Drones and missiles from Iran spearheaded a large but largely unsuccessful attack in the Negev and the Golan Heights. Launched in retaliation for the attack of April 1, in which Israel took out seven generals and advisers in a military compound in Damascus, the attack came as no surprise—Iranian leaders have said for more years than one can count that their goal is the extermination of the Jewish state, along with, it appears, its entire population. But on this occasion, the Iranian objective was more muted. Iran announced in advance that at least for the short run, it would refrain from further attacks unless attacks by Israel or the United States were launched against them.

But given the long-term risks, there is no time to be complacent. It is all too clear that when oligarchs make statements of that sort, they intend to execute them. This, in turn, dictates the strategies that have to be performed in reply.

Thus, in dealing with potential allies and friends, the optimal strategy is—to use the common parlance—to put your best foot forward. Note that this cautious strategy does not require you to lose your balance. Rather, it indicates a willingness to go forward to the next level of commitment if there is a positive response. Your potential trading partner then puts his or her best foot forward as well. In such arrangements, it is possible that after several iterations one side (perhaps even you) will choose to defect, but with each round the relationship ideally becomes more stable. Both sides have large potential gains from trade, so that a defection that brings a short-term benefit will carry with it the loss of expected future gains, and as those get larger the probability of defection goes down.

One common example of the situation is in the contract at will, where it is understood from the very title that each party is allowed to pull out of any forward commitment without penalty. And yet these arrangements tend to last for long periods, through patterns of slow evolution. In international affairs, the game is far more complicated because each nation is not a single individual but a coalition of multiple groups that keep to a stable course, such that if the coalition gets fractured, the losses could be enormous. This is why bipartisan support for these deals is needed to overcome discontinuities with the shift in dominant power, and why Pax Americana, like Pax Britannia before it, is necessary to hold that coalition together. A breakdown in unity has been evident for at least a generation in the United States, which explains in part our reduced effectiveness in international affairs.

In this setting, no nation has the luxury of picking out the best trading partners, as can be done in private markets (where all others are under a strict injunction not to disrupt current contracts or use force or guile to prevent formation of new ones). Instead, there is an enormous range of players, some friendly and others hostile. The use of the best foot forward has no place in dealing with hostile players, as the risk is that the moment that foot is put forward, it will be lopped off, with no gain in response. Instead, the strategic dimension is transformed so that the only moves that are made are those that leave you better off if the party on the other side accepts, and leaves you no worse off even if they decline and take a strategy intended to inflict maximum pain.

As a matter of principle, any appeasement—defined here as a concession made without obtaining some strategic advantage—is sure to fail, and probably in the short term.

The swarm of Iranian drones and missiles was therefore no surprise, given that the United States has adopted for many years weak positions with major concessions in the vain hope that carrots without sticks would be able to conjure an improvement. Thus, after a strong recovery in the last years of President George W. Bush in Iraq, the Obama years were marked with a general retreat when the United States negotiated the nuclear arms deal with Iran in 2015. The Obama administration showered concession upon concession to persuade Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons program, despite every breach of promises by the Iranians on inspections. Indeed, the only reason the arrangement did not disintegrate sooner was that the Israelis were able to sabotage some of the Iranian nuclear weapons as the United States continued with its carrots-only approach of sending many billions of dollars to Iran under the Obama and Biden administrations. Donald Trump may not have been perfect on these issues, but he credibly held that he would be able to arrange a better US-Iran deal than the one he canceled.

Amid the return to strategic appeasement and supposed neutrality, Hamas attacked Israel with pitiless force by breaking an existing cease-fire on October 7, 2023. At that point, the only meaningful response was what Israel resolved and the United States has tried to block: a maximum effort to wipe out Hamas. There are no intermediate solutions that could prove stable, for as long as Hamas is in power, it will break the next cease-fire with the same impunity.

US foreign policy has made two grave mistakes after its initial burst of support for Israel. First, it has pushed hard for a cease-fire that can accomplish nothing, for in prolonging the war the precarious position of the civilian population becomes riskier than before. Meanwhile, the prolonged fighting reduces the resources that Israel has to mount its defenses against Hezbollah and Iran, while giving Iran additional time to smuggle weapons to the West Bank in the hopes of stirring up political instability and worse. Nor does a cease-fire allow for any rebuilding to take place or any new government to form, as the choice of the corrupt Palestinian Authority is a nonstarter, and the prospect of a demilitarized state for Palestinians is but a way station on the road to the extinction of Israel. 

As John Spencer has long documented, the Israeli offensive in Gaza has been notable for its general precision, while Hamas has violated every requirement of the law of war in ways that increased, perhaps intentionally, the number of civilian deaths, including by using human shields, fighting out of uniforms, and locating bases of operations near hospitals and other facilities, all on top of a tunnel system that has cost billions to create and maintain. There is also a propaganda war: a power that is prepared to use barbaric force will not hesitate also to wield lies and exaggerations, including the endless accusations of Israeli “genocide” in Gaza.

The current but limited hostilities between Iran and Israel have their roots in the disastrous US pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021. The bungled withdrawal set the stage by turning a stable situation into a moral and social catastrophe, which continues unabated to the present day. The signals were unmistakable, and Hamas and Iran read the tea leaves. They have gained huge leverage because US leaders think the United States  can remain “neutral” by continuing to bargain with Hamas, which easily moves the goalposts with each new Western concession.

None of this should have happened. The hesitation of the United States and its allies will prolong the war and result in more deaths and dislocations than a uniform, firm response by Israel and all its squeamish allies. It is therefore incomprehensible that the New York Times should be calling for the United States to limit weapons supplies to Israel until it reforms its practices in Gaza. The Times seems to think Hamas has done nothing to put its own people in danger by its endless succession of bad acts. It is perverse to claim that this drastic curtailment of arms is needed now because “the war in Gaza has taken an enormous toll in human lives, with a cease-fire still out of reach and many hostages still held captive.” Indeed, these are just the reasons why the attack on Rafeh should proceed, so that this dreadful conflict can reach a just and quick conclusion.

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