African states have long complained that international courts, particularly the International Criminal Court rather than the ICJ, only find the enemies of the West guilty, never the leaders of the West itself.

This was a charge particularly made about the failure to prosecute George W Bush and Tony Blair after the illegal war in Iraq.

South Africa, riding the global wave of anger at Israel, has made a spectacular challenge to that precedent. The whole narrative that if you criticise Israel you must be antisemitic, embedded in British politics by the Labour Party right wing in their fight against Jeremy Corbyn, has been thrown into disarray.

The ICJ ruling epitomises the isolation of the Israeli state and its allies, principally the US and Britain. Israel and its supporters are a small minority in the UN General Assembly, and the Israeli army's ethnic cleansing of Gaza has pushed even the European Union into calling for a ceasefire. 

Serious though this reverse is for Israel and its western allies, it does not come alone but as part of a trend in which power has been ebbing from the US.

US strategic blunder

The US remains the world’s most prolific arms spender by a very considerable distance, spending more than the following 10 biggest arms spenders, including China, added together.

Its military is the best-equipped in the world. Its force projection capacities are unmatched. But its military superiority is no longer accompanied, as it was for most of the 20th century, by overwhelming economic predominance.

Its economy may still be the largest but it faces a sustained challenge from China and is set to fall behind its rival by the mid-21st century. Economies in Asia, notably India, and Latin America are now independent centres of capital accumulation not so directly dependent on links with the US.

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This contradiction between overwhelming military power and declining economic hegemony is the single most important cause of the US’s increasing belligerence in the post-Cold War world. As it became codified in the Project for the New American Century, the aim was to use military might to reset the economic playing field to the advantage of the US.

This was what the Iraq war was supposed to be about, with the Afghan war as its politically necessary but economically irrelevant precursor. But both the Afghan curtain-raiser and the Iraqi main event turned into infamous disasters.

After the expenditure of much blood and treasure, Afghanistan returned to just what it was not supposed to be: a Taliban-ruled state. The outcome in Iraq was worse still. Not the hoped-for stable, pro-western, oil-rich state but an unstable wreck of a country presided over by an Iranian-leaning government which repeatedly demands that US troops leave its territory.

Indeed, the single most important effect of the Iraq war has been to magnify Iranian influence in the Middle East. This fact is all too clear in relation to the Gaza conflict, where Iran-allied forces are now, to one degree or another, militarily engaged with Israel and its allies in Gaza, across the southern Lebanese border, in the Red Sea, and in Iraq and Syria.

The US’s strategic blunder has been to persist with its military-first policy, in this case through wholesale and uncritical support for Israel, as if the Middle East were still as it was before the Iraq war.

No cognisance seems to have been taken of the diplomatic and political damage done by defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the effect of the disasters in Libya and Syria, or the fact that the Houthis had seen off the western-backed, nine-year-long war conducted against them by Saudi Arabia.

Gaza syndrome

It now seems that a Gaza syndrome will be added to an Iraq syndrome, that the isolation of the US and the UK and the ineffectiveness, if not the destructiveness, of their military superiority will be reinforced.

Worse still, the other US proxy war, against Ukraine, is failing as well as it descends into a First World War-style stalemate. This is not a war of choice for Ukraine, but it is for the Nato powers.

Again, much money and (Ukrainian) blood is being deployed to combat Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And although western propaganda makes much of the threat of Putin as (yet another) "new Hitler", he is nothing of the sort.

With an economy a little larger than Spain’s, and ruling over less territory than any Russian ruler since the start of Catherine the Great’s reign, Putin will not be at the Channel ports any time soon. In fact, he is unable to get very far into eastern Ukraine. 

If one were to ask Siri 'what does American decline look like?', one would be directed to a presidential husting between Joe Biden and Donald Trump

So the US has fought a series of wars in the Middle East which it should not have fought and in which it has been defeated and suffered enormous political damage. To this, it has added a proxy war in Ukraine which is bogged down in a costly stalemate.

Meanwhile, the real challenger to US global power, China, is now growing faster militarily than it is economically.

Whereas the competition with the US used to be framed in terms of when China would become the world’s largest economy, a prospect which looks more distant as its growth rate dips below that of the US, the threat now is seen to come more from China’s huge and growing armed forces, unencumbered by pointless conflicts and avoidable defeats.

And as if all this were not bleak enough for the mandarins of US power, they have a presidential contest in which the great debate among the candidates is about who can pass a cognitive ability test. It’s all a long way from Camelot, as Jack Kennedy’s glittering White House was once known.

Instead, surely, if one were to ask Siri "what does American decline look like?", one would be directed to a presidential husting between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

John Rees is a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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