America Can No Longer Wait to Put Its Own House in Order

Wars in Ukraine and Israel are strengthening ties among Iran, Russia, and China. As in 1940, America can protect itself only if it rises to help the nations on the front line.

The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier refuels in the eastern Mediterranean Sea on October 11, 2023. U.S. Navy via AP.

The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier refuels in the eastern Mediterranean Sea on October 11, 2023. U.S. Navy via AP.

Oct. 20 2023
About the author

Stephen Peter Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb professor of national security and military affairs at Harvard. He writes frequently on foreign policy.

The monstrous killings of October 7 were a flash of lightning that illuminated a landscape Israel and its allies could previously ignore. Killing Jews was both an end in itself as well as a strategic action backed by Iran that was meant to create a cascade of chaos that could lead to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of the United States from the Middle East. Alas, it was not the only such challenge in recent years.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, similarly, an act of hatred against the Western liberal order led by the United States as well as a strategic action meant to demonstrate the inability of NATO to take effective action and thereby open the way for further Russian expansion. The actions ordered by Xi Jinping to increase its military pressures on Taiwan and the countries of the East and South Asia are more coldly strategic than those of Iran and Russia, but he is also determined to eliminate the military role of the United States in the western Pacific and East Asia that underlies our economic relationship with Asia. Taken together, these three fronts reveal the possibility of an upending of the world order that makes our lives possible. Defeat at the hands any one of these nations increases the threat to the United States and to Israel.

The urgent problem for Israel is to ensure its survival. The problem for American friends of Israel, meanwhile, is to figure out how to handle all three of these problems at the same time. As the Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza goes forward, we cannot lose sight of the global problem. Fifty years ago, in October 1973, when Henry Kissinger was briefed on the simultaneous Egyptian invasion of the Sinai and the Syrian invasion of the Golan Heights, his first question was “What are the Russians doing?” Today, we must look around and pay attention to what the Iranians, Russians, and Chinese are doing.

The government of Iran has said that the opening of additional military fronts against Israel will depend on the actions of Israel. This is a thinly veiled threat to support military action by Hizballah from Lebanon and Hamas from the West Bank as well as Gaza. Putin, previously relatively neutral regarding Israel, has thrown in his lot with Iran, ending his friendship with Netanyahu, refusing to condemn the attack by Hamas, and blaming American intervention in the Middle East for the problems of the Palestinians. Outside of the Middle East, he is taking measures to support a multi-year war against Ukraine. China has refused even to acknowledge that Hamas has conducted an attack on Israel, and is calling for an immediate cease-fire, another form of siding with Hamas. Further east, it is increasing its military operations around Taiwan and also building up its military infrastructure in the regions opposite India and its nuclear forces.

In other words, each of our adversaries is hoping that the other challenges to the United States will reduce the American ability to stand up to it—and preparing to act based on that hope. The hold on military aid to Ukraine and the political chaos in Congress may contribute to the perception that the ability of the U.S. government to respond to external challenges is reduced.

What is to be done to dispel that perception?

It is wrong to argue, as some on the right have, the United States should enable an increase of support to Israel by reducing support for Ukraine or Taiwan. If the United States fails to handle any one of these three problems, the world order it built—and the survival of Israel, which depends on that order—will be in jeopardy. A Russia that is not defeated in its war against Ukraine will help Hamas and the other enemies of Israel because doing so will help Russia defeat the United States globally. A China that triumphs over Taiwan will have greater influence in the Middle East and will be a stronger friend of Iran. The best course of action for us now is suggested by what the United States did the last time we faced multiple external military threats.

As the countries of Europe and Asia went to war, in 1940 the Republican Party nominated an internationalist presidential candidate who supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s measures to oppose fascism and militarism around the world. Before Pearl Harbor, FDR pushed for higher levels of naval spending and asked Congress to fund a “Victory Program” of military spending sufficient to defeat all of America’s enemies. And, at his urging, the House of Representatives in 1941, by a margin of one vote, renewed the first peacetime military conscription in the history of the United States.

Today, friends of Israel in both parties should announce that they will support senators and representatives  who are willing to support a broad increase in military spending sufficient to pay for the weapons and other capabilities that would enable the United States to help Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, and the other friendly countries threatened by China to defend themselves. As was said in 1940 and 1941, in a dangerous world the best way to defend America is to help the nations fighting those countries on the front line while building up America’s own military capabilities. A tax surcharge to pay for this effort will be necessary and should be passed.

Politically, friends of Israel should support President Biden but call for him to put his weight behind the necessary defense buildup. And friends of Israel should rally behind the Republican presidential candidate most able to conduct the foreign and military programs necessary to keep America safe. Joe Biden is determined to be a two-term president. He deserves support. A Republican presidential rival who criticizes him but shares his understanding of what needs to be done will reassure the international community, friendly and hostile, that this country will remain a strong and reliable actor in defense of its interests and friends.

In other words, as we watch Israel’s struggle for survival, American friends of Israel can help by getting our own house in better order.

More about: China, Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Politics & Foreign Affairs, Russia