How Many Wars Can America Fight at the Same Time?
The country’s adversaries around the world may sense Washington is stretched too thin.
Matt Kroenig: Hi, Emma. I hope you are great. We sometimes debate what to debate, but this week I think the topic is clear: the Middle East.
Matt Kroenig: Hi, Emma. I hope you are great. We sometimes debate what to debate, but this week I think the topic is clear: the Middle East.
Emma Ashford: Are you sure? As U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan wrote in an essay made available this week, “The region is quieter than it has been for decades.” That’s a moment of dark humor in an unpleasant time. I guess he finished his draft before Oct. 7? It’s certainly emblematic of how this administration has handled the region over the last few years.
MK: Things like this make me glad that our column is online and published almost immediately. (What is the value of a printed magazine these days?) You are often wrong, of course, but at least you are never overtaken by events.
EA: Whereas you are never wrong, I’m sure.
But the administration has certainly been more active in the last few weeks. U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the region was well received in Israel but a poorly timed catastrophe in Gaza—where an off-course missile hit a hospital—meaning that his trip to Israel’s Arab neighbors got canceled. It made the whole thing look really one-sided.
He also gave a speech upon his return to the U.S.—a rare Oval Office address to the nation, in which he tried to build a fairly tortuous connection between Israel and Ukraine, afterward asking Congress for $106 billion in extra defense spending.
What did you think of the speech?
MK: My bottom-line assessment is that it fell short. I am glad he made his case directly to the American people. After more than 18 months of war in Ukraine, he had yet to deliver a prime-time speech to the nation explaining why the conflict matters for the United States. That was sorely overdue.
He also had some good lines that resonated with me, like about how American global engagement is the glue that holds the world together.
But his attempts to tie the two conflicts together were often muddled and hard to follow.
Most importantly, however, he never really explained why the average American—such as my family and friends back home in Missouri—should care about what happens in Gaza or Ukraine. He said that if Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t stopped in Ukraine, he will continue to Poland. But if someone doesn’t care about Ukraine, why would they care about Poland?
He should have made a more concrete case for why conflicts in Europe and the Middle East affect the kitchen-table concerns of everyday Americans.
What did you think?
EA: Matt, you must be the only person under retirement age who agrees with Biden that the United States is still the indispensable nation. And I’ll put aside for the moment the question of how Putin, unable to conquer eastern Ukraine, would be able to conquer Poland or anywhere else.
I think the speech fell flat, even in Washington. Some of that is process-related. A little bit of how the sausage is made for our readers: The president had planned a big Ukraine-related Oval Office speech before the current crisis started. The speech he eventually gave—after the horrifying Hamas attacks on Israel—tried to jam Israel into the same speech. But the comparison was really awkward; particularly if you look at public opinion, it was never going to resonate with his base. Democrats broadly support Ukraine, even now, but are much more split on the Israel-Palestine question.
And I think it’s an open question whether Congress will give the president his $106 billion. Even with the addition of Israel aid, border funding, and some Taiwan aid, it’s still almost two-thirds for Ukraine. Republicans in the House aren’t going to like that.
MK: Yes. Biden lumped everything together to try to force GOP members to vote for the bill. It is politically more difficult to vote against Israel than to vote against Ukraine, and Republicans have argued that China and border security should be the priorities. But we will see if this works. Some Republicans are insisting that the various pieces receive separate votes.
EA: There’s a fair amount of pushback on the question. Republican Sen. J.D. Vance’s office even put out a memo laying out the differences between Israel and Ukraine and calling for separate votes.
But we should get back to the Middle East. Israel has not yet engaged in a ground offensive in Gaza, though all indications are that it is planning to do so. U.S. policy appears to be restraining that for the moment, but only so long as the United States needs to plan and prepare for any broader regional escalation. I have some questions about whether a ground offensive will actually achieve what the Israelis need, although it’s certainly true that they don’t have many options at this point. Should they go into Gaza?
MK: They should. Israel has a right and an obligation to defend itself and its population. After suffering the horrific attacks of Oct. 7, it is now obvious that it cannot continue to live with the Hamas threat next door.
And Israel has a viable solution. The stated objective of eliminating Hamas can be achieved through military means. Gaza is a small and isolated territory, and, through a ground assault, the highly capable Israel Defense Forces can capture or kill anyone associated with Hamas. It will be costly and bloody for both sides, and there are big questions about who governs Gaza after the war, but it is a viable option, and Israel is set on this approach.
I am guessing you think Israel should not invade. And if so, what is the alternative?
EA: There aren’t any good alternatives; that’s the problem. Israel obviously has a right to defend itself, and it certainly cannot leave Hamas sitting in Gaza after everything that’s happened in the last two weeks. But at the same time, I think you’re vastly overstating the ease with which it’ll be able to eliminate Hamas through military means.
Counterinsurgency is always difficult; urban warfare even more so. The Israelis are going to lose a lot of young men and women to this campaign. And the fact that civilians can’t in practice flee Gaza means we’re already seeing a humanitarian catastrophe. It’s already a PR disaster for Israel.
Then there is the risk that Hezbollah takes advantage of an Israeli offensive in Gaza to widen the war, and the fact that there’s no clear idea of how Gaza should be governed after the military operation. The whole thing is a toxic mess. I understand why Israeli policymakers feel they need to do this regardless, but it’s always a bad idea to let your enemy determine the field and conditions of battle. An Israeli ground invasion of Gaza lets Hamas choose the battlefield.
But I’m not sitting in Tel Aviv. I’m in Washington, and I think we should talk instead about the U.S. role here.
MK: Other than the president’s disappointing speech, I think the Biden administration has basically adopted the right position on Israel’s war against Hamas. It supports Israel’s right to defend itself through a war to eliminate Hamas. It has also been very clear, however, that it expects Israel to comply with the law of armed conflict. In addition, Washington has delivered humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians.
My other criticism, though, would be on Washington’s approach to the broader regional context. Iran is the revisionist power in the region behind these terror attacks, and Biden has vowed to “hold them accountable,” but I do not see how he intends to do that. The administration has basically pursued an appeasement strategy with Iran. It failed miserably. It is time for a tougher approach.
I also worry about broader global reactions. China is encroaching on the Second Thomas Shoal, coming dangerously close to triggering the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty. I worry that, with Washington bogged down with major wars in Europe and the Middle East, Beijing may see the opportunity for aggression.
EA: Let’s take these one by one. First, I think the administration’s approach has leaned a bit too much toward Israel. There are widespread criticisms in countries around the world—not just Arab countries—that highlight the hypocrisy of America’s denunciations of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing in Ukraine but support for Israeli bombing in Gaza. I’m glad the administration was able to get some humanitarian supplies in, but it’s barely a few truckloads. There are dire shortages of food, water, baby formula, and other essentials.
Second, we can debate Iranian culpability in these attacks for hours, but at the end of the day, U.S. intelligence has said it has no evidence that shows these attacks were directed from Tehran. There’s a classic principal-agent problem here: Countries can arm and fund rebels or terror groups, but it’s harder to control them afterward. That doesn’t absolve Iran of culpability here, but it doesn’t appear to have been explicitly directed by it. And I doubt anyone wants a major war with Iran; a recent study by the Eurasia Group Foundation showed that almost 80 percent of Americans want to go back to negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program.
Finally, the China question. I actually somewhat agree with you here. Not necessarily that Beijing sees an opportunity, but that the U.S. is stretched dangerously thin. This crisis—and the ongoing war in Ukraine—is really testing the Biden administration’s assertion that the United States can still do everything. But I don’t see how you square that concern with your desire to start a bigger war with Iran while continuing to support Ukraine.
MK: The United States cannot do everything, but, alongside its allies, it can and must deter and, if necessary, defeat major conflicts in the three most important geostrategic regions of the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.
EA: A three-war planning construct? The ability to fight wars in three theaters simultaneously? We’ve never had that capability, even at the peak of the unipolar moment.
MK: We need a two-major-theater planning construct, and Iran would be covered as a lesser included case. This is what my colleagues and I on the bipartisan Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States recommended to Congress earlier this month.
But in addition to capabilities, deterrence is a function of resolve. And my assessment is that Biden’s policies have undermined global perceptions of American resolve. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, the overly cautious approach to aiding Ukraine, the appeasement of Iran, the unwillingness to increase defense spending to the levels required to deter China. Dictators are assessing, correctly, that they can get away with murder without triggering an American response.
I think what is needed is a strong U.S. reprisal against Iran to remind the world that the United States remains the world’s only military superpower and put some fear back into the hearts of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin.
EA: Honestly, I’m a bit flabbergasted to hear anyone suggest that Biden’s approach to Ukraine has been overly cautious—we have sent it something like $75 billion in arms at this point—or to say that the administration is unwilling to increase defense spending. Last year’s defense budget was almost a trillion dollars, and—in case you forgot—the president just asked for another $106 billion from Congress.
But let’s put that aside and talk about deterrence. Deterrence is not a function of resolve. Deterrence is a function of credibility, which results from a combination of capabilities and resolve. In layman’s terms: You can’t make a credible threat that will deter another country if you don’t have the military capabilities and posture to make good on that threat, or if it doesn’t seem like you’ll follow through. I’ve spent a lot of time building credibility with my preschoolers, so I know what I’m talking about here.
Your argument is that we need to do more around the world or dictators will sense weakness. But I find that argument fails in one key respect: If we do more, everywhere, then our capabilities will be so stretched that we cannot actually make a credible deterrent threat. And in practice, this is exactly what we’re seeing right now: The United States has asked Israel to delay its offensive while it moves more military capabilities into the region in order to deter escalation.
MK: You said the key phrase, “or if it doesn’t seem like you’ll follow through.” Dictators right now suspect that Washington won’t follow through. And Washington’s worries about escalation are misguided. If you caught your preschoolers smoking cigarettes, would you ignore it because you don’t want to escalate the situation? In domestic law enforcement, when someone commits a crime, do we let it go but try to deter the next one? No. We rightly confront them now to prevent future recurrences. Sometimes escalation is the solution. That is what Washington should do with Iran’s support for terrorism that has just resulted in the deaths of at least 31 Americans.
EA: The main difference is that I’m not trying to deter three preschoolers across three different regions with limited resources all at the same time. And also that my preschoolers don’t have ballistic missiles.
At least, I hope they don’t. Can you excuse me for a bit while I go check something?
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford
Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig
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