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As the United States throws its weight behind Israel while Iran arms Hamas and Hezbollah, some pundits are saying we’re on the brink of global war. But that war has already begun. Washington may be in denial, but Russia, China, and Iran are openly at war with the United States.

This is not an all-out war but a decentralized one with seemingly unconnected fronts that span across continents. It is fought in a hybrid style, meaning both with tanks and planes and with disinformation campaigns, political interference, and cyberwarfare. The strategy blurs the lines between war and peace and combatants and civilians. It puts a lot of extra fog in the “fog of war.”

China, Russia, and Iran disagree on many things, but they all have the same goal: ridding their regions of U.S. influence and creating a multipolar global governance system and. Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow know that U.S. political and military might is the only force preventing them from imposing their will on their neighbors.

Each country is playing its part. China has launched an unprecedented espionage campaign against the United States. Russia has spent billions of dollars on disseminating pro-Kremlin, anti-Western propaganda within and outside its borders. Iran maintains a network of militant proxies that wreaks havoc in the Middle East and has openly attacked U.S. troops. Iran, Russia, and China have all carried out or poised themselves to carry out cyber-attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure.

These countries resort to various kinds of guerrilla warfare because they can’t win in a direct conflict with the United States. Waging war in this sneakier way helps them avoid accountability.

In information warfare, the strategy is not to create divisions but to play off existing ones. Both China and Russia have been forming relations with Western-based extremists on the left and the right, hoping to widen societal chasms and increase instability. For example, in January, the Kremlin temporarily derailed Sweden’s NATO bid by funding a far-right Danish national burning a Quran outside of the Turkish embassy.

The officials involved use language intended to appeal to extremists. Despite his own imperialistic invasion of Ukraine, Putin declared himself the “leader of the anticolonial liberation movement.” He has used similar language in Africa to incite anti-French sentiment while simultaneously offering Russia as an alternate guarantor of security.

While the war of words continues, so do armed confrontations. Russia invaded Ukraine. Iranian proxies have continuously attacked the United States and its allies in the region, including Hamas, which carried out the deadliest attack on Israeli soil in the country’s history.

The Biden administration so far has been happy to let them off the hook. Immediately after the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas, U.S. officials rushed to claim that there was no proof that Iran was involved in the attacks despite the fact that Iranian proxies do not act independently in matters that affect Iranian geopolitical strategy.

Likely sensing weakness, Iranian allies have attacked U.S. forces in the Middle East roughly 30 times in the past month. In response, the U.S. Air Force carried out two strikes on ammunition storage facilities, which the Biden administration called self-defense. The weakness of his statement was palpable and was followed almost immediately by more Iranian-backed attacks.

When it comes to this war, the United States is asleep at the wheel. U.S. strategy has been about preparation for a large conventional war, containment, and weak deterrence. Washington has been pitifully absent in the irregular warfare field. There are almost no punishments or accountability—besides ineffective sanctions—for the nations that attack us.

In October, the U.S. Justice Department announced that Chinese companies were sending fentanyl and methamphetamine into the United States. The response was individual indictments, as if these companies could send these destructive drugs without permission from the central authorities. Later in the month, Western intelligence heads gave an interview on 60 Minutes in which they said that China has launched an unprecedented espionage campaign on the United States.

Conflict avoidance will only lead to more aggression from this axis. In the past few years, Iran, China, and Russia have all carried out operations on U.S. soil. Iran planned the assassination of former U.S. officials and Iranian dissidents, China has intimidated dissidents and even a U.S. congressional hopeful, and Russia tried and failed to assassinate a dissident in Miami.

Should the Biden administration continue its ineffective course, these countries will only be emboldened. Should support for Israel or Ukraine fail, China will be more likely to invade Taiwan. Deterrence is a great strategy but only works when the other side believes you will carry out your threats. You must establish that understanding by holding your enemies accountable for moves they take against you.

The axis is indubitably united against us. Iran helps Russia in Ukraine by sending drones and offering political support. Russia helps Iran against Israel through information warfare, mobilizing its massive propaganda apparatus against Israel following the attack and offering political support to the Palestinians. After the U.S. moved two warships into the Eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran and its proxies from attacking Israel, China moved six warships off the coast of Oman.

Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Russia and China should work together to form a multipolar world. In June 2020, China agreed to invest $400 billion in the Iranian economy that was on the brink of collapse. In 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin released a joint statement announcing a “no limits” strategic partnership between their countries.

The Biden administration’s support for Ukraine has been a rare show of force that has sent a strong message to the world. But it isn’t enough. The U.S. foreign policy establishment must recognize the hybrid war being waged against it and show up on the irregular field of battle. Like it or not, the United States is the guarantor of stability in the world. By retreating from its responsibilities, the only thing Washington is guaranteeing is dark times ahead.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein is EMET’s Legislative Fellow. Prior to EMET, Joseph worked in Business Intelligence and Due Diligence for Kroll and Vcheck Global. He has additionally worked as a journalist, analyst, and consultant covering security and migration issues in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Central Africa. From 2017 to 2019, he served as a Lone Soldier in the Israeli Border Police. A graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Political Science and Soviet Studies, Joseph is fluent in Russian and Hebrew.

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