Palestinians check destroyed homes in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip Oct. 29, 2023, following Israeli airstrikes (OSV News photo/Mohammed Salem, Reuters).


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The Israel-Gaza War is destined to end in failure for both sides. Hamas will not destroy Israel. Regardless of its course and eventual duration, the conflict will bring Palestinians no closer to their goal of establishing an independent sovereign state. Nor will it add a single hectare to the territory presently under Palestinian control. If anything, the war will add further impetus to ongoing Israeli efforts to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Immediate prospects of implementing the so-called “two-state solution,” already threadbare, will vanish.  

For its part, while Israel is undoubtedly inflicting massive damage on Hamas, the likelihood of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) destroying the terrorist organization outright is negligible. Resistance to “Zionist occupation” will persist and probably intensify. So, too, will support for Palestinian liberation as a global cause. If anything, the unspeakable suffering sustained by innocent Gazans will strengthen that cause. So even if the IDF momentarily succeeds in “restoring Israeli deterrence,” further episodes of violence targeting Israel will undoubtedly occur. 

Where does this leave the United States? President Biden has offered Israel virtually unlimited U.S. moral, material, and diplomatic support. Yet that support has not translated into leverage. Happy to pocket American assistance, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has shown little inclination to follow U.S. advice, particularly if doing so implies curbing the IDF’s relentless pummeling of Gaza from the air and on the ground. Not for the first time in military history, the tail is wagging the dog.

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And while Biden cites the crisis as affirming Washington’s status as indispensable global leader, the facts say otherwise. The Israel-Gaza War occurs at a moment when many observers were already sensing that the United States is in decline. Events across the Middle East (not to mention our nation’s internal disarray) are reinforcing such perceptions. During a recent swing through the region, Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked that “sometimes the absence of something bad happening may not be the most obvious evidence of progress, but it is.” Such a watery conception of progress does not inspire confidence.

Apart from producing suffering on a vast scale, what does this horrendous display of bloodletting signify? Above all, this: the vicious assault of October 7 has permanently shattered the status quo ante bellum. Prior to this latest round of violence, Israeli officials assumed that “mowing the lawn”—subjecting Hamas to periodic punitive action—would suffice to contain any threat coming out of Gaza.  

The United States did not disagree. Preoccupied with other matters, senior U.S. officials tacitly consigned Hamas to the status of afterthought. This assessment has turned out to be radically mistaken. The horrific consequences that ensued from classifying Hamas as a mere annoyance while neglecting the plight of the Palestinian people are now readily apparent.  

In a broader sense, the war in Gaza demonstrates definitively that there is no plausible military solution to the conundrum stemming from the creation of the Jewish State in 1948. While the fury that Israel is directing at Hamas is understandable, vengeance makes a poor substitute for strategy. At the end of the day, coexistence remains the only road to peace. Traumatized by their equivalent to 9/11, Israeli Jews are unlikely to accept that judgment. They will instead double down, entrusting their fate to the IDF.  

President Biden has offered Israel virtually unlimited U.S. moral, material, and diplomatic support. Yet that support has not translated into leverage.

For its part, the Israeli government will press the United States to do more to sustain the IDF’s “qualitative edge,” a euphemism for unambiguous military superiority over any and all potential adversaries. In all likelihood, the U.S. government will acquiesce in these demands, effectively abandoning even the pretense of serving as an honest broker. More than ever before, Washington will cast its lot with Jerusalem, with military calculations taking priority over diplomatic possibilities. The military-industrial complex will prosper, with U.S. military spending and weapons grants to Israel reaching ever greater heights.

The implications of these trends are considerable. Whatever its intentions, Hamas has effectively hijacked the Biden administration’s foreign-policy agenda. If the administration brought to office a particular Big Idea, it was to shift the U.S. strategic center of gravity from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. Addressing the putative threat posed by China was to provide a new focus of U.S. attention. With first Russia and now Hamas having cast dissenting votes, that shift in focus will not happen. Crisis response has replaced coherent effort. Not since the immediate aftermath of World War II has basic U.S. policy been in comparable disarray. Rather than substantive principles, there are only slogans.  

Toward the end of his prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen classifies slogans as “empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea.” U.S. policy today consists of little more than tired slogans that possess little practical utility. Senior Biden administration officials and influential members of the foreign policy establishment routinely mouth the importance of “American global leadership” upholding “a rules-based international order.” But the claims embedded in these phrases possess no more substance than a carcass in an advanced state of decay, even if members of that establishment have become so accustomed to the stench that they hardly notice it.  

A radical reorientation of basic U.S. policy is in order. One place to begin is to recognize that U.S. interests in the Middle East are less than vital. Over the past several decades, policies based on the opposite assumption—the misguided Global War on Terrorism offers a prime example—have cost the United States dearly while producing little of value. For all of its brutality, the Israel-Gaza War does not alter that reality.  

For strategic as well as domestic political reasons—a presidential election approaches—the United States can ill-afford to be drawn into another costly Middle Eastern war. For the United States, therefore, bringing the current conflict to a prompt conclusion ranks as an urgent priority. With the IDF now enjoying the upper hand on the battlefield, doing so will prove impossible without Israeli assent. The Netanyahu government, for its own reasons, appears inclined to continue the war indefinitely in defiance of the Biden administration’s wishes. That Israel has the right to defend itself—another endlessly repeated slogan—is unquestionably the case. Yet the United States does not have an obligation to defer to Israel when doing so is contrary to American interests.  

The foundation of a revised U.S. policy in the Middle East should be this: do no further harm.  To some, that may sound like yet another hoary slogan. In fact, it can serve as a first principle of enlightened statecraft.

Andrew Bacevich is chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents
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