Biden and Zelensky | Public domain Biden and Zelensky | Public domain

From the quagmire in Ukraine, to its inability to control events in the Middle East, multiple weaknesses are being exposed in the US’s global hegemony, argues Chris Bambery

The Financial Times reports:

‘Ukraine faces a critical gap in western artillery ammunition needed to withstand Russian attacks, officials have warned, as US assistance runs out and Europe fails to hit its own targets for increased arms production.

Kyiv has already been struggling to hold back Russia’s troops along a 1,500km active frontline, with Ukrainian forces rationing stockpiles and firing only about a third of the number of rounds they need each day to maintain their position.’ 

The USA is not in a position to help. President Biden has seen his new bill to dispatch $60 billion in additional aid to Kyiv being delayed in winning Congressional approval. If and when it goes through, it’s not sure how much weaponry and munitions Washington can provide, given the huge amounts it’s giving Israel, which has taken priority over Ukraine, and its ability to produce more given its weakened industrial base.

That is even more true for the European states who simply have little to give. The EU has just granted Kyiv €50 billion over the next three years. The International Monetary Fund puts Ukraine’s funding gap at more than $40 billion this year alone.

As mentioned, Zelensky cannot use it to buy weaponry because there is none to buy. Brussels will have little control over where those Euros go in a highly corrupt state complete with its own oligarchs.

Turning on themselves

Meanwhile Zelensky and the ruling elite are turning on themselves with Zelensky trying to sack his top general, General Valerii Zaluzhny. He is usually described as ‘popular’ in Western media, but popular with the Ukrainian population or with the West is not explained. His replacement, Oleksandr Syrsky is known as the Butcher of Bakhmut – a battle where he wasted the lives of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers for no tactical gains.

Reportedly, Zaluzhny told Zelensky that Ukraine needs nearly 500,000 new troops, but the president has rejected such a figure privately and publicly. Zelensky said he wants more justification from Ukraine’s military leadership about why so many conscripts are needed and also expressed concern about how Kyiv would pay them.

Ukraine has not the manpower to win, either, as thousands flee the country to avoid conscription. The average age of a Ukrainian soldier is 43, in the Second World War it was 27, in the 1982 Falklands War, 23.

The Washington Post reported this week from the front line, interviewing Ukrainian troops:

‘One battalion commander in a mechanized brigade fighting in eastern Ukraine said that his unit currently has fewer than 40 infantry troops — the soldiers deployed in front-line trenches who hold off Russian assaults. A fully equipped battalion would have more than 200, the commander said.’

Another interview reinforces the point.

‘Oleksandr, a battalion commander, said the companies in his unit on average are staffed at about 35 percent of what they should be. A second battalion commander from an assault brigade said that is typical for units that carry out combat tasks.’

The Washington Post is regarded as something of a cheerleader for Ukraine, so if it’s saying things are this bad, they must be.

Russian resilience

Washington predicted Russian economic collapse, but its economy is doing rather well, despite or because of Western sanctions – it now produces much of what it once imported.

The country which faces growing economic difficulties is Germany, in large part because under American pressure it cut its trade links with Russia and China and hiked up military spending. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Washington demanded that of the European states, prioritising Nato over the EU, and bringing another of its watch dogs, the UK, back into the centre of things.

Russia has most of what it wants; Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. It offered a peace deal whereby it kept those and that Ukraine gives up on joining Nato. Zelensky wanted to accept, but Washington said no, and sent Boris Johnson as their messenger to Kyiv. It is not to support Putin to point out that all the Russians need to do is stay behind their deep defence lines, hitting Kyiv and other cities with missiles, waiting on Ukraine to accept a negotiated deal is the only option.

Increasing Houthi popularity

But it’s not just in Ukraine where the USA and its allies are hearing bad news. Last week, British MPs were told US-UK air strikes on the Houthis in Yemen would be counter-productive, build Houthi support and not deter the Houthis from mounting further attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

This was the message delivered to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this week by three experts on Yemen called as witnesses before it. The sense of shock in the room was palpable as they outlined the futility of the Anglo-American campaign. The three experts are not Houthi sympathisers, but all said that the attacks on shipping were happening because of, as the Houthis insist, their solidarity with the Palestinians and to achieve an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. This caused the biggest shock. This explanation is, of course, a claim vehemently denied by Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer who insist this is simply not true and the Houthis are operating as puppets of Iran.

The MPs were also warned that Britain was isolating itself internationally because it was the only state to join the US in military action against the Houthis – with no vote in either Congress or parliament and in violation of international law. The Americans, of course, do not need four RAF planes, flying a long distance from Cyprus, militarily. What Britain is doing, as in Iraq in 2003, is providing Washington with diplomatic cover.

The first witness, Helen Lackner, former Visiting Fellow, European Council for Foreign Relations and author of Yemen in Crisis told the Committee: 

‘The airstrikes are incredibly counterproductive from every possible point of view that you might be able to imagine. The Houthis are largely unpopular for the millions who are living under their rule. The impact of [the airstrikes] has been to improve their popularity by a million per cent. Their popularity has risen.’

Dr Elisabeth Kendall, Mistress of Girton College, University of Cambridge, while stating she understood the rational for the air strikes went on to say: ‘It is counterproductive, because it increases Houthi popularity at a time when the Houthis needed to increase their popularity.’

Non-deterrence

Farea Al-Muslimi, a research fellow at the Chatham House Middle East programme said: 

‘I have seen too many countries operating under the illusion that they can bomb the hell out of something or someone in Yemen. I have seen it with the US drone strikes, with the Saudis and, most recently, with the UK and the US.’

The Saudis carried out an eight-year war against the Houthis relying heavily on airstrikes, using American and British weaponry and with British personnel directing drone strikes. This campaign created a dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the poorest Arab nation, but failed to defeat the Houthis.

The current airstrikes are not against a conventional military using airbases and other fixed positions. They are trying to stop attacks by relatively lightweight and mobile weapons and the result is they are likely blowing up sand or hitting civilian targets.

There is widespread support for Palestine in Yemen, bitterness that the US and UK were behind Saudi’s war on Yemen and memories that Southern Yemen and the port of Aden were British colonies until armed resistance forced them to scuttle away in 1967. Perhaps Downing Street and the MOD need a history department to remind them that we have intervened militarily in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen before, been defeated and should not return!

The US say the airstrikes in Yemen are to deter the Houthis from attacking shipping. But they have not deterred them. A deterrence only works if the target is scared witless by the prospect of military action. Biden is currently deterring no-one.

Humiliated

But what those witnesses said about military action applies elsewhere. Take American strikes in Iraq. After they occupied that country in 2003, they used the old trick of divide and rule, playing off Shia, Sunnis and Kurds. The current campaign is having the effect of uniting Sunnis and Shia, who support the Palestinians and have good reasons to hate America. Rather than intimidating Iraq, US airstrikes are likely to increase attacks on US personnel in the country, where their presence is illegal in violation of Iraqi government requests for them to leave.

Of course, the unconditional support offered Israel in its war in Gaza by the USA, UK, Canada, Germany, Japan and a few other Western states have also isolated them internationally and created powerful movements on the streets in support of Palestine and a ceasefire.

The sight of US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, arriving in Israel beaming with the confidence he had secured a ceasefire deal, brokered by Qatar and Egypt, and agreed by Hamas, only to be told by Benjamin Netanyahu that he was not having it and Blinken appearing humiliated at a press conference and having to fly home with his tail between his legs, was one of the worst US diplomatic humiliations I have ever witnessed.

Biden’s repeated assurances to Netanyahu that he stands four square behind Israel means Netanyahu knows that the private messages he gets from Biden and Blinken, that, for instance, he must reduce civilian casualties and so on, mean nothing because they are publicly committed to supporting him against Hamas.

Spiral 

In an election year this is bad news for Biden; the bookies must have stopped taking bets on him losing. The President is out of step with US public opinion and with Democrat voters in particular. The politicised and mobilised Arab population of Michigan can ensure Biden loses in that crucial swing state. Growing numbers of voters are concluding they cannot vote for ‘Genocide Joe’.

But there is a much bigger problem for the US. That it cannot bring Netanyahu to heel both angers millions of millions across the globe, but also shows weakness. Washington claims it is carrying out airstrikes in Yemen, Iraq and Syria as deterrence against attacks by the Houthis and Shia militias, but they are deterring no won. The Houthis are cocking their noses at them. If you cannot deter the poorest country in the Arab world you have a problem.

The Houthis, Hezbollah and the militias in Iraq are not Iranian ‘proxies’ or ‘puppets’; they are allies of Tehran, but are all wider movements rooted in their particular societies where the failure of the state means they provide welfare, education and much else. America and its allies created the situation in which they grew.

The neo-cons in Washington share a fantasy with Netanyahu, that the US can achieve regime change in Iran by military action. If you tune into various podcasts from the States, former senior military and intelligence figures are pointing out America would not win a war with Iran. It has sophisticated weaponry, including ballistic missiles, which will be targeted on fixed assets like the huge US airbase in Qatar, and even the Royal Navy base in Bahrain, plus on their warships in the Straits of Hormuz.

Airstrikes would not achieve victory, they never do on their own, and even the neo-cons grasp they cannot commit US troops on the ground. Many Iranians who are no fans of the regime are nationalists with long memories of US and UK actions in Iran, not least the CIA-MI6 1953 coup which overthrew a democratically elected government, (which had dared to nationalise BP’s oilfields), and then installed the hated Shah. Hezbollah, the Houthis and the militias in Iraq could not stand by and watch a US war on Iran. Such a conflict would spiral out of control.

Fantasy? Well as the US wracks up its military presence in the region, accidents can happen. No one in July 1914 thought the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne would lead to a world war. But it did, because Europe was not only an armed camp but because European states were locked into rival military alliances, so when Austria went to war with Serbia to punish them for the assassination, it triggered a wider war: its ally Germany backed it, Russia backed Serbia, Germany threatened Russia, its ally France mobilised in support and when Germany marched on it, Britain entered the fray.

Limits

Its hard to see the US having the clout to control any similar scenario. It can’t control its own watchdog in the Middle East. The fact too that Israel cannot deliver on its promise to ‘annihilate’ Hamas means that, even with more than 27,000 civilian deaths and rising, Hamas has gained in popularity in the West Bank and across the Arab world.

Even an autocracy like Saudi Arabia cannot ignore the support for Palestine in its own country. The Abraham Accords whereby Saudi normalised relations with Israel supposedly removed Palestine from the agenda. Prince Salman is now demanding a sovereign Palestine state, something Netanyahu cannot concede.

Israel must now live with the knowledge that the dreadful events of 7 October can occur again. It no longer appears invincible. The last war it won outright was back in 1967 (it won the 1973 Yom Kippur war eventually but only after suffering a humiliating defeat at its outset).

Into that mix add Ukraine. A year ago we were told it was about to launch a Spring offensive which would bring it victory. We are still waiting.

Defeat for Ukraine would be another humiliation for the US. Of course, it remains the world’s number one military power, by a long chalk. But it is not hegemonic in the sense that the global population accepts and espouses its narrative. Large chunks of the world are off message.

It clearly is not in control of the Middle East, which remains the key strategic part of the world for the US, even with the military build up between China and the US and its allies in the South China Sea and Pacific.

Chairman Mao once said the US was a paper tiger. It’s not. But it is not striding the world stage looking in control.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.