Russian President Putin at a news conference following the visit to China. October 18, 2023 Photo: Grigoriy Sisoev, RIA Novosti

Since Hamas’ loathsome Oct 7 massacres, and more so since the Oct 17 bombing of Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City—although it is unclear who was responsible—the overriding US interest has been to prevent a breakout of the crisis into a general Mideast war. If that were to occur, the scale of deaths would dwarf everything that has occurred so far. And it can’t be excluded that it could combine with the still-ongoing Ukraine war to bring about direct war between nuclear powers.

General Mideast war might result when images of mass civilian deaths in Gaza force the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon to attack Israel at scale. Israeli counterattacks against Hezbollah through Syria could then bring Syria into the war. Iran might join, and events spiral out from there, even involving the nuclear superpowers. All that is a greatly-simplified account—it ignores Israel’s nuclear weapons, for instance. The real course of events would probably be much more complicated, but no less dangerous.

Note that in response to Biden’s dispatching two carrier groups to the Mideast, President Putin just ordered the Russian Aerospace Forces to begin armed patrols over the neutral zone of the Black Sea. 

It is for all these reasons that the Oct 7 Hamas massacre can be compared with the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which started Europe’s “sleepwalking” into the inferno of World War I.

The assassination by Serbian nationalists of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, triggered a weeklong diplomatic crisis that culminated in the outbreak of World War I. The intervening days were marked by a dreamlike state of unreality; the major powers kept talking past each other and making increasingly bellicose statements of principle, even as everyone could see a catastrophic war inching closer.

An eerily similar sequence of events is unfolding in the Middle East today. A horrifying terrorist attack provided the immediate spark for the crisis, but the issues behind it run deeper.

America’s role, our role as Americans, and that of the American President, is to prevent that outcome at all costs. Even after almost three years of Biden, we are still the world’s strongest nation-state, and still have an unmatched reservoir of goodwill among ordinary people throughout the world—even if these advantages are shrinking. Although we will require the cooperation of other governments to do it, yet without the United States, it may not be possible to avert catastrophe.

I am sure that President Biden would like to prevent such a war, but his actions so far have been ineffective or worse. His reason for dispatching two carrier task-forces to the area was to deter Hezbollah, but that will likely fail as it failed Ronald Reagan when the bombing of the Beirut Marines barracks in 1983 forced him to withdraw the US military from Lebanon.

Biden became the first US President to visit Israel in time of war, and even attended a meeting of its war cabinet to show support. He did obtain Israeli agreement to humanitarian deliveries into Gaza from Egypt. But did he also step forward to protect innocent Palestinian civilians and ensure that Israel obeys the laws of war—or did he merely associate the US with whatever Israel may choose to do? That is the key question if the US is to help settle the crisis. Thus the venerable journalist Seymour Hersh titled his Oct 18 account, “What is Biden Telling Bibi? The US president goes to Israel as Gaza City is razed to the ground,” writing

Biden showed that, as he put it, he would “have the back” of Israel by moving two American carrier battle groups to the region, along with thousands of US troops. It would have been better had he done what America has often done: announced that his administration would begin airlifting water and food for the hundreds of thousands of citizens of Gaza who had been ordered out of the north by Israel and sent to a border gate with Egypt that, as Netanyahu and his colleagues had to know, would not be opened. https://seymourhersh.substack.com/p/what-is-biden-telling-bibi

In sum, that visit only further weakened the Biden administration’s credibility in Arab countries. It was already so low that Saudi Arabia’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman had kept Tony Blinken waiting overnight to see him, and Egyptian President el-Sisi had subjected the same Blinken to a humiliating history lesson before reporters. The greatest snub was after the hospital bombing, when Jordan’s King Abdullah II canceled a four-way summit set for Oct 18, where Biden would have met with the King, el-Sisi, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

China and especially Russia have been very active diplomatically with all the major players. Whatever mixed motives may be attributed to them (as to President Biden), both are vitally concerned to stop any spread of war in the Mideast. Among other factors, China depends on Middle Eastern oil, and Russia is acutely vulnerable to Islamic terrorism. But even together they could not bring it under control by themselves.

A competent American president, like President Trump, would draw on Russia and China for help here, as President Trump drew on both for help in his negotiations with North Korea. Not so Biden. Not only is he continuing the hopeless war in Ukraine, but on Oct 15, just as he was preparing to leave for Israel, Biden told “60 Minutes” that Putin must be “put down”

In the Mideast as elsewhere, President Trump listened closely to what each of his counterparts was saying, even if he totally disagreed, and sought a “deal” in which everyone would gain. But the deeper roots of his competence lie in the character of our country itself, in our belief in what Lincoln called the constitutional “right to advancement.” We may be suffering today, but under our system, we can prepare the conditions in which our “posterity” can advance and move on to flourish. Such hope unlocks the doors to peace.

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