As late as September 2023, American foreign policy circles seemed to have settled on the need for the U.S. to redirect its attention away from the Middle East. The experience in Iraq was viewed as having led to disappointing outcomes, while the war in Afghanistan had ended in a humiliating exit. A general malaise about “endless wars” had gained sway in parts of the public, despite genuine achievements and underestimated prospects for success. The argument justifying U.S. power in the Middle East because of oil and gas lost ground to environmentalist claims about a global transition to renewable energies. Furthermore, the perception that China would pose a military threat to US interests in the western Pacific was taken as a reason to exit the Middle East in order to shift military assets to the defense of Taiwan. There was of course a fatal flaw in that argument: given the global competition with China and Russia, it makes little sense to relinquish American power in one region in order to move to another, since any American departure only facilitates the expanded influence of America’s adversaries: Russia entering Syria or China’s making inroads with Riyadh.

The illusion that the U.S. could give up on the Middle East came to an abrupt end on October 7, with the brutal Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent unfolding of the Gaza War. October 7 has been likened to 9/11 or even Pearl Harbor, the violent end of an era of self-deception. For Israel that illusion involved the expectation that a modus vivendi had developed with Hamas,  which naive optimists misperceived as growing into a responsible governing power in Gaza. That foolish vision has ceased to be tenable; hence the Israeli war goal of eliminating Hamas as a military and political force. That goal is part of a profound shift in Israeli national self-understanding, reflecting the heightened priority of national security in the wake of the attack.

Yet what does October 7 mean for the U.S.? Clearly support for Israel, the key American ally in the region, informs American policy, but U.S. global interests require the distinct analytic framework of a super-power. Israel needs to secure its borders, but the U.S. faces adversarial pressures from the emerging coalition of opponents: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The Middle East is only one theater in America’s multifront power struggle. Gaza, Ukraine, and Taiwan are three fronts in one war, competing for resources and attention, even as conflict threatens to erupt in other arenas, most notably the Sahel of Africa.

America’s allies and partners are under attack on several continents simultaneously because our opponents intend to unravel the network of pro-American states and degrade American credibility definitively. In order for the U.S. to succeed in this global conflict, it is urgent to demonstrate that a nation’s security is enhanced if it partners with America. It must be clear that entering into an alliance with the U.S. is valuable, reliable and reciprocal. If the U.S. were to abandon Israel, Ukraine or Taiwan leading to their defeat at the hands of their respective opponents, the result would not only be a loss for Western values, as illiberal forces erase democracies; defeat in any one of those conflicts would also represent a significant defeat for the U.S. and its credibility as a defender of global order. 

For Israel, October 7 represented the failure of an accommodationist policy toward Hamas, i.e., the erroneous belief that Hamas would govern Gaza in the spirit of economic development. Instead, October 7 proved that for Hamas, killing Israelis is more important than improving the lives of the Palestinians.  For the U.S., October 7 demonstrated the failure of Washington’s policy to refuse to hold Iran accountable, since the Hamas attack was merely one particularly egregious example of the ongoing attacks on Western interests designed by Iran and carried out by its proxies: missile attacks on Saudi and Emirati targets, assassinations in Lebanon, and a pattern of assaults on U.S. sites in Iraq and Syria as well as the disruption of Red Sea commerce. The American response to date has failed to either deter these attacks or to encourage Iran to rein in its front organizations.

Three high-level strategic consequences follow from these observations. First, the proposal that the U.S. depart from the Middle East has come to a definitive end. That legacy illusion inherited from the Obama administration had already begun to dissipate under President Biden, notably in his trip to Riyadh and the reversal of his judgment that Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman would remain a “pariah.” After October 7, we have seen the deployment of major naval assets to the Eastern Mediterranean and efforts by Secretary of State Blinken to engage in shuttle diplomacy throughout the region. Whether those efforts succeed remains to be seen. The point, however, is that even the Biden administration, with its inclination to leave the Middle East, has discovered that it has interests and responsibilities in the region that it cannot easily relinquish. Furthermore, if the U.S. were to be seen abandoning Israel, every other ally around the world would suddenly lose faith in American promises of support.

The second consequence is that American engagement in the region thankfully does not require large-scale military presence or “boots-on-the-ground.” The Israelis are willing and more than able to defend their own country. For some, this expression of a national will to survive came as a surprise in the wake of the divisive debates over judicial reform plans that had divided the Israeli public in the months prior to October 7. In addition, there was some pessimism that the young generation addicted to social media would not have the mettle to fight a hard war. It turns out, however, that the soldiers of the IDF were underestimated, and as they return from the front battle-hardened they are bringing a new will to Israeli political debate. A slogan is now circulating, asserting that today’s fighters “must not fall behind the generation of 1948,” Israel’s “greatest generation” of the War of Independence. For the U.S. it is an enormous advantage to have allies who will fight their own wars, as is also the case in Ukraine. However, these allies require sufficient weapons and munitions. To equip them with these supplies is not only a matter of congressional support for foreign military funding but also dependent on a serious strategy to rebuild America’s defense industrial base. American ability to support those allies who want to defend themselves is premised on a reconstruction of domestic manufacturing capacity: no victories without factories.

The third consequence is the importance of recognizing the root cause of Middle East turmoil -the Iranian regime - which is as much America’s enemy as it is Israel’s. The standard chant in Iranian demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been “Death to America, death to Israel.”  Our adversary could not be clearer; nonetheless, currents of naiveté in American foreign policy prefer to dismiss the facts in order to cling to illusions about some imaginary accommodation with Tehran. This avoidance of a bitter reality is a reflection of a liberal worldview according to which real-world conflicts can be harmonized away through abstract formulae. For the Obama administration, that formula was the JCPOA, the “Iran Deal,” a Potemkin village of an arms control agreement which only camouflaged Iranian progress toward nuclear capacity.

For the Biden administration, the corollary project is the tired exhortation of a Palestinian state. There is no evidence that the slaughter of October 7 took place because of frustrated aspirations to establish an independent state. On the contrary, the scope of the violence and hostage-taking was, if anything, a clear demonstration of the absence of the necessary political maturity to establish a state: rapists do not deserve statehood.  Nonetheless, Secretary Blinken and his echoes in the press have begun to raise the demand for a Palestinian state, characteristically with no discussion at all as to the character of this state, let alone its borders. The arguments for and against a Palestinian state are many and complex, but they are not even being engaged; instead Blinken appeals to a magical thinking about Palestinian statehood, lacking in any realism, in order to avoid naming the source of the conflict: Iran.

Israel has its own specific concerns with regard to the prospect of a Palestinian state. Currently, the IDF has the authority to exercise security control throughout much of the West Bank. The sovereignty of a Palestinian state would end that arrangement. As a result, Israel’s major population center in and around Tel Aviv could easily be targeted by weaponry from the overlooking hills only miles away. Americans should not advocate putting an ally in this sort of danger. To the rejoinder that a Palestinian state might be demilitarized, one can only reply that the same promise was made about southern Lebanon, which is now home to enormous numbers of Hezbollah rockets and missiles. Who will enforce the demilitarization of the Palestinian state?

Yet the question of Palestinian statehood implies another bucket of concerns for American grand strategy. Some may believe that a state will solve the Palestinians’ problems, but it is not at all clear how establishing a Palestinian state would serve American national interest. Free elections there are likely to lead to an empowerment of Hamas or Hamas-like forces. The new state will then inevitably turn into a further outpost for Iranian and potentially Russian interests, in line with the so-called “axis of resistance,” Lebanese Hezbollah and Assad’s Syria. Perhaps it needs to be spelled out that empowering America’s enemies is not in American national interest. Introducing a radical Palestinian state in the West Bank will also have ripple effects eroding the stability of another U.S. ally, neighboring Jordan, with its large Palestinian population. Such developments will necessarily be viewed as entailing an abandonment of Israel by the U.S., a lesson that will not be lost on the Gulf states, which in turn will have a deleterious impact on American interests.

The U.S. cannot pretend that the Middle East is irrelevant to its grand strategy. Exit is not an option. Fortunately, the region is home to at least one strong ally, Israel, and a network of other partners with pro-American inclinations. It is not in America’s national interest to squander those assets by betraying friends in order to pander to the enemies in Iran. It will however likely require a different administration in Washington with a clearer understanding of the Middle East to articulate and execute the appropriate policies.

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