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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Can America afford to engage in three wars?

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Yoohoi Ahn

By Yoohoi Ahn
The author is an editor in the newsroom of the Korea Daily.


President Joe Biden’s foreign policy faces a significant test amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presented a strategic opportunity for the United States to leverage. However, the ongoing Middle East crisis raises questions about the possibility of two or even three concurrent conflicts, including a potential confrontation with China. In this process, the nation’s domestic political and diplomatic capabilities to engage in warfare come into question.

The conflict in Ukraine offered the U.S. an opportunity to drain Russia’s national strength without direct involvement, primarily by providing support. While some realist voices within the Republican Party called for a reduction in military aid, there was more to gain from a calculated approach.

The Israel-Hamas conflict has further complicated the situation, expanding the theater of war to two fronts. With American casualties and hostages emerging, the need for a limited rescue mission may arise. The financial burden is now a reality, with President Biden requesting $60 billion for the Ukraine war and $14 billion for Israel from Congress.

Even with indirect support, the United States faces the challenge of managing two concurrent wars. The federal deficit is projected to reach $1.695 trillion in FY 2023 alone. Rising interest rates have led to a 23% year-over-year surge in interest costs, nearing $1 trillion annually, surpassing even the defense budget.

Even before the money distributed during the COVID-19 pandemic was fully recovered, the government circulated more money, initially as part of inflation-reducing legislation, and subsequently to prevent a domino effect of bank failures. Eventually, it may need to significantly increase the issuance of treasury bonds. However, major player China is selling U.S. Treasuries, and Japan’s financial constraints limit its ability to purchase them. Consequently, the federal government is resorting to short-term treasury bonds to fill the void.

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. [REUTERS]

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s recent statements underscore the urgency of the situation. On October 16, she remarked, “The United States can certainly afford to support both Israel and Ukraine.” It is intriguing that confidence in waging war is a topic addressed by the Secretary of the Treasury, rather than the Secretary of Defense. The current challenges facing the United States involve financial strategies as much as military ones.

Currently, reports indicate that Ukraine and Israel are scrambling to secure additional artillery shells and missiles from the United States. The war in Ukraine has created a global shortage of artillery munitions. The U.S., Europe, South Korea, and North Korea have depleted their stockpiles, leading to another critical shortage. Israel is also reported to have contributed half of its artillery shells to the Ukrainian conflict, highlighting the unpredictable nature of global events.

In his 2021 inaugural address, President Biden pledged to “rebuild our alliances and re-engage with the world.” However, a few months later, the United States withdrew from Afghanistan after investing over two trillion dollars in the country over two decades. This marked a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy from combating terrorism to containing China. Yet, this strategy has encountered challenges in Ukraine and the Middle East. Can the United States effectively manage simultaneous fronts in China, Ukraine, and the Middle East?

One fact remains evident: Middle East diplomacy has experienced setbacks. After becoming the world’s largest oil producer in 2018, the United States seemed to take a step back from the complex and turbulent Middle East. This withdrawal has come at a cost. When gas prices surged, President Biden personally traveled to Saudi Arabia to request increased petroleum production, but the request was met with a resounding refusal. Recently, Biden faced difficulties in arranging meetings with key figures, including the head of the Palestinian Authority, the king of Jordan, and the president of Egypt. These challenges have led to diplomatic difficulties for the United States in the Middle East.