An RAF Typhoon FGR4 aircraft returns to the base, following strikes...

An RAF Typhoon FGR4 aircraft returns to the base, following strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen on Sunday. The U.S. and Britain struck 36 Houthi sites in Yemen in a second wave of assaults meant to further disable Iran-backed groups that have relentlessly attacked American and international interests in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.  Credit: AP/AS1 Leah Jones

President Joe Biden’s decision to launch a limited but days-long air attack on Iranian terrorist enclaves throughout the Middle East reflects just one of the array of complex decisions facing him in that always-volatile region this election year.

Their timing and extent will test the kind of diplomatic expertise that Biden’s supporters tout as one of his most significant presidential attributes and perhaps bolster the lagging public approval of his foreign policy actions.

The raids also come at a time when the fallout from continued fighting and civilian casualties from Israel’s retaliatory invasion of Gaza poses a significant threat to Biden’s hold on normally pro-Democratic younger voters, as well as Muslim Americans.

It shows how hard it will be to guide American power through the Middle East’s tricky cross currents in a way that furthers U.S. overseas objectives, prevents localized skirmishes from blowing up into full-scale regional war and maintains domestic political support.

Biden entered the White House with a mixed record in foreign policy. On one hand, he had longer, more extensive pre-presidential involvement than any modern chief executive except George H.W. Bush.

As a longtime member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden often visited the Middle East. He was never shy about expressing his views, many clear-headed, others more controversial, like his support of presidential authority to invade Iraq and his ill-conceived plan to partition Iraq into three parts.

As vice president, he was an active participant in President Barack Obama’s foreign policy deliberations, opposing what proved to be a successful plan to kill terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and an unsuccessful one that temporarily added more troops to fight in Afghanistan.

Obama’s defense secretary, Bob Gates, a highly regarded national security expert who served administrations of both parties, contended in his 2014 memoir that Biden, for all his experience, “had been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

In 2021, Biden’s own administration got off to a bad foreign policy start by mishandling the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. While there were valid arguments on both sides of the policy issue, there was no justification for its inept implementation.

He has done much better since then, anticipating and then acting when Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to destroy an independent Ukraine.

Biden correctly saw the Russia-Ukraine war as a proxy for the global battle between the forces of autocracy and democracy and mobilized allied support for Ukraine. Unlike former President Donald Trump, he made clear that the United States stands for democracy.

The decision to help Ukraine, though resisted by Republicans in what some critics call the GOP’s Putin wing, was a relatively easy one, compared with what has transpired in the Middle East since the horrific Hamas attack on the people of neighboring Israel.

Biden’s initial decision was straight-forward; he and most Americans stood by Israel, its longtime democratic ally, and its retaliatory assault on the terrorists who murdered, raped and kidnapped hundreds of Israelis.

But the scope and brutality of Israel’s ensuing campaign in Gaza has sapped that support. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to understand the degree to which some of his country’s methods have stirred enmity abroad, both from longtime critics of Israel and from supporters who feel he has failed to recognize the legitimate aspirations of its Palestinian citizens and neighbors.

For some weeks, it’s been apparent the Israeli intention to “destroy” Hamas is not feasible without more civilian deaths and physical carnage than is acceptable to the outside world, including many Americans. It’s also clear that Netanyahu is using that elusive goal to retain power where peace would mean an election almost certain to replace him.

Under pressure at home and abroad, Biden has gradually segued from all-out support for Israel to a more flexible approach, simultaneously backing it militarily while pressuring it to end the fighting and enable the political and physical rebuilding of Gaza to begin.

Unsurprisingly, Iran and its other Middle East clients — like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen — have taken advantage of the situation to stir trouble throughout the region by attacking northern Israel, Western ships in the Red Sea and U.S. forces in remote outposts in Syria, Jordan and Iraq, prompting the current raids.

Despite the immediate demands, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken still hope to achieve something broader, however difficult that may be. They are working with Saudi Arabia and other “friendly” Arab countries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to forge a comprehensive Middle East settlement that both protects Israel and resists Iran.

Ironically, for all his bluster, it was Trump’s administration that laid the basis by negotiating the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and four Arab states: the UAE, Sudan, Morocco and Bahrain.

But a full regional rapprochement won’t be possible without a cessation of the hostilities in Gaza and Israel’s re-commitment to a two-state solution that includes an independent Palestinian state. That won’t happen while Netanyahu retains power.

The sophisticated U.S. diplomacy that will be needed to further these goals will likely take longer than the remaining 11 months of Biden’s presidency. His administration’s ability to pursue it is yet another argument in favor of Biden’s re-election, though it is unlikely to play a major role in the outcome — assuming the Gaza war subsides.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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