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How can the U.S. contain the growing conflict in the Middle East?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since Israel's war against Hamas began, the U.S. has tried to contain the conflict to prevent a wider regional war from breaking out. Now, with U.S. attacks against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, drone strikes in Iraq and fighting across Israel's northern border with Lebanon, we have to ask, is that regional conflict the U.S. wanted to avoid already here? The last three presidents have tried to shrink the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, and our next guest, Ben Rhodes, worked for one of them. He was deputy national security adviser to President Obama. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BEN RHODES: Good talking to you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So, in your view, at this moment, is the U.S. already involved in a regional war in the Middle East?

RHODES: Yes. I think that regional war is here. And if you look at what's happened since October 7, you've seen violence break out between a variety of different groups, often backed by Iran, and the U.S. and then, of course, Israel and Gaza. So I think by any definition, you would call that a regional war.

SHAPIRO: By any definition, that seems like a bad thing. So how can the U.S. try to tamp this down or get out of it? Or what should the U.S. strategy even be at this point?

RHODES: Well, from my perspective, obviously, this started with the horrific Hamas attack on October 7. And then you've had this really brutal and massive escalation over the last several months of the Israeli military operation in Gaza. And that's really the root of this wave of escalation. And so any pathway to de-escalation, I think, necessarily has to involve de-escalation and some form of cease-fire in Gaza.

SHAPIRO: So you think as long as Israel continues its military campaign in Gaza, this wider regional war is not going to quiet down anytime soon?

RHODES: Yes. And, look, that's just the logic of the situation. I mean, you've seen the longer this war goes on, the more there's a risk of escalation as different groups try to assert themselves, are opportunistic about it. You get into tit for tat, back and forth. And, look, you know, we're one catastrophic event, you know - a successful attack on U.S. forces, for instance, or an attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in a place like Iraq - from this thing really escalating.

SHAPIRO: You said that some groups are being opportunistic about this. And after the U.S. and the U.K. struck those targets in Yemen last week, a Houthi official named Nasreddin Amer told my colleague Jane Arraf, basically like, OK, now it's on. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NASREDDIN AMER: (Through interpreter) It certainly means that there will be an escalation and expansion. The American and British bear the responsibility for the escalation they brought upon us.

SHAPIRO: So, Ben, is it possible that this is what the group wanted all along?

RHODES: Yes. And I think we have to be very careful about this. You know, Hamas, they're arsonists. They want the U.S. in this conflict. The Houthis - same thing. They are not afraid of this escalation. You know, the U.S. is entirely rational and right to want to protect the flow of commerce through the Red Sea. The global economy depends on that. However, you know, I get concerned when you escalate into the kind of direct strikes against the Houthis in Yemen for a couple of reasons. The Houthis, they're not going anywhere. That's where they live. That's where they're from. They've endured years and years of war and proven to be quite resilient through that. The capabilities they have are not very expensive, and they are not deterred by those strikes. As you hear in the clip, this is what they want. They want to be at the vanguard of a resistance to the United States and to Israel.

SHAPIRO: But how do you avoid getting pulled into an unsolvable military objective when the Houthis seem to be deliberately provoking and saying, like, what are you going to do about it if we keep attacking these commercial ships in the Red Sea?

RHODES: There is a capacity, particularly if it's a foreign terrorist organization like an al-Qaida or an ISIS, that is using somebody else's territory to plan attacks and have foreign fighters there. That can be militarily dealt with and defeated. When you're dealing with an Indigenous population and a resistance group, an insurgent group like the Houthis or like the Taliban was in Afghanistan, that's an entirely different equation. And so, to me, what you do is you try to protect the core interests of the free flow of commerce through the Red Sea. But when you start escalating into Yemen, I think it gets dangerous.

SHAPIRO: As I mentioned, the last three presidents have tried to shrink the U.S. military role in the Middle East. Why do you think that is so difficult to do?

RHODES: Well, we have these interests that keep drawing us back. We have enormous interest in oil and gas and fossil fuels, despite the transition that we're undertaking. That makes us somewhat beholden to some pretty unsavory Arab partners in the Gulf.

SHAPIRO: You're talking about Saudi Arabia, among others.

RHODES: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar. Then we have an interest, obviously, in our close relationship with Israel. In my view, that's much more challenging when the nature of the Israeli government is Bibi Netanyahu and the most far-right coalition. We're kind of tethered to a government that is not acting in concert with, I think, what the Biden administration would like them to be doing. And then we have, obviously, interest in counterterrorism. But I think we have to learn the lessons of the last couple of decades, which is there really aren't military solutions to these problems. And I think we have to be very careful. I don't think Israel, by the way, can solve its problems in Gaza militarily either. I think they're learning the same lesson that the United States learned painfully in multiple countries since 9/11. There has to be, I think, more of a pivot towards diplomacy, towards collective solutions and towards marshaling resources to build something, instead of this pattern of destruction that we've seen in the region.

SHAPIRO: You've said this is not going to end until Israel's military assault on Gaza ends or at least diminishes. That's not up to the U.S. So if you're President Biden trying to avoid a regional war, and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is saying, we're going to keep striking Gaza, what option does the Biden administration have?

RHODES: I think they have options to utilize leverage on the Israeli government to try to de-escalate the situation. And, look, the Biden administration has been messaging in recent weeks that they are concerned, that they would like to see more aid get into Gaza, that they would like to see diplomacy to try to return hostages, that they would like to see some pathway towards a Palestinian state. Bear in mind that this Israeli government, actually, as a matter of policy, rejects the aspiration for a Palestinian state. So to me, you have to put on the table, we're going to condition our assistance.

I also think diplomatically, the United States has basically been the shield for Israel in places like the U.N. Security Council. You have to be very careful. But I do think the United States can turn the dial forward a bit. We allowed a resolution to pass calling for humanitarian pause. I think there's ways to, again, explore diplomatically, how can the United States be pressing Israel in the direction of de-escalation? Obviously, they have a right to defend themselves. They have a right to go after the military wing of Hamas. But that doesn't mean that the way that they're doing it is consistent with either their own interests or America's interests. And so at a certain point, I think you have to use the leverage that you have, as Israel's principal ally in the international community, to say this path isn't working.

SHAPIRO: Ben Rhodes was deputy national security adviser to President Obama. Thank you very much.

RHODES: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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