Matthew Hoh: Channeling Carnac the Magnificent

Middle Eastern power balances, genocide and AIPAC in the 2024 elections, Trump foreign policy redux, and why Putin should walk away from the table

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I was asked to answer some questions by a Polish author, Michael Krupka, for a book he is publishing later this year. The questions required me to provide my thoughts in a manner that came out resembling predictions. I’ve long been a fan of Yogi Berra’s maxim: predictions are hard, especially about the future. That said, read on if you’d like to know what I think will happen with regards to the Middle East, NATO and Russia, the role of Gaza in the 2024 elections, and what a Trump foreign policy might look like.

Please let me know your thoughts and responses in the comments. I can also elaborate further on my responses as some of what I write below is quite broad.

Can it be said that the War in Gaza has already changed the balance of power in the Middle East, i.e., that Joe Biden was, in essence, correct when he stated a few weeks back that there will be no going back to the status quo before Oct 7th?

The clear determination of the US to side with Israel, regardless of consequences, will reduce US influence in the region while providing an opportunity for other nations to increase their influence.

Within the region, we see Qatar attempting through mediation efforts to solidify a role with worldwide significance, akin to the role for which Switzerland or the Scandinavian nations once were held in high esteem. President Erdogan of Turkey has utilized this crisis to promote himself as a defender of Muslims, although his country’s actual efforts have been minimal, at least overtly. Meanwhile, Ansar Allah, the de facto government of Yemen, has earned the admiration of people throughout the region, and many worldwide, in standing up to the US and attempting to do something about Israel’s genocide by blockading the Red Sea.

Iran hopes this crisis will lead to a withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and possibly Syria, which would free Iran of the US presence in its neighbor and strengthen its Syrian ally. Iran, competing with Erdogan and Ansar Allah, wants to come out of this as the champion, if not the defender, of the people of the Middle East. The Iranians may doom themselves as the Americans have on many occasions by believing they can manage war for their purposes, doing just enough not to cause themselves harm or ignite an inferno, again as the Americans have done so many times in their hubris.

Saudi Arabia, in public, has been quiet. Still, Riyadh certainly entertains a desire to see itself in that role of leader of the Muslim people of the Middle East, putting it into conflict for that title with Iran and Turkey. Such competition with Iran could do damage to last year’s China-mediated rapprochement while juxtaposing the Crown Prince vs Erdogan among the Sunnis seems dangerous regardless of the outcome. Who among MBS, Erdogan and the Ayatollah would be the 21st century Saladin?

Egypt will do everything it can not to lose its billions in military funding from the US while trying as hard as possible not to absorb Palestinian refugees. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, along with the Palestinian Authority, are involved in meetings over the future of Palestine. The needs and aspirations of the Palestinians are not much more than talking points for those powers.

Nations with US military presence, like Jordan, UAE and Bahrain, hope no one notices the US bases and the warplanes and drones that fly from them. Lebanon sits and awaits what war might bring. Hezbollah is prepared for sustained battles along the border or a decisive war.

This all might push Turkey, Egypt, and/or Saudi Arabia to acquire a nuclear weapon, with Turkey the most conceivable to me (see more below on this).

The current government in Tel Aviv sees an opportunity to enter the final phases of an 8-decade-long campaign for Greater Israel. Depending on if the current government holds will determine whether that goal of ethnic cleansing is achieved to include, eventually, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Regardless of whether the current government stays in power or not, Israel as Fortress Israel will only become more entrenched.

For reasons of politics and the pseudo-religious melding of American exceptionalism and American evangelicalism, the US will go along with Fortress Israel for many American election cycles to come (see more on this below). A failing empire, the US will only be able to offer its firepower and promises of money to those in the region as nations, individually and collectively, work to escape American hegemony. Structures like BRICS and de-dollarization, admittedly a long process, chief among efforts to weaken the Empire.

The Russians sit aside their ally in Damascus and hope to see the Americans enter into a quagmire that will make the US occupation of Iraq seem like a puddle in comparison. The Russians will seek to advance trade deals and open new markets as they have successfully done so since their Ukrainian invasion. They will keep their navy, air force, and Spetznaz at Syrian ports, airfields and garrisons and their Wagner forces available for employment elsewhere.

China has the most to gain of any power outside the region and will likely try to continue to present itself as a calm, reasonable and reliable guarantor of stability, development and diplomacy.

It’s probably been noticed that I did not mention the Palestinians or the Iraqis. Tragically, I view them as continuing to be at the mercy of the decisions and fates of others. As Thucydides said, the strong do what they can while the weak suffer as they must.

Do you see this war turning into a war between Israel and a nation-state in the region and not just against Hamas? 

I don’t think it is likely that Israel will fight another nation-state; their nuclear weapons prevent any nation from directly engaging them. For example, for all of Erdogan’s speeches to crowds of a million over the last several months, speeches that sound like calls to war, the reality is Turkey can’t put its military in the field against nuclear-armed Israel. The Turks aren’t going to jeopardize Ankara to Israeli warheads for the sake of the Palestinians. This is why there is a danger that one of the outcomes of this crisis is one or more nations in the Middle East getting a nuclear weapon to achieve parity with Israel.

It seems that the powerful influence the Israel lobby has wielded over American politics has been severely weakened, especially among younger voters. Are we seeing the beginning of the end of “the power of Israel” in the United States?

Unfortunately, not until we see the end of money in US politics.

The 2024 election will see how many voters will vote against the President and his party because the Democrats support Israel’s war on Palestine, as well as Israel’s decades-long occupation. Perhaps coupled with the many other disappointments that progressive Democratic voters feel towards Joe Biden, many progressive voters will not vote for him and his party. This could result in millions of votes lost for Biden and the Democrats and could throw the race to the Republicans. However, the White House is betting that voters will see no alternative but to vote for Biden and the Democrats; voting for the lesser of two evils is well entrenched in American politics.

Party loyalty and identity politics are entrenched as well and those loyalties and identification will supercede issues. For example, while 76% of Democrats may want a ceasefire and half of 2020 Biden voters say Israel is committing genocide, 88% of Democrats still say they will vote for Joe Biden. For voters outside the party, the White House doesn’t believe that Palestine will be the issue that will win over either independent or Republican voters. The White House believes voters will have put Palestine behind them by the November election, that voters will have other concerns that they will prioritize over Palestine and that Democratic voters will be fearful of the Republican candidate.

Regardless, the prime issue for the White House and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the money. Even if the calculation is that Biden and the Democrats will lose 3, 4 or 5 million progressive votes because of the Biden Administration’s complicity with genocide, the greater fear is that the Israel lobby will pull its support of Biden and put that money and resources behind the Republican challenger. Additionally, the Israeli lobby can throw its full support behind Robert Kennedy Jr.’s independent campaign and could push for a No Labels presidential candidate as well. The idea of one candidate fully backed by the Israel lobby, let alone three, is a nightmare for the Biden re-election team and the DNC. This same terror grips Democratic congressional campaigns and even extends down to state and local races. For many politicians, the lust for the lobby’s money in the campaign coffers and the panic of it in their opponents’ bank accounts prevails over any other consideration or concern. Until the US ends its political system’s legalized bribery and extortion, the Israeli lobby, like all lobbies in the US, will remain incredibly powerful and controlling.

If Jens Stoltenberg was right in 2022 when he observed that a loss in Ukraine will mean the defeat of NATO and since we, in the beginning of 2024, see clearly the fact that Russia has strategically won the war, what is your assessment of NATO’s future in the next decade? 

I disagree that Russia has won the war strategically. While the Russians have achieved their limited territorial goals in Ukraine (I never believed the nonsense about Russia wanting to conquer all of Ukraine or of Putin’s imperial ambitions of a greater Russia), I don’t believe they have achieved critical strategic objectives.

The Russians could advance further west into parts of Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolaiv and Odesa oblasts as they continue to wear down the Ukrainian army. Perhaps they could advance up to the entire length of the Dnieper River if there is a (possible) collapse of the Ukrainian front. But with the constraints of the Russian military exacerbated by the new reality of drone warfare, I think significant advances are unlikely. More importantly, I don’t believe the Russians have an interest in invading, conquering and subjugating non-Russian-speaking lands and being an army of occupation. Their strategic objectives never were to do so.

Controlling the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, putting an end to the ongoing fighting in the Donbas, connecting Crimea to Russia proper, and establishing a buffer zone with NATO in strategically, culturally and historically consequential Ukraine were their goals, in my estimation. Even with a collapse of part of the front, allowing for a breakthrough, or a collapse of the house of cards that is Ukraine’s government and economy, entirely dependent on US and European funding, I don’t think the Russians advance past the four oblasts just named and may only occupy (partially) those oblasts as a means to form a buffer westward of the oblasts they claimed to annex in 2022.

To their credit, the Russians prepared their economy and finances well for this war. Their investment in their economy, as well as a focus on new or different overseas markets, is the biggest wartime success for Russia. If Vladimir Putin can bring the war to a close in a year or so’s time, the dangers of a wartime economy may not be realized (1/3 of the national budget goes to war and that percentage will presumably increase; inflation; debt; diverting of government services, manufacturing and human capital to the war effort; etc. are examples of such dangers). The war, the government and Putin are still popular. Yet any foreign war, even one just across the border, no matter its stated rationale and purpose, will have political costs, particularly as a result of casualties and conscription. Again, if the Russians can end this war on their terms in the next year or so, those costs, too, may be avoided.

While the Russians have achieved limited territorial objectives, those achievements have not achieved larger strategic goals and, in some ways, reduced Russia’s position. US missiles that can reach Moscow in less than ten minutes are still in Poland and Romania, and NATO is expanding, including a new 800-mile-long Finnish-Russian militarized border. The Ukrainian military has been terribly mauled*, but the US and European countries, to especially the latter’s economic and financial detriment, are going to invest many billions into new armaments and factories. Despite the congressional politics of aid to Ukraine, the US Congress will put tens of billions into the US defense industry so that, in two or three years, US and, to a limited degree, European defense industrial output will be several degrees greater than pre-war levels.

Arguably, the far-right and ultra-nationalists in Ukraine, those who were to be de-Nazified, have benefited the most politically in Ukraine. If Zelensky steps down or is removed, he will likely be replaced by someone to his right, and most definitely not someone who came to Zelensky’s zeal for war as late as Zelensky did. A war of attrition will not achieve Russia’s de-Nazification goal. Only a WWII-style victory would, and the Russians have neither the ability nor aspiration for such a thing.

I should take the moment to note that there has been a major point of victory for the US: the US won the battle for the energy market in Western Europe, specifically the liquid natural gas market. This was a chief driver of the increased hawkishness of US Ukraine and Russian policy beginning around 2013 as the Obama administration needed to send all that fracked gas somewhere…

For NATO, whether the war continues in Ukraine, the war is frozen, or Ukraine cedes land to Russia in a negotiation, Russia and the Ukraine war have given NATO renewed purpose and justification. Whatever talk there was of NATO being historically irrelevant is no longer occurring. The identity crisis that may have befallen NATO has been remedied. Ukraine is now NATO’s raison d’être and the Donbass is NATO’s Jerusalem.

These are some reasons Russia erred strategically in launching its 2022 invasion. In particular, rather than damaging NATO, Russia’s invasion has given it life once again. Of course, NATO’s well-being is separate from, say, the health of Europe’s economies, and what is best for NATO is not what is best for European nations individually or as a union, as the Europeans will find out if they don’t understand already. With that, imagine too, in several year’s time, an economically distraught and politically fragmented Europe, a failing American Empire, a reactionary government in Kyiv and a fully funded NATO with a zealot’s desire to win back eastern Ukraine. A crusade would be very possible and apocalyptically dangerous. Vladimir Putin and Russia would be wise to walk away from the table now.

*Ukrainian losses have been exacerbated by the horrifically stupid decisions to bleed the Ukrainian army out in defense of Bakhmut last year and then launch an even more horrifically stupid offensive into well-prepared Russian defenses. Both in the defense and offense, the Ukrainian military in 2023 conducted operations Western political benefactors demanded they do and as the Russian army wanted them to do.

A shortage of manpower and munitions is haunting US, NATO, and Ukrainian war planners, at least those who accept reality. A government collapse and economic panic may have been averted by the recent 50 billion euro infusion from the EU but things are dire for Ukraine. Landmines, drones and air defense systems are what can keep the frontlines stagnated for the next year or two as long as Ukraine doesn’t repeat its Western-driven recreations of the Alamo or Charge of the Light Brigade. To what end, other than greed and megalomania, is the question as to why this slaughter of Ukraine’s people and destruction of its land continues?

A determining factor in this regard could be the election of Donald Trump for a second term. What are your expectations for Trump’s position vis-à-vis NATO and vis-a-vis Russia if, this time around, he manages to form a cabinet of people committed to his America First agenda?

That’s an excellent question. I am unsure what Trump will do with his national security team. His 2016 America First rhetoric was in no way matched by his actions as President, particularly his appointments of devoted neoconservative imperialists like John Bolton, Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. I think Trump’s foreign policy will be similar to his first term and we would likely see many familiar neo-conservative names in Trump’s administration as the lure of the proximity to power is greater than never-Trump protestations.

Trump will prioritize China and will have people in his administration whose preferred war is Iran. If the Ukraine war is still going, I think he’ll seek to end it to prove he could do what Biden couldn’t, Trump’s ego prevails. He will also consider Europe good enough, particularly the US capture of the European gas market.

I am taking part in this webinar on Monday, which includes Jeff Halper, someone who I learned a tremendous amount from when I was in East Jerusalem in 2017:

You can watch the webinar here.

Finally, here are two interviews I did with Scott Horton and Bro History that followed last week’s essay on what a war with Iran would look like:

Reprinted with permission from Matt’s Thoughts on War and Peace.

Matthew Hoh is the Associate Director of the Eisenhower Media Network. Matt is a former Marine Corps captain, Afghanistan State Department officer, a disabled Iraq War veteran and is a Senior Fellow Emeritus with the Center for International Policy. He writes at Substack.