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Ukraine and Gaza threaten US leadership and politics

Mar 25,2024 - Last updated at Mar 25,2024


The wars in Ukraine and Gaza are having a more dramatic impact on global alignments and US politics than the wars in Vietnam and Iraq had in their respective eras, even without any American troops directly engaged in either conflict.

The war in Vietnam was fought at the peak of the Cold War when global alliances were largely set in stone, and concluded without any significant changes in these alliances.

Within the US, however, the mass protests spurred by divisions over Vietnam and the military draft contributed to broader social discontent and ultimately the breakdown of the dominant culture in place since World War II. The emerging counterculture expressed itself in a range of protest movements, cultural, social and political that challenged authority on all levels.

The intense opposition to Vietnam tore apart the Democratic Party, resulting in a chaotic 1968 Democratic Convention, and ultimately brought down Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

The war on Iraq in the post-9/11 period had less domestic impact. Despite its costs in lives and treasure, it did not transform the political culture and had no significant impact on the national debate. A majority of Americans became wary of new wars after the failed and costly efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there’s been no accountability for the lies that led us into these wars or the behaviour of US forces or intelligence agencies in combat or the “war on terror”.

If anything, the toll of the Iraq war was felt internationally. The arrogant unilateralism of the Bush administration alienated some European allies and caused other nations to question the US’ coercive behaviours. We squandered our political capital secured at the end of the Cold War and the sympathy from the horrors of 9/11. Instead of an admirable nation, the US came to be seen as a fearsome bully.


Now to the present.

The wars in Ukraine and Gaza are each negatively impacting the US’ global standing though the seeds of this unraveling predated these wars. The damage done by the failed adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the chaotic foreign policy approaches from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden, and our persistent deference to Israel’s interests over the pursuit of a just Israeli-Palestinian peace, all have taken a toll on other nations’ respect for us. They have also contributed to strengthening China’s role and encouraging other nations’ growing independence from the US in world affairs.

America’s European allies were shocked by Russia’s assault on Ukraine and largely supportive of the US-led effort to punish Russia and support Ukrainian sovereignty. They agreed to expand NATO, embraced US sanctions against Russia and boycotted Russian imports. But now support is fading. French President Macron asked recently if continuing to follow the US lead in foreign affairs was wise; our polling in seven NATO member nations found majorities everywhere agreeing that their countries should not. With the US Congress unable to pass a new Ukraine aid package, some European countries are growing restive about their continued levels of support. 

Meanwhile, Russia has found workarounds to US-led sanctions that the Biden administration believed would bring the country to its knees. Instead, Russia has strengthened economic ties with US-sanctioned China and Iran, and with countries in the Global South unwilling to allow US dictates to trump their self-interests.

The Biden administration’s handling of Israel’s war on Gaza has taken an even greater toll on US leadership. Israel squandered widespread support following the Hamas attack of October 7th by launching a genocidal assault on the Palestinian population. The US has repeatedly blocked international appeals for a ceasefire and, despite its feeble calls on Israel to protect civilians, it has resisted measures to restrain Israeli actions, increasingly isolating us from the Global South and many of close European allies.

Domestic reactions to the US role in these two wars diverge. While a significant minority of Republicans and Democrats are resisting funding to further arm Ukraine, backing Israel is supported by Republicans but is fracturing Democrats.

Opposition to the administration’s policies have extended well beyond the Arab community, with many young, Black and progressive Jews joining the fray, creating a real possibility of mass protests at this summer’s Chicago Democratic convention, like those that rocked the 1968 convention.

The bottom line: America’s leadership in the world is being undermined and its domestic political cohesion is being fractured by the direction of our involvement in Ukraine and Gaza. While these transformations have roots in past American failures, these wars have only served to accelerate the negative trajectory of our position in the world and our politics.

The writer is president of the Washington -based Arab American Institute

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