President Biden’s brief seventeen-minute televised address to the nation last night hit many of the right notes but left utterly unaddressed the most critical issue: whether or under what circumstances the United States would consider direct military intervention if the Israel-Hamas war escalates and spreads.
The Speech Itself
There was much to like in the address—particularly Biden’s reassertion of U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the idea that Hamas’ actions do not negate Palestinians’ rights. He also urged Americans to avoid a resurgence of islamophobia, or antisemitism, in response to the passions unleashed by Hamas’ repugnant acts of terrorism or Israel’s military response in Gaza.
Biden lumped both the Israel-Hamas war and the Russian war on Ukraine together in the speech, which made sense as it partially appealed to Americans to support what he hopes will be a supplemental appropriations bill, including funds for U.S. material assistance to both Israel and Ukraine.
Some of the invocations of American exceptionalism and our status as the “indispensable nation” may ring hollow to those of us who think those ideas have often led us into trouble in the past, but there was nothing really new about them.
What Biden’s Address Missed
While Biden reiterated his extremely clear position that the United States would not intervene militarily unless Russia were to attack a NATO ally, he did not even mention the prospect that he might consider direct military intervention in support of Israel, much less initiate the public debate we should be having about that question if the answer is not a clear no.
The question is far from academic. Axios reported on Tuesday that Biden and his team had seriously discussed with Israel’s war cabinet the prospect of direct U.S. military intervention if Hezbollah opens a second front by attacking northern Israel.
Israeli national security advisor Tzachi Hanegbi addressed it in a news conference Tuesday after the meetings with Biden and his team: "President Biden—with his public messages, with his private messages to Iran and Hezbollah and with the practical steps he took—made it clear to our enemies that if they think of joining the attack against Israel there will be American involvement and Israel will not be on its own."
When asked about similar reporting during the press gaggle on board Air Force One returning to Washington, President Biden had a very brief answer: “Not true.”
Fair enough, but while the United States may not have made such a firm commitment, it clearly was discussed seriously, which has not received extensive reporting outside elite-oriented outlets like Axios. Biden’s speech did nothing to prepare the American public for this possibility.
Intervention, not initiated by hostile action against U.S. military forces or other U.S. facilities in the region, raises some essential questions. Would U.S. airstrikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon raise the probability that the conflict would spread to involve Iran directly rather than being contained to a second Israel-Hezbollah front? That is important both in terms of potential U.S. casualties but also impacts on the U.S. economy (via oil price shock) and the potential for other adversaries to take advantage of substantial U.S. air and naval assets being diverted to the region as a result of the spread of hostilities to the Gulf. U.S. interests would be served by not having Iran directly involved.
To be fair, U.S. officials did tell Axios that U.S. intervention would depend on the scope of Hezbollah’s involvement and how strained Israel’s capabilities were under the circumstances. A northern front for Israel is a range of possibilities, not a binary outcome. Still, if there is a serious discussion of entering the war, the American public should be prepared for that by the administration, and there should be public debate about whether or under what specific circumstances such intervention should occur. Many of us who have supported the Biden administration’s resupply of munitions for Israel and other assistance, as well as refraining from pressing for a ceasefire until Hamas is sufficiently degraded, would be much more reticent about direct U.S. involvement in the war.
This is a public discussion that needs to happen now, not when we wake up in two weeks and find out that America is at war.
Greg Priddy is a Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Center for the National Interest. He also consults for corporate and financial clients on political risk in the region and global energy markets. From 2006 to 2018, Mr. Priddy was the Director of Global Oil at Eurasia Group. His work there focused on forward-looking analysis of how political risk, sanctions, and public policy variables impact energy markets and the global industry, with a heavy emphasis on the Persian Gulf region. He traveled frequently to the Middle East and was deeply involved in the firm’s coverage of security issues in the region, including the Iranian nuclear program and associated sanctions. He also led Eurasia Group teams on some large research projects for government clients including the National Intelligence Council (NIC).