As for the topmost of these aims, Biden is, so far, doing well. For several months, Iranian proxies from Iraq and Syria to Yemen were harassing US targets in the region, with about 170 low-intensity attacks. Biden hit back, but with restraint. When one enemy drone strike killed three American service members in Jordan, however, he retaliated decisively, and yet still proportionately. He wanted to give the mullahs in Tehran a glimpse of the consequences of further escalation.

They seem to have got the message. Iran has apparently decided that it had better avoid a full-bore war with the US, and has told its proxies in the region to stand down for now. The militias in Iraq and Syria haven’t attacked US forces since Biden’s retaliatory strikes on February 2. The Houthis in Yemen are still firing at ships in the Red Sea, but these assaults remain manageable – in any case, the extent of Tehran’s sway over the Houthis remains unclear.

Even more tellingly, Iran has signalled that for now it will not, as Washington feared, “break out” and build nuclear warheads. At the time of the October 7 attacks, it was still adding to its bank of highly-enriched uranium; but since November it has reduced that stock. An escalatory gesture would look different.

Protesters hold signs in front of the Israeli consulate during candlelight vigils for Aaron Bushnell. 

In terms of the next strategic objective – restraining Netanyahu and his far-right governing partners – Biden has been less convincing. He and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have leaned on the Israelis to limit harm to Gaza’s civilians, and to recommit to a two-state solution in the long term. But Netanyahu has brazenly ignored the American pleas. About 30,000 Gazans are now dead, another 70,000 injured, and almost all 2 million displaced, hungry and traumatised.

Changing course

Yet Biden does appear to be changing course. He has sanctioned several Israeli settler-colonisers in the Palestinian West Bank. Blinken has overturned a Trump-era policy and reverted to America’s long-held view that Israeli settlements violate international law and destroy any chance of an enduring peace. The White House is also striving (alongside Egypt and Qatar as intermediaries for Hamas) for a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner swap.

Biden must get even tougher with Netanyahu (while hoping that Israelis will in due course choose a more sagacious leader). He should use the United Nations Security Council to create facts in international law, forcing Israel to scale back its campaign in Gaza and its settlement of the West Bank, as well as to accept the idea of eventual Palestinian statehood.

Simultaneously, he must keep talking to the Saudis about the triangular deal they had planned before October 7 – it’s still a good idea. And he must continue to deter the mullahs without triggering a direct conflict. While doing all that, moreover, he must also keep an eye on what Russia’s up to in Ukraine and eastern Europe, China in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and North Korea on its peninsula.

Such is the burden of any occupant of the Oval Office, after all: to keep tabs on the overall world order as one aspect of America’s own national interest. That’s why Biden’s ultimate objective in the Middle East must be to stabilise the region, and then to get out, because America is needed elsewhere.

That may or may not happen on his watch. But it will count as a positive denouement to a story that has too many tragic footnotes, only one of which is the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell.

Bloomberg Opinion