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Diplomacy & Crisis News

The Age of Great-Power Distraction

Foreign Affairs - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 06:00
What crises in the Middle East and elsewhere reveal about the global order.

Paralysis in the Pentagon

Foreign Affairs - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 06:00
A standoff in the Senate is undermining civilian control of the military.

Letter to the Editor: The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the War in Ukraine

Foreign Affairs - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 06:00
A response to “Putin’s Useful Priests”.

For Joe Biden, It’s All Downhill From Here

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

Hamas’ savage assault on Israel is only the latest nightmare for President Joe Biden. The breakout by the Islamist proxy of Iran marks a new low point of this increasingly Jimmy Carter-esque presidency. 

Yet, Democrats and the media have been shocked by recent polls showing Biden neck-and-neck with his contenders. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump could both beat Biden in notional matchups. Some Democrats have yet to panic, but they should: Biden’s position will deteriorate further this winter. 

First, there is “Bidenomics.” A White House insulated from the public by a sympathetic media sent the president out to tout his economic record this summer and fall—a big mistake. Since Biden took office, cumulative inflation of nearly 20 percent means that the government has effectively vaporized one-fifth of voters’ savings and purchasing power. Unlike a stock market decline, this is lost money and buying power that cannot be recovered in the future. 

Unfortunately for Biden, matters are getting worse, not better. When the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports third-quarter GDP growth on October 26, it will likely show a healthy-sounding two-to-three percent. But the real economy is getting worse, and voters know it, judging from Biden’s meager 37 percent approval for handling the economy according to the RealClearPolitics average

The manufacturing sector has been in a slump for a year. Housing is unaffordable. Consumers have blown through savings from the pandemic and racked up a record amount of high-interest credit card debt. Student loan payments have just resumed. Gasoline prices will likely increase until a recession arrives. High-interest rates will put many companies that need new capital under stress or into bankruptcy. Commercial real estate is headed for a more profound crisis, which in turn will put financial organizations that carry those real estate companies’ loans into distress. The economy will likely contract this quarter, leading to a stock market decline. A second quarter of economic contraction in the new year would lead to a technical recession being declared just as the election campaign heats up next summer. 

The foreign policy outlook is just as poor. Biden’s popularity went negative after the humiliating 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden’s aides have hoped that success in Ukraine would wipe away that shame. However, the much-touted spring and summer Ukrainian counteroffensive failed. Both parties in Congress support continued funding of Ukraine’s military and government, but the public has soured. Polls now show a majority of voters want an end to the U.S. largesse. Voters see China and Iran as serious threats that require attention and aren’t buying the Beltway expert argument that the United States needs to wage a draining proxy war with Russia to scare Beijing and Tehran. 

Voters will only become more displeased that Washington appears to care more about Ukraine’s borders than our own. Biden’s summer charm offensive on China—he sent several cabinet officials to Beijing, one of whom literally bowed to China’s vice premier—has yielded nothing of value. His Europe-first foreign policy also seems to have breathed new life into terrorism sponsored by Iranian and its proxies, including Hamas.

Back at home, Biden faces the real prospect of third-party challengers who will sap votes from the Democrats in key states. Liberal activist Cornel West will run as an independent. Robert Kennedy Jr. also just decided to do so, given his treatment by the Democrat establishment and progressive media, who refused even to countenance discussion of his points of view. 

Democrats comfort themselves that Republicans are in disarray, having ousted the latest lackluster Republican Speaker of the House. But all Republicans need a  Speaker who can do a decent job of communicating the crises at the border and on the budget. Even though they must eventually compromise with Democrats, given the balance of power in Washington, all Republicans have to do is put up a fight and stay generally on message until all attention turns to the presidential race. That could happen beginning in January when Trump could stumble in the Iowa Caucuses, likely at the hands of DeSantis.  

Finally, there is Biden’s visibly deteriorating health. The Constitution created a strong presidency because it is necessary to manage a giant executive branch, act decisively in a crisis, and cut deals in the shared powerlessness that marks much of bureaucratic and legislative Washington. Paradoxically, it is the presidency, not the Congress, that is the most democratic institution in town. The president alone is elected by the whole country, and he alone has the power to advocate decisively for the people’s interests. Does anyone think Biden is getting better at performing this role? Instead of Biden, the highly ideological White House staff operates the executive branch. Voters grasp this dangerous situation, with large majorities saying Biden is too old to govern. 

Therefore, Biden will likely lose altitude on the real economy, the stock market, foreign affairs, and his health. His opponents on the Left and Right will gain strength. Growing numbers of Democrats perceive this, as indicated by more and more Left-leaning pundits calling for him to step aside. Come winter, they will have even stronger arguments to dump Biden.  

Christian Whiton is a senior fellow for strategy and trade at the Center for the National Interest.  He was a senior advisor in the George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump administrations.

Image: Shutterstock.

These Weapons Made Ukraine’s Foreign Legion a Nightmare for Russia

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

The Ukraine Foreign Legion (also known as the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine) is made up of fighters from many countries, including the U.S., U.K., Poland, Israel, Afghanistan, and others looking to resist Russian aggression. These fighters have primarily law enforcement and military backgrounds and use a variety of small arms.

The Ukraine Foreign Legion seems to be getting some of the odder variants of the equipment being donated by countries around the world. Today we are going to take a peek at those small arms.

Definitive sources about front-line equipment can be tough to find. We’ve turned mostly to social media sources including Ukraine Weapon’s TrackerWar Noir, and several more across Twitter and Instagram. These types of accounts source social media posts displaying numerous scenes and weapons in use by the Ukraine military. From those photos, we’ve gathered a small list of the current small arms of the Ukraine Foreign Legion.


As Sandboxx News covered early in the war, the FN FNC became one of the more common rifles of the Ukraine Foreign Legion. These Belgium-donated rifles armed the Belgian military for decades and were only been recently replaced. These piston-operated guns are a bit on the heavy side and lack modularity, but they are well-made rifles. They fire the 5.56 NATO round, which is quickly becoming more and more common amongst Ukraine’s fighters as the war progresses.


The Ukraine Foreign Legion also uses Belgium’s latest assault rifle, the FN SCAR-L, which also fires the 5.56 round. This is a short-stroke gas-piston gun that is much more modern than the FNC. It features rails for optics and accessories and is a bit lighter (which is what the L in its name indicates). The FN SCAR-L is a very accurate gun and is well-known for its reliability.


The Bren is another short-stroke gas-piston gun that’s very similar to the SCAR, so much so it’s often joked that the Bren is the Czech SCAR. The Czech Republic donated the weapons to Ukraine and they’ve been popular with the Foreign Legion. The Bren is a modern, modular rifle that’s accessory-ready, fairly light, and quite reliable. The gun comes in either 5.56 or 7.62, but we’ve only seen a 5.56 variation in use in Ukraine.

CZ VZ 58

The VZ 58 is AK-like in appearance but a very different weapon than the AK. This rifle came into service in 1959 and used a rather novel operating system in the form of a gas-operated, hinged-locking, piece-assisted breechblock. It’s quite reliable and fires the classic 7.62x39mm round of which Ukraine likely has plenty. Although the gun is somewhat outdated it is not obsolete.


The United States has donated a number of small arms to Ukraine, including modern M4 carbines, which have been seen in service with the Foreign Legion. These direct-impingement rifles provide a very reliable and lightweight carbine for troops. They are very modular and easy to outfit with modern accessories. In the past, we’ve seen these rifles have issues in freezing environments, so hopefully, the soldiers issued M4s know to take precautions.


Unsurprisingly there are a ton of AK-types in Ukraine, including the Russian-made AKM and AK 74 series alongside the RPK light machine gun. These rifles either fire the 7.62×39 or the 5.45×39 and can be either fixed- and or folding-stock types. Countries like Serbia have donated their AK variants to Ukraine, and we’ve even seen Chinese Type 56 rifles used by the Ukrainian forces. It’s somewhat difficult to tell which AKs have gone to the Ukraine Foreign Legion, but they most certainly have been seen wielding them.


Another unsurprising sight is the PKM belt-fed machine gun. This medium machine gun fires the 7.62x54R and has been seen in the hands of American volunteers fighting in Ukraine. This belt-fed support weapon is one of the better medium machine guns out there. It operates on the same principle as the Kalashnikov and is perfectly suited for the Ukrainian winter. It’s also light for its design and quite effective.


The Belgian FN Minime became the American M249 SAW. The two weapons are largely the same and with both Belgium and the United States donating weapons to Ukraine, it’s tough to say which is which by looking at photos. This 5.56 caliber, belt-fed, light machine gun provides a squad with a designated support weapon and is much easier to use in urban areas and tight quarters than a medium machine gun. These guns offer portability for a machine gun with a reliable open-bolt design.


Like the M249 and Minime, the FN MAG and M240 are largely the same gun but with different designations. The M240 is my favorite medium machine gun. It’s insanely reliable and quite accurate and capable. It’s admittedly heavy but easy to use and quite effective. This 7.62 NATO machine gun offers a general-purpose machine gun for infantry and vehicle use and is at home in both defense and offense. It’s tough to find a more reliable machine gun out there.


According to an interview hosted by Czech news agency Seznam Zpravy, a Czech member of the Ukraine Foreign Legion carried the CZ Scorpion and P10C at his air defense position.

With his primary weapon being an anti-air weapon, the use of a smaller, lighter SMG, in the form of the Scorpion, makes sense as it’s easier to carry along the heavy anti-air weapon. The Scorpion is a direct blowback, 9mm submachine gun designed for the Czech military and police forces. It’s a modular weapon with plenty of rails for accessories. The SMG features a folding stock making it even more compact for an easy-carrying design.


The same Czech fighter carried a CZ P10C which is a modern 9mm handgun. This polymer frame, striker-fired design, has become quite popular. The handgun is fairly standard in design but quite accurate with a nice trigger and that famed Czech reliability.


Dozens of different types of weapons have been donated to Ukraine and everything from Steyr AUGS to Mossberg 500s has made its way to the country. As such, it’s likely impossible to catalog all the firearms used by the Ukraine Foreign Legion. However, the above is a good start. If you know of any we should add to the list, please list them below.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.

This article was first published by Sandboxx News.

Image: U.S. Military/U.S. Government/Creative Commons. 

Does Israel Have Any Good Options in the Gaza War?

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

After this weekend’s horrific Hamas assault on Israel, the ball is now in Jerusalem’s court, and the most important question is how the Netanyahu government will respond. Inevitably, that’s a complicated issue.

Israel’s immediate goals are obvious. It needs to rescue the Israelis who have been taken hostage, cripple Hamas militarily to prevent or deter another Hamas attack, and simultaneously prevent a wider war with Hamas’s allies, Iran and Hizballah, which could cause more Israeli casualties and complicate the IDF’s operations against Hamas in the near term.

These goals translate into four obvious military objectives for the IDF. Israel wants to rescue its hostages, kill or capture as much of the Hamas leadership as possible, destroy as much of Hamas’s military capabilities as possible, and defend or deter attacks on Israel by Hizballah, Iran, or other members of Tehran’s “Axis of Resistance.”

In turn, these objectives shape themselves into three obvious military options for Israel at this point.

The first would be to maintain the “siege” of Gaza that Jerusalem has already declared both to prevent Hamas leaders and fighters from fleeing and to try to convince the Palestinian population to turn on Hamas—either to provide Israel with better information on Hamas or even move them to take up arms against Hamas. This would be coupled with continued air strikes and special operations forces (SOF) attacks to kill or grab Hamas leaders, destroy Hamas military forces, and free Israeli hostages as Israeli intelligence identifies them.

The second would be a larger version of the first. It would maintain the siege, but rather than limiting the Israeli strikes to just air and SOF, it would include much larger Israeli ground incursions, with infantry and armor punching into Gaza whenever possible to smash Hamas militarily, kill or capture its leaders, and find and free the Israeli hostages similar to other operations into Gaza Israel has conducted in years past. While some such Israeli ground operations might last for days, the goal would be to limit them to just hours and avoid re-occupying any parts of Gaza for any length of time.

The last option would be a major ground invasion of Gaza. In this case, the IDF would re-occupy all of Gaza and then systematically search out and kill or capture the Hamas leadership and its military forces, and likewise find and free the Israeli hostages.

Again, obviously, the first option would minimize Israeli costs and risks—at least in the short term—but would be least likely to succeed in achieving Israel’s goals and objectives. Moreover, a prolonged siege of Gaza could still prove politically and militarily onerous as Palestinian suffering continues while little is accomplished and the damage to Israel fades into memory.

Nor is the middle option necessarily Goldilocks’s “just right” solution. While it incurs fewer costs and risks and entails a greater likelihood of success, it doesn’t guarantee that Israel gets what it wants or at an acceptable price.

The last, most extensive option seems most consistent with Israel’s mood and public statements so far. Moreover, it is exactly what Egypt has encouraged Israel to do in the past as the only way to remove the festering sore of Hamas’s control over Gaza, a major problem for both Cairo and Jerusalem. But it too has its own costs and risks.

Firstly, because the Egyptians are right. If Israel is determined to smash Hamas and potentially even remove them Gaza, re-occupying Gaza for a matter of weeks or months and methodically rooting it out is the only way to do so, but that would mean Israeli forces engaging in protracted guerilla warfare in a dangerous urban environment. It would risk heavy Israeli military casualties, heavy Palestinian civilian casualties, and possibly the death of many hostages as well.

Moreover, if Israel succeeds in extirpating Hamas from Gaza but then pulls out quickly to avoid another permanent occupation, as seems likely, it would leave the huge unknown of who would rule in Gaza in place of Hamas? Jerusalem could see an even worse leadership seize power—zealous Salafi Jihadists like ISIS—or no leadership at all leading to civil war.

Because of the potential for high casualties, a major assault on Gaza would also be the most problematic for Israel’s rapprochement with the Arab states—which was undoubtedly one of the principal targets of the Hamas offensive, and of Iran’s support for that offensive. And finally, a major offensive that threatened Hamas’s military viability and its control of Gaza is also the most likely to provoke intervention by Iran and its other allies.

Finally, Prime Minister Netanyahu will doubtless add his own personal political and legal calculations as well. This is his war. It happened on his watch. If he is seen as “winning” it, he can probably hold on to power which he seems to calculate is the only way to avoid prison. If he is seen as losing the war, he probably loses everything: power, his reputation, even his freedom. And in the end, none of us knows what Bibi believes “victory” over Hamas would look like.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries.

This article was first published by the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: Shutterstock.

How Many Nuclear Submarines Does Australia Need?

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

The September 2021 announcement of Australia’s transition to nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) under the AUKUS program indicated that ‘at least eight’ would be acquired. More recently, the rhetoric has firmed up to eight, with the program director telling a Senate committee in May that there would be three Virginia-class SSNs and five AUKUS SSNs. Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead implied that this was the full extent of the program and that decisions for what followed would be left for a future government.

A decision to stop at eight overlooks critical strategic, industrial and personnel considerations that determine the number of submarines Australia acquires.

Since the 2009 defence white paper, successive reviews have affirmed the need for 12 submarines supported by a base on each coast providing specialised infrastructure, workshops and a submarine squadron staff. While nuclear propulsion provides much greater mobility, a submarine can only be in one place at a time. Once its position is revealed by counter-detection or its own offensive actions, uncertainty over its location is removed and with that, its deterrent value diminishes for a period. Added to the reality of our geography, a force able to deploy at least two submarines on each coast would require at least 12 SSNs to provide ongoing uncertainty (for an adversary) and, if needed, operational impact.

It takes three to four submarines to guarantee having one available for deployment. The ‘rule of three’ was validated by the Coles review, but that doesn’t include any spare capacity to cope with unexpected defects. The UK and French experiences confirm that four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are required to sustain one at sea—noting that SSBNs operate in a much lower mechanical and operationally stressed environment than SSNs.

Industrial issues are significant factors in the cost of ownership and effectiveness of the force. Australia intends to build the AUKUS SSNs in Adelaide. That is thoroughly commendable, but we should expect delays and difficulties as we learn how to do it. In all shipbuilding programs, the time and cost of successive vessels reduces as the workforce and processes are optimised. Typically, based on Australian (and global) experience, the third submarine will cost some 40% less than the first, with much smaller reductions anticipated as later submarines are built.

This only works if the building program is continuous. Stop–start shipbuilding is a well-known recipe for prolonged delays and grossly inflated costs, as demonstrated by Britain’s Astute class, which, according to a House of Commons Defence Committee report in early 2010, was already by then 57 months late and 53% over budget.

Once we have mastered the complexities of building SSNs, as I am sure we will, we shouldn’t stop building.

Australia is planning on a three-year interval between delivery of submarines, driven by the time it will take to generate a crew from our small submarine personnel base and limited sea training capacity in operational Collins-class and US and UK submarines.

Construction of the first submarine will take longer and reduce to a steady state after three or four are built and the workforce has made its way up the learning curve and processes have been optimised. The building process is a production line—at any time, submarines will be in different states of completeness. Construction time doesn’t determine the drumbeat for delivery; rather, construction starts in sufficient time to achieve the delivery drumbeat.

Three years is a slow drumbeat industrially. Shorter would be more efficient but is currently not feasible because of personnel limitations. The personnel training limitation should ease once Australia has at least six SSNs at sea. The drumbeat could then be shortened. A slow drumbeat is more expensive due to idle production but is also likely to contribute to a loss of skilled workers; witness the UK’s experience at Barrow in Furness because of the slow Astute drumbeat.

A construction program building eight submarines at a three-year drumbeat would take 21 years. Submarines typically have a hull life of 25–30 years. Thus, this production line would have nothing to build for four to nine years, and would then be then back into stop–start shipbuilding.

A force of 10 SSNs at a three-year drumbeat with a planned 27-year life is the minimum to provide a continuous-build program, avoiding the stop–start situation. A force of 12 could achieve a shorter drumbeat in the later stages when the personnel restrictions are not so severe.

Decisions on the final size of the force must be made now, at the program’s inception. They drive industrial issues such as the size of facilities, production-line technology, the supply chains supporting the force and the ordering of long lead items such as the reactor. The decision cannot responsibly be left for a future government.

My study of British, French and US submarine-crewing policies, summarised in my 2018 ASPI report, concluded that a force of 10 SSNs with 10 crews was essential to generate the minimum critical mass of experienced personnel. A smaller force will not generate sufficient highly experienced personnel to oversee the safe technical and operational aspects of the program. That calculation assumed one base and one submarine squadron. Two-ocean basing with an additional 200 highly experienced squadron staff, a key link in the operational and safety chain, would require at least 12 SSNs.

Britain’s Royal Navy has six or seven SSNs and four SSBNs operating from one base in a single squadron. Its personnel situation is dire. High wastage rates and shortfalls in many critical categories have reportedly necessitated drafting non-volunteers to submarine training and cannibalising parts and crew to get even one submarine to sea. At times, the RN is unable to achieve even one. Is that where Australia is heading?

The issues are undoubtedly more complex than simply the size of the force, but it reinforces the point that a force of eight SSNs requiring six to seven crews is below critical mass, vulnerable to personnel shortfalls, will struggle to sustain two SSNs deployed, and won’t be able to sustain two-ocean basing.

Even more problematic is whether Australia can achieve an operational, sustainable and deployable SSN capability from eight boats made up of a mix of Virginia and AUKUS designs. The mix of classes adds to the complexity, cost and risk because it entails two supply chains and differing major onboard equipment, spares, and training systems and simulators.

Australia requires at least 12 SSNs to sustain two-ocean basing with two deployable on each coast in the good times. A force of 18—nine on each coast—would be more resilient, reliably providing two deployable SSNs, with three available in the good times.

Eight is plainly insufficient on all counts.

Leaving the decision for a later government will mean greater expense and increase the risk that the program doesn’t produce the needed strategic capability, while stripping funds from other key defence capabilities. A lack of decision, along with Australia’s failure to join the AUKUS SSN initial design effort, indicates inadequate commitment.

A ‘damn the torpedoes’ transition to SSNs could leave us with no submarine capability.

If Australia is not prepared to, or cannot, invest the resources to achieve a viable SSN force, we are better off not continuing down this path.

Peter Briggs is a retired submarine specialist and a past president of the Submarine Institute of Australia.

This article was first published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Image: The Mariner 4291 /

U.S. Special Forces are Ready to Help Israel Rescue Its Hostages

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

The world’s eyes are fixed on the war between Israel and Hamas following the terrorist organization’s surprise attack on Israel over the weekend.

As the dust settles down, the real impact of Hamas’ terrorist attack is becoming evident. However, there are still Israelis and foreign nationals alive and in the hands of the terrorists inside Gaza. The U.S. military has offered to help the Israelis with any rescue operations.  


According to the Department of Defense, there are U.S. advisors from the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) on the ground in case their Israeli counterparts require help with planning for potential hostage rescue operations inside Gaza. The Messenger news portal reports that the special operators have augmented an existing special operations element in the U.S. embassy.

There are 50 confirmed hostages in the hands of Hamas, including potentially 20 Americans, per the latest estimates. The terrorist group claims to have more than 100 people in its hands. Although the terrorist organization threatened to kill one hostage for every Israeli airstrike, that hasn’t happened yet. To dissuade any hostage rescue attempts, Hamas terrorists very likely have spread the hostages across Gaza in safe houses or underground.

So, in the event the Israelis request help, which U.S. special operations units would be doing the advising?

Mainly the Army’s Delta Force and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), previously known as SEAL Team SIX. These two units are Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) assault components and specialize in counterterrorism and hostage rescue operations.

Delta Force has had a history of advising domestic and foreign units during crises. During the Waco siege incident in Texas in 1993, which claimed the lives of 86 people, including four federal agents, Delta Force operators traveled to the Lone Star state to advise the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) on how it could storm the compound belonging to the religious cult Branch Davidians. The Delta Force commandos couldn’t participate in the operation because of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents the use of military forces within the United States.

Related: A Delta Force perspective on Russia’s paratrooper operations


The special operators would mainly be advising the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit or Sayeret Matkal. This is the Israeli Defense Force’s tier one unit and maintains a very close relationship with Delta Force and its British counterpart, 22 Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment.

Sitting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a veteran of the unit, as was his brother, Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, who commanded the special operations unit and was killed during the famous hostage rescue Operation Entebbe in 1976.

However, the sheer number of hostages means that the elite Sayeret Matkal would need help. Another unit that would play a significant role in any hostage rescue operations is the Shayetet 13, the tier one unit of the Israeli Navy and the equivalent of SEAL Team SIX. Equally capable as its Army brethren, Shayetet 13 will likely lead any hostage rescue missions in locations close to the sea, though it’s quite capable of operating in urban environments.

Mista’arvim units from the military, border police, and police might also play a part in hostage rescue operations. These counterterrorism units are comprised of Arab-speaking Israelis who can hide very well among Tel Aviv’s Arab enemies.

The dense urban environment of Gaza will present difficulties to Israeli special operators. But competent special operations forces shouldn’t have serious problems from that.

Related: China fears the urban warfare displayed in Ukraine could save Taiwan


On Saturday, Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel in several places and wrought havoc on military bases and civilian communities alike.

The Palestinians caught the Israelis by complete surprise, running amok for hours before they encountered any significant resistance by the Israeli military, which had most of its forces positioned hours away along the West Bank.

In a few short hours, Hamas terrorists released on innocent Israeli civilian generations of hate, competing with the Islamic State (ISIS) in the brutality of their war crimes.

As Israel mourns, the casualty figures continue to rise. As of Wednesday, Israeli officials state that at least 1,200 Israeli civilians, soldiers, and policemen have been killed and more than 2,700 wounded in the terrorist attacks.

Casualties are equally heavy on the other side. Israeli officials have recovered more than 1,500 bodies of Hamas terrorists in Israel, while Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 1,000 civilians and wounded over 5,000 in Gaza. Although the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is trying to minimize civilian losses by alerting, in some cases, which buildings will be bombed, the airstrikes continue to kill civilians at an alarming rate. With more than two million people squeezed in 140 square miles (about 7.5 times the size of Rhode Island), a lot of which are urban neighborhoods, there is not much room for civilians to hide in Gaza.

According to the IDF, in five days of combat, Hamas has launched more than 4,500 rockets and munitions against Israel, while the Israeli Air Force has struck almost 2,300 targets.

The Israeli Defense Force will launch its ground offensive against Gaza anytime now. In an impressive feat of organization and logistics, Tel Aviv mobilized more than 360,000 reservists in just 72 hours. For comparison, it took the Russian military weeks to gather its 300,000 reservists for deployment to Ukraine last autumn. It is likely that any hostage rescue attempts will take place before the ground invasion to maximize their chances of success.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations and national security. He is a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He holds a BA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MA from the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and is pursuing a J.D. at Boston College Law School.

This article was first published by Sanboxx News.

Image: Shutterstock.

What Was Hamas Thinking?

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

It must be dawning on Hamas that it has made a serious mistake. A senior Hamas official said the group was open to discussing a truce with Israel, having “achieved its targets.” What he meant was that the terrorists desperately want a ceasefire since they are now the targets of Israeli strikes. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded succinctly to the truce offer: “every member of Hamas is a dead man.”

The international community is rightly disgusted by the brutal Hamas terror attacks in Israel. The images over the weekend were beyond revolting: Families were slaughtered in their homes, elderly people massacred at a bus stop, and hundreds of young revelers at a peace festival hunted down and shot. Not to mention the scores of people kidnapped—including Americans—and the sight of screaming young women being hauled away by Hamas thugs to suffer unspeakable acts.

Amid this nightmare, it is fair to ask: What was Hamas thinking? 

Sure, the group rolled out its usual talking points. Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh praised the attackers and the scenes of heroic deeds, sacrifices, courage, and pride. Hamas politburo member Moussa Abu Marzouk denied that the terrorists had purposefully targeted civilians. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei lauded Hamas while also saying Iran was uninvolved. (Meanwhile, Iranian citizens booed the Palestinian flag at a soccer match.) Hamas fellow traveler groups, like those at Harvard, rushed out implausible statements blaming Israel for the bloodshed. Progressives in Congress demanded an immediate ceasefire, backing the Hamas line, and now face calls they be expelled

The bipartisan response of most Americans was outrage. Former President Barack Obama spoke for many when he said we must “stand squarely alongside our ally, Israel, as it dismantles Hamas.” Note his use of the word “dismantle.” This is the same language the United States has used concerning terror groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. Hamas is not just to be defeated but taken apart, eradicated, and ended.

Hamas’ “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” can well be compared to Al Qaeda’s “Operation Holy Tuesday,” the September 11, 2001 attacks. Both actions came as a surprise, were technically well executed, and resulted in unprecedented deaths. And in both cases, the terrorists miscalculated the depth and severity of the reaction they would face.

9/11 dramatically changed American attitudes regarding how to combat terrorism. The U.S. government was authorized, morally, legally, and politically, to hunt down terrorists by any means necessary. Activities that in previous decades would have been undertaken cautiously, after long internal debate, became mostly routine. Global covert action was unleashed. Extraordinary renditions became ordinary. Americans cheered the assassinations of terror leaders. Such strikes are now so non-controversial that when al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri was droned last July, President Biden barely got any credit.

Israel has now been issued the same type of global hunting license to take out Hamas and any of its co-conspirators. Whether in Gaza or elsewhere, Hamas leaders are in the target group for a “Wrath of God” style response. The expected IDF push into Gaza will eject Hamas from power and end its use of the strip as a launching pad for Iranian rockets.

So, what did Hamas hope to achieve? One notion is that they struck to split Israel’s divided polity further, hit them when they were distracted by politics and the High Holy Days. But, like 9/11, the attack had the opposite effect and created instant political unity.

Maybe they planned to draw Israel into a bloody stalemate in Gaza. Yes, when the IDF ground invasion comes, it will be bloody, as urban warfare always is. But no, it will not be a stalemate. Hamas will be driven from power.

Maybe Hamas thinks they can attract international sympathy by hyping Palestinian civilian casualties. Hamas uses civilians as human shields precisely for this purpose—it benefits from high body counts. But Israel seeks to minimize needless deaths, and the world knows it.

Plus, Hamas has already provided a stark contrast. There will be no scenes of Israeli troops dragging elderly people from their cars for summary execution, no IDF soldiers loading Palestinian women into trucks to rape and murder them, and no children being held hostage with the threat of death hanging over them. There is no moral relativism here. The Israelis are the good guys. Hamas is a clear and present evil.

Hamas felt that it could disrupt Arab-Israeli rapprochement. Ismail Haniyeh explicitly denounced the normalization efforts. But the rulers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries in the region have no use for the kind of radicalism Hamas preaches and the chaos it creates. Hamas is not their idea of the face of the Arab future. They also recognize that Hamas is a creature of Shiite Iran, an enduring adversary of the Sunni Arab states. So, Israel needs to convince Arab states to actively participate in the Gaza reconstruction effort once Hamas is eliminated. Let them build Gaza into a model Palestinian society, bolstered by tourism and trade instead of UN handouts and Iranian weapons.

Maybe Hamas thinks it can spark a wider war, with Hezbollah attacking in the north, perhaps a West Bank uprising, maybe even Iran intervening directly. This is all possible, but given the international reaction, it is unlikely. Any terror group that joins the fighting will suffer the same consequences as Hamas. If Iran seeks to intervene, the war could escalate to the point where it draws in the United States, NATO, or other proponents of the rules-based international order.

So, whatever Hamas intended by Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, it has failed. Unlike its previous encounters with Israel, the terror organization may have unleashed an unlimited war that would culminate in the group’s utter destruction. There will be no international pressure on Israel to limit its objectives until Hamas is driven from Gaza. And even then, Hamas leaders will be hunted relentlessly for years to come.

Maybe the people of Gaza will discover how much better life can be when freed from living under the thumb of violent extremist overlords and given a chance to develop their society in peace and freedom. Maybe then “land for peace” can become a reality.

James S. Robbins is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and Dean of Academics at the Institute of World Politics.

Image: Shutterstock. 

To Support Israel, We Must Reverse Course on Iran

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

When adversaries tell you what they want, it is best to believe them. For decades, the regime in Iran and its terrorist proxies like Hamas loudly demanded, “Death to Israel. Death to America.” The mistake in the West was to dismiss such calls as political theater—offering concessions and “grand bargains” instead. The savagery of Hamas’ Iranian-backed attacks on Israel should leave no doubt: America’s enemies mean what they say. If the United States is to fully support Israel in defending itself at this critical hour of need, it is urgent that the White House radically and publicly reverse course on Iran—a major supporter of Hamas.

For decades, Tehran has provided Hamas with arms, training, and support. The regime reportedly assisted the unprecedented barbarism that Hamas unleashed on Israel over the weekend. Clearly, Tehran does not fear meaningful retaliation from the United States for promoting such violence. A major reason: The White House’s conciliatory approach to Iran has been misguided from the start.

President Joe Biden entered office promising to roll back the Trump White House’s previous maximum pressure campaign on Iran. Biden’s official intention was to “de-escalate” tensions with Iran’s clerical regime through a “strategy of deterrence, of pressure, and diplomacy,” according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. It was a fine sentiment. Unfortunately, it was the wrong strategy.

Even as the Biden White House negotiated with Iran, the clerical regime’s proxies and militia groups steadily increased their attacks against U.S. partners and forces in the Middle East. Hamas is one of those groups. While its grotesque escalation against Israel over the weekend was unprecedented in its brutality, its intensification of violence was also in line with Tehran’s method of entertaining negotiations with Washington on the one hand while spreading terror and chaos on the other. Sadly, this tactic is not new. Like Iran, Russia has played a similar double game in Europe.

President Biden entered office with plans to improve U.S.-Russian relations. “We want a stable, predictable relationship” with the Kremlin, he asserted. The White House quickly sealed a nuclear arms control deal with Russia to extend the New START Treaty and—astonishingly—entrusted the Kremlin to act as our intermediary in negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program. In less than a year, all of these efforts were in cinders.

Russia burned the New START Treaty, repeated its taunts to topple American power worldwide, launched the largest European land war since World War II, and continues to kill innocent Ukrainians with drones made in Iran. Three years into this administration, Washington’s relationship with Moscow is anything but stable or predictable, and we no longer use Russia as our formal go-between with Iran.

The fact is that America does not have a specific “Iran problem” or a “Russia problem.” Tehran and Moscow are just the most prominent examples of America’s larger rogue state problem. Regimes are finding that overtly challenging the United States and its allies through direct or proxy violence reaps rewards and concessions. Hamas’ attack from Gaza is only the most recent — and most murderous — manifestation of this intensifying trend.

From Venezuela to North Korea, Syria to Niger, restive, revisionist, and repugnant regimes are flouting—and in some cases unraveling—the old order of rules and alliances that America built up over decades. In its place, these rogues seek to topple that order and establish an alternative world where might makes right. Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was the violent overture of this strategy. With the support of Iran, Hamas’s assault on Israel is the murderous counterpoint. The United States tried to sanction Putin’s war machine with mixed results. In responding to Hamas’ violence, Washington has a clear moral and political imperative to make Iran an object lesson for other rogues and predatory regimes.

The White House can start by reverting to America's previous—and successful—policy of maximum pressure on Iran. This means targeting the clerical regime’s cash—money it uses to fund terror operations like the one we just witnessed. The U.S. Treasury must close the permissive gaps in our current sanctions that allow Tehran to sell over a million barrels of illicit oil per day and immediately freeze the $6 billion in funds that the Biden administration allowed the regime to access in August. The White House claimed that it could shut off Iran’s access to these funds at any time. Now is absolutely the right time to do just that.

If we are going to fully support Israel in defending itself — and we must — the world must see that Hamas and Iran are defeated. The economic carrots for Tehran must be replaced with only sticks.

Peter Doran is a senior adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on X @PeterBDoran.

Image: Shutterstock.

The Hamas Attack and the Failure to Understand “Intelligence Failures”

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

Much early commentary about the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting has followed a familiar script that appears each time a foreign state or group commits a sudden, violent act large enough to shock the global public. At least as much attention has been given to asking how Israel, with its vaunted intelligence and security services, could have failed to predict—and, presumably, to ward off preemptively—the assault as to the discussion of the fundamental circumstances underlying the violence. Among declarations of “intelligence failure,” one hears related terms that are used often enough to have become clichés, such as “connecting the dots” and “failure of imagination.”

Viewing the Israel-Hamas situation with this script misrepresents what does and does not tend to be knowable by governments, as well as what is most important for a government to know to protect its citizens from harm.

It is impossible to make well-founded judgments about all the failures that may have occurred without detailed knowledge of the relevant communications and interactions inside Israeli officialdom. Lack of such knowledge has not stopped many outside commentators from nonetheless offering opinions on the subject—another familiar pattern in reactions to shocking events. At some point, the inevitable commission of inquiry in Israel will perhaps make some relevant information public.

However, one should not place great hope in such inquiries because they tend to be political exercises whose shortcomings are seldom recognized. Those conducting the investigation are under pressure to satisfy a public yearning for an explanation based on an understandable and fixable problem. This yearning is powered by the intense emotions that a recent tragedy has aroused. It is not beyond such inquiries to twist explanations to satisfy that yearning, as the 9/11 Commission in the United States did, in the process of selling its proposed organizational fix, by misrepresenting what intelligence agencies did or did not say about jihadist terrorism before the 9/11 attacks.

After the last previous Arab attack that was a national shock to Israel—the Egyptian offensive in the Sinai that began the Yom Kippur War fifty years ago this month—the subsequent Israeli commission of inquiry concluded that to avoid such surprises in the future, the Israeli intelligence community needed to become more decentralized. The 9/11 Commission made the opposite argument in pushing for greater centralization of the U.S. intelligence community. Both commissions cannot be correct. Each was satisfying a public and political desire for some change, which could be considered a “fix” to the organizational status quo.

The most basic distinction, too little understood, concerning knowledge of foreign threats, is between tactical knowledge of plans and intentions for a specific attack and strategic knowledge of a foreign danger that could materialize in several forms of attack.

The tactical type of knowledge is typically difficult for any government to obtain, even with a highly professional intelligence service. A small terrorist group can make plans and preparations surreptitiously, eschewing vulnerable means of communication and acting ruthlessly toward suspected informants. Hamas is a larger organization with broader responsibilities in the Gaza Strip, but it also is quite capable of acting surreptitiously and ruthlessly. There is no reason to doubt that Hamas places high emphasis on, and is adept at, keeping secrets.

The more strategic type of knowledge is generally more obtainable. It has been easily obtainable regarding the possibility of serious Palestinian violence against Israel because it is based on circumstances in the Palestinian territories that have been playing out for many years.

Specifically, strategic knowledge of the threat of violence against Israel is based on the anger and resentment that inevitably result from occupation, denial of political and human rights, and the denial of a reasonable daily life. The anger and resentment can take and have taken various forms. This month’s horrific attack by Hamas is one form. There are others. Even before the current round of fighting in and around Gaza, the chance of a new popular uprising, or intifada, in the West Bank was high. It is still high today.

The strategic type of knowledge is at least as valuable as the tactical type because it is the basis for fundamental solutions to long-term problems. Responding to specific or possible threats with tactical intelligence can have a whack-a-mole quality. In defending against a terrorist group, this means the group switches plans and targets when it appears that an earlier plan has been foiled or precluded. 

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would be hard-pressed to continually counter all the possible avenues of violent expression of Palestinian resentment. The Israeli leadership has been criticized for focusing on occupation in the West Bank in ways that drew IDF resources away from the areas near the Gaza Strip. That is a fair criticism, although if the violence this month had instead started with a West Bank intifada, questions probably would have been raised in the opposite direction about where IDF troops had been deployed.

The most basic failure in the Israeli government has been the perpetuation of occupation and suppression of Palestinian rights (including a suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip) that perpetuates the kind of anger that, in turn, perpetuates violence, including the violence seen this month. This judgment does not require any detailed knowledge of communications within the Israeli government. It is based on policies that are plain for all to see and on experiences elsewhere in the world when one ethnic or religious group oppresses another.

What is less certain is the extent to which this failure involves a lack of understanding—an “intelligence failure” in the broadest sense—or policy decisions taken despite such awareness. Israeli leaders have indicated that they expect perpetual violence from subjugated Palestinians but are willing to deal with that as the price for keeping the land and their other policies intact. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that Israel will control “all of the territory” and “live forever by the sword.” Israel leaders speak of periodically “mowing the lawn” with overwhelming military force to reduce Palestinian capability and will. The devastation the IDF is inflicting on Gaza is the latest mowing.

There are other indications, however, that Israeli leaders mistakenly believed that the periodic lawn-mowing, the walling off of ugly happenings in the West Bank, the distracting effect of “peace” agreements with Arab states, the occasional gesture making life in Gaza slightly less miserable, and other tactics to “shrink” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be sufficient to keep Palestinian violence much below the level of the Hamas assault. Such a belief partly reflects motivated thinking; the desire to keep all of the West Bank and to contain Gaza as a half-forgotten open-air prison led Israeli leaders to believe that this could be done at an acceptable price regarding anti-Israeli violence.

The policies of successive U.S. administrations toward Israel have encouraged such a false belief. After a Trump administration that based its own Middle East policy on the same belief and on giving the Israeli government whatever it desired, the Biden administration has picked up on the notion that normalization agreements with Arab states can give the appearance of “peace” in the Middle East while sufficiently sidelining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that the administration can devote its attention to other matters such as China and the war in Ukraine.

This kind of administration thinking is reflected in national security advisor Jake Sullivan’s untimely and now much-criticized remarks, just eight days before the Hamas attack, describing favorable things happening in the Middle East that were permitting the United States to turn its attention elsewhere and leading Sullivan to declare, “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” The remarks certainly deserve criticism, but not because Sullivan failed to peer intently enough into some crystal ball that would have enabled him to predict Hamas’s attack. The statement was faulty in two other respects.

One is to confuse stability and instability with whatever disorder occurs when one speaks. Instability is the potential for trouble to occur. A table with a rickety leg is unstable even if it is not in the process of collapsing right now. The Middle East was still an unstable place, worthy of attention, even on weeks when the death toll from its conflicts was relatively low.

Sullivan’s second fault was to ignore some of the bloodshed that already was occurring, specifically in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where even before this month, casualties were rising. From the beginning of 2015 (Israel’s last big war in Gaza was in 2014) through August of this year, deaths from violence between Israelis and Palestinians totaled 1,595 Palestinians—more than the casualties Hamas reportedly inflicted on Israel in its weekend assault—along with 144 Israelis.

But most of those earlier Palestinian casualties dribbled onto the tally sheet in weekly or daily encounters in which West Bank residents fell victim to the IDF or Israeli settlers. Being less noticeable, they did not deter a senior official from talking about “quiet” in the region. Nor do they influence perceptions among the public, which is largely unaware of such deaths apart from the occasional brief mention on the inner pages of a few newspapers. 

It is only big, sudden, shocking events that break through the firewall of public ignorance. The general perception of what constitutes an “intelligence failure” is not a gap in knowledge and understanding that most affect a government’s ability to protect its citizens, but instead, something that happens to surprise politicians and the public—who in turn assume that intelligence and security services must have been just as surprised.

Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. His most recent book is Beyond the Water’s Edge: How Partisanship Corrupts U.S. Foreign Policy. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.

Image: Shutterstock. 

U.S. Should Prevent Escalation of Israel-Hamas War

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

As Israel responds to the horrific attack by Hamas last weekend, a number of American observers have argued that the United States needs to take direct action against Iran as the ultimate sponsor, widening the conflict. While there is no question that Iran has provided material support to Hamas, and thereby shares some responsibility as a state supporter of terrorism, the initial U.S. intelligence suggests that Iran did not order the attack and that top Iranian officials were taken by surprise. Apart from the question of moral responsibility, however, the United States also obviously has to consider the practical costs to its interests of escalation against Iran, which are immense. Most of those arguing for action have not in any way addressed these costs. The United States should offer Israel strong support as they take action to dismantle Hamas in Gaza and warn Iran that widening the war would be disastrous for them, but also refrain from taking any actions that would draw in Iran. Our goal should be to keep the conflict narrowed to Gaza if possible. 

If the United States were to undertake military action against Iran, it would be the first time in many decades that the enemy would possess the capability to inflict widespread damage and casualties outside its own immediate vicinity. Iran’s ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and suicide drones have been mass-produced and have demonstrated their accuracy in episodes like the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, the October 2018 missile strike against Islamic State elements in northeast Syria, and the retaliation against U.S. forces in Iraq in January 2020 after the U.S. drone strike which killed Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani. When we engaged Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011, neither had systems with anywhere near this sort of accuracy and effectiveness. 

One consequence that we should expect to see in a U.S.-Iran clash is a disruption of oil supplies. U.S. aircraft would definitely need to use bases in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, with U.S. forces deployed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also likely being involved in supporting the mission. Iran would likely respond with missile and drone strikes against critical oil infrastructure, which pose a greater threat to oil than trying to interdict shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, given the long lead-time to repair some of these facilities. Iran chose to target only a subset of the critical units of Abqaiq in 2019, allowing Saudi Aramco to route around the damage at a facility that runs well below nameplate capacity. The 2019 strike demonstrated their capabilities, designed to stay below the threshold at which President Trump would involve U.S. forces. This time, it would likely aim to inflict maximum damage with a larger target set. Defenses have improved marginally, but a large enough drone swarm and ballistic missiles could cause a significant oil disruption. With 2024 a critical presidential election year, a broad range of knock-on domestic impacts on the United States could result from a lasting oil price spike and a subsequent recession. 

This also would put Gulf Arab partners in an awkward position vis a vis their own populations. The Hamas attack against Israel has, regrettably, had broad and deep resonance in the Arab world as judged by the reaction on social media. It is very much akin to the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, where Arab public reactions transcended Sunni-Shia divisions even as sectarian conflict raged in Iraq. Gulf Arab states would not be able to halt a U.S. decision to strike Iran and would inevitably be placed in the position of having to side with Washington even as they faced Iranian reprisals and resulting economic dislocations. 

Lastly, a direct U.S.-Iran clash would probably precipitate Iran’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), leaving it with massive damage to its facilities but retaining the know-how to rebuild it in a few years. It would increase, not decrease, the likelihood that Iran will eventually move from threshold status to becoming a nuclear weapons state. Iran hawks often posit that a brittle Iranian regime would fall due to such a conflict, but that is hard to predict and would not necessarily result in a cessation of nuclear activities. Other regime types could still want the geopolitical benefits of nuclear weapons or threshold status. 

It is possible that either Iran or Israel could choose to widen the war themselves or that Hezbollah could do so, but the United States should seek to discourage this to the extent possible. Hezbollah has a much larger capacity to inflict harm on Israel than Hamas via its increasingly sophisticated missile arsenal, but Iran has seen this as a deterrent to prevent Israel from striking its nuclear facilities rather than as something they would use up and exhaust lightly. There has already been a series of small incidents on Israel’s northern border, but this can happen without the situation reaching a critical mass where it escalates out of control. Whether they can stand by as Israel rolls into Gaza in force is still an open question, but there are strong arguments for restraint on the Iranian side as well as for Hezbollah. It is a danger, but one which Hezbollah and Iran may seek to keep under control. Israel also could eventually decide that it needs to take Iran on directly, but the dire consequences of doing so could prevent that. Given the consequences for U.S. regional interests and the fact that it would not permanently resolve the nuclear file, Washington should encourage restraint. 

The best outcome is the one the Biden administration seems to be pursuing—keeping the conflict as contained as possible. The United States should stand with Israel as they root out Hamas in Gaza and give Israel plenty of leeway in what is clearly going to be a gruesome fight, understanding that collateral damage and large-scale civilian casualties cannot always be avoided. However, U.S. interests pull strongly against the idea of widening the war to punish Iran. It is unfortunate, but enemy capabilities do matter when making these calculations. 

Greg Priddy is a Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Israeli Defense Forces. 

The World Has Changed, U.S. Deterrence Must Too

The National Interest - Thu, 12/10/2023 - 00:00

To date, the formula for the United States’ strategic interaction with most allies has been fairly direct:  It revolved around the idea that allies need to defend themselves from attack until US forces can sweep in to their rescue, bringing a professional military with long-range weapons, modern aircraft, deep lockers of munitions, and other advanced capabilities to bear.  Where these capabilities were crucial, the U.S. established forward bases, rather than handing the relevant capabilities to allies. This defensive formula was marvelously successful during the Cold War in preventing US allies from perceiving one another as significant threats, while serving as a guarantee of American support should the USSR or its proxies threaten an ally.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, this defensive strategy was allowed to atrophy; the absence of a peer adversary enabled the United States and its allies to imagine that a rules-based international order would dominate without robust western enforcement.

Though reliance on this strategy has persisted, it is fundamentally inapplicable to today’s problems:  Small states on the border of large, nuclear-armed autocracies face an ongoing, existential threat from conventional attack. Only the local balance of forces and the assessed probability and cost of victory stop their autocratic neighbors from exploiting local weakness and attacking them. The autocratic, nuclear armed neighbors have the option to limit the response of the United States by threatening to use their nuclear arsenals.

The reality of intimidation and invasion is utterly foreign to the voting public in the United States, who have grown used to the idea that conventional wars are only fought overseas. The oceanic moats, coupled with the peaceful southern and northern borders of the United States, have limited the threats from foreign powers – the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11 being the two notable exceptions of the 20th century.

For US allies located along the borders of China, Russia, and Iran, however, the threat of invasion – and the likelihood of genocide directed against nations and ethnicities opposed to these autocratic regimes – remains a real threat. For them, successful deterrence is an existential strategic consideration. For the United States, a successful attack on one of these states would be a disaster in terms of prestige and in some cases would cause severe economic disruption. But such an attack falls short of constituting an immediate, existential threat to the United States.

The war in Ukraine has demonstrated an enduring truth:  While the United States’ polity is willing to support allies to fight ‘good wars,’ the US lacks the patience required to remain unambiguously committed to long, expensive wars, an appetite for taking on significant risk, and a willingness to commit the requisite resources for decisive victories in distant conflicts with even near-peer adversaries. 

Deterring the United States 

Russian threats of nuclear escalation have shaped US policy in Ukraine to a massive extent:  Rather than providing the Ukrainians with the means to achieve a swift and decisive victory, the US and NATO allies have held back, contributing only enough support to keep Ukrainians from being defeated or to achieve small, tactical victories.  Even advanced air defense systems, which could clear the sky of Russian aircraft and support the Ukrainians’ ability to achieve air superiority over their own territory, have been largely withheld. In order to avoid provoking the Russians, the systems provided by the United States and NATO have been deliberately crippled to prevent their use outside the historical borders of Ukraine. 

Furthermore, by publicly debating and discussing every new capability long before providing it, Western allies have eliminated the element of surprise from the Ukraine arsenal. Consequently, the Russians are free from diverting resources toward self-defense, operating from a geographic sanctuary. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military and state has no such sanctuary from Russian attack – though much of their logistics, and almost all their supplies, are provided from NATO states. Russia is war with all of Ukraine; Ukraine is able to wage war only on the forces that Russia chooses to expose.

With rare exception, the Ukrainians can attack only the Russian forces that are actually on Ukrainian territory (including Crimea and Donbas). Russian bombs and drones regularly target Ukrainian infrastructure, including electrical stations, dams, hospitals, schools, and shipping terminals; the Ukrainians have almost no ability to match these attacks. And when the NATO allies provide advanced, long-range weapons, they come with provisions that these weapons not be used in Russia, because very few policy makers in NATO want to risk escalation with the potential of nuclear consequences.

This fear of nuclear escalation has spread to private citizens and corporations. Elon Musk crippled the capabilities of Starlink, for example, to prevent the Ukrainians from engaging in effective attacks on Russian assets, including in Crimea.  This sort of restraint can only teach autocrats to expect that they will be treated with the same level of appeasement if they can make nuclear threats. So how is the United States to deter a Russian invasion of the Baltic republics, an Iranian attack on its oil-rich neighbors along the Persian Gulf or Israel, and a Chinese attack or blockade of Taiwan?

The answer is simple:  The United States can’t be the state making the tactical decisions about how to respond and when to escalate in the face of an imminent or ongoing invasion. When US allies are faced with existential, non-nuclear threats, they need to have the capability not only to fend off the threat, but also to engage in direct reprisals on the attacking power, in order to both degrade the attacker’s capabilities and to extract a high economic and political price. If these capabilities are provided only when they are urgently needed, their deployment will depend on ever-fluctuating political will in the United States.  

Distributed Deterrence and Taiwan 

The essence of distributed deterrence lies in providing the allies of the United States with the capability not only to defend their own territory, but also to engage in muscular reprisals and conventional escalation without the United States being a direct part of the tactical decision loop.

The lessons for Taiwan are obvious:  If Western behavior in Ukraine is any guide, we can expect that any advanced capabilities that the United States provides after an invasion, or in the midst of one, are going to be limited in utility. They are going to be constrained by the difficulty of shipping materiel through an active naval war zone, and anything that could generate surprise or escalation will be slow in coming, limited in quantity, and most likely disabled so that it cannot be used outside Taiwan.

Taiwan needs to have all the weapons, ammunition, food, medicines, and other supplies on hand to sustain a long confrontation with China, and Taiwan needs the ability to escalate on their own behalf, since they are the ones under existential threat. While Taiwan does not have a nuclear capability at the moment, failure to provide a robust conventional deterrent may lead its leadership to develop such weaponry. For Taiwan, nuclear escalation is particularly unattractive:  The international condemnation of Taiwan and the hardening of Chinese that would come from Taiwan launching a first nuclear attack, even in the context of a conventional invasion, would almost certainly result in a Chinese victory, albeit at potentially devastating cost to the CCP. The time to develop an effective strategic nuclear deterrent does not match against the short timelines for a likely invasion, unless the Taiwanese have managed to secretly run such a program over the past several years.

In the lead-up to an invasion, it is easy to imagine the CCP expanding their ongoing grey-zone warfare against Taiwanese assets. In addition to today’s ongoing, flagrant violations of Taiwanese airspace and maritime territory, China could begin intercepting shipping, engaging in cyber-warfare, or attacking key targets with missiles or air strikes. Such maneuvers would degrade Taiwanese warfighting and economic capabilities while attempting to cow the population. The Taiwanese require the capability to respond to attacks on their key economic and military assets with attacks on similar assets in China. The goal would be to increase the perceived costs of such attacks, by giving Taiwan the ability to use conventional forces to cause considerable damage and embarrassment to the CCP. Conventional and sudden escalation is currently outside the scope of Taiwan’s capabilities, but this needs to change.

Taiwan does have some substantial, differentiated advantages which the United States can reinforce. First, China is far from being an autarchic regime; China’s economy is dependent on the maritime import of raw materials. Without foreign food, the Chinese population starves. Without foreign energy supplies, the lights don’t stay on. Taiwan is perfectly situated to interdict shipping to and from China; Tomahawk missiles based in Taiwan would have the range to attack facilities and ships in every Chinese port.

Secondly, Taiwan has built up a culture and infrastructure that specializes in extremely efficient manufacturing for complex electronic systems. The popular perception of Taiwan is as a manufacturing and technological powerhouse centered on building advanced computer chips at TSMC; in fact, this is only a fraction of the outsize role that Taiwan plays in the global semiconductor and electronics supply chain.  Taiwan is good – perhaps the best – at rapidly ramping up from prototype to mid-or-large scale production for complex electronic products. There are places that offer cheaper labor (i.e., inland China, Vietnam, and Penang), but Taiwan has one of the most dense concentrations of skills and equipment, and thus is one of the most attractive places to bring electronics into production quickly, at scale.

Today, many military systems look a lot like consumer electronics. In fact, many consumer products, like drones (a market dominated by China’s DJI at the moment) are being routinely repurposed as munitions and as armed ISR platforms. Even high-end military systems like missiles and torpedoes are essentially very complex sensing and processing platforms that happen to include propulsion systems and explosive payloads. Manufacturing these systems can be done with the same kind of tooling and cost reduction in scale that is routinely achieved in consumer electronics.

The United States and NATO could benefit from encouraging Taiwan to become a center for the manufacturing of such weapons systems. Today, advanced munitions are reliant on a highly bureaucratic, antiquated manufacturing and contracting system. As a result, a Tomahawk missile costs $1.5-2M today,  the United States only has about 4,000 of them, and the supply is likely to shrink to less than 1000 units as part of an ongoing modernization program.  Similarly, a modern torpedo costs as much as several million dollars. Lightweight Mark 54 systems are cheaper but still in the million dollar per unit range, a Harpoon anti-ship missile costs $1.5M, and Patriot anti-aircraft missile unit costs are in the $4m range.  Even systems that are intended for much wider deployment are quite expensive:  Javelin missiles go for about $80,000, with a $100,000 launcher.  A shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missile is now priced at about $400,000

These munitions are being hand-built like Ferraris, not churned out in volume like iPhones. In short, the industry is in a low-volume, high-price, sole-sourced trap.

These are, as a result, expensive munitions that can be expended profligately, and the numbers of them that are being manufactured – low hundreds per year of the Tomahawks, for instance – are not nearly adequate to support a distributed deterrence model. The Taiwanese alone need thousands of each of high-end munitions (and much more) in order to have a credible deterrent against China. It is essential to the security of the United States to ensure that the Taiwanese have an unambiguous ability to sink a thousand-ship invasion flotilla, with capacity to spare to attack infrastructure and other targets:  In addition to a ~800-ship navy, China has hundreds of civilian amphibious transport ships available for sea lift, and hundreds of maritime militia ships; this count does not include the many thousands of merchant ships either owned or flagged in China.

An obvious solution would be for the United States, in conjunction with the companies that supply arms to the U.S. military, to license the Taiwanese to manufacture these kinds of munitions in quantity. Simple commercial contract vehicles, like those commonly used for consumer electronics, would serve to create dramatically improved incentives for cost reduction compared to what currently dominates the defense contracting world. By offering take/pay contracts for large volumes of these munitions and launch systems, the United States could harness the enormous skill and power of the Taiwanese manufacturing ecosystem to rapidly drop the cost of these systems:  Imagine doubling or tripling the spend on Tomahawks, but getting 10 or 20x the number of munitions.  This is the kind of volume and price ramp that the Taiwanese electronics ecosystem routinely achieves for consumer goods, and they do it in time for the Christmas shopping season, again and again. By moving to commercial contract vehicles and enlisting the help of Taiwan’s mighty electronics industry, the United States can help the Taiwanese to defend themselves.

Furthermore, as the volumes go up and the costs come down, these manufacturing lines and suppliers can be duplicated here in the United States, in a transfer of manufacturing capability and expertise. Reducing the costs of these munitions will create a situation where the United States can afford to enable distributed deterrence by our allies across the globe.

One objection that many will raise:  What happens if China does successfully invade Taiwan, and Taiwan is a manufacturing center for these munitions? One response:  All of these munitions have been around for decades and have been expanded around the world. While the most recent upgrades may hold some mystery, the older generations have surely all been reverse engineered. In addition, the plants where these munitions will be manufactured can be set up so that, in the event of an invasion, they can be rapidly and comprehensively destroyed. And lastly, the key recent upgrades are embodied in specific subsystems, chips, and software - providing the chips and the finished subsystems is not necessarily the same as providing the means to replicate them at scale. Key technologies that are encapsulated in isolated subsystems - and especially in chips made in the US - could be held back and only manufactured in the United States, for the most advanced platforms. And given the extensive nature of Chinese espionage here in the US, it’s time to think less about keeping secrets and more about delivering capabilities.

Right now, the CCP would be reasonable in viewing a fight in the Taiwan straits as one in which they would likely lose only ships and planes that they put into play. This is much like Putin’s situation before the Ukraine invasion; the Russian army units put into Ukraine were at risk, but assets within Russia were safe from attack. Enabling the Taiwanese to attack Chinese assets far afield and deep within China fundamentally changes this calculus.

Victory in the Taiwan straits is a matter of maintaining the status quo, while in parallel driving a rapid reduction in Western dependence on key and strategic goods production in China.  As Hal Brands points out, China has engaged in the fastest buildup of military capability in modern history over the past few years, and our current deterrence strategies are failing.  Distributed deterrence is less about what we will do to deter an invasion, and more about enabling deterrence for our allies, who are under direct and existential threat.

The Chinese leadership explicitly declared their intent to have the capability to invade and integrate Taiwan by 2027; given their record in Hainan, the South China Sea, Tibet, and Hong Kong, we should take them at their word.  The most straightforward path for deterring China from an invasion is to furnish the Taiwanese with the capabilities and technology required to defend themselves, and to punish Chinese aggression. A commitment to sail to Taiwan’s aid, while valuable, is insufficient.

Michael Hochberg earned his Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Caltech, and currently runs Periplous LLC, a strategy consulting company.  He founded four companies, representing an exit value over a billion dollars in aggregate, spent some time as a tenured professor, and started the world’s first silicon photonics foundry service.  He co-authored a widely used textbook on silicon photonics, and has published work in Science, Nature, National Review, The Hill, American Spectator, RealClearDefense, Fast Company, etc.

This article was first published by RealClearDefense.

Image: U.S. Department of Defense.

The War Hamas Always Wanted

Foreign Affairs - Wed, 11/10/2023 - 22:26
How the group’s attack could disrupt the emerging order in the Middle East.

What Israel Must Do

Foreign Affairs - Wed, 11/10/2023 - 09:45
Disarming Hamas will be costly but essential for peace.

MAGA Republicans Shouldn’t Forget About Cutting Defense

The National Interest - Wed, 11/10/2023 - 00:00

Although after the profligate fiscal policies of the Trump administration, it is difficult to take seriously that substantial spending cuts were the reason that Trump and the MAGA Republicans were so eager to make the United States default on its debt and trigger a government shutdown by attempting to block legislation to avoid these bad outcomes. After all, Trump was famous for boasting that “there’s nothing like doing things with other people’s money,” and then did it by presiding over a $7.8 trillion dollar rise in the national debt. During Trump’s four years in office, the MAGA crowd regularly raised the debt ceiling and kept the deficit-ridden federal government open. Yet, suddenly, when a Democrat won the 2020 election and became president, MAGA Republicans became deficit and debt hawks.

Yet, MAGA Republicans’ hypocritical rhetoric aside, the federal budget does need to be significantly cut to help reduce the nation’s colossal budget deficits and debt. Of course, such reductions are politically difficult because both parties have powerful vested interests that would squawk loudly if that were proposed. Another problem is that given the giant entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, most Veterans’ administration programs, unemployment compensation, and agricultural price supports—about two-thirds of federal spending is on autopilot, paying benefits to anyone who qualifies for them. About eight percent of the budget is the growing interest payments on the gargantuan and rising $33 trillion in national debt. About half of the remaining quarter of the budget—called “discretionary spending” that Congress appropriates yearly—is ever-ballooning defense spending. The other approximate half of that quarter is domestic discretionary spending—think of federal education, transportation, and infrastructure programs, etc.

When bank robber Willy Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he said, “that’s where the money is.” In the federal government, the entitlement programs are where the pot of gold is. Thus, no serious budget-cutting plan should leave out entitlement reform, but only former Vice President Mike Pence has trumpeted it so far in the Republican primaries. In fact, former President Donald Trump, the overwhelming Republican frontrunner, has always promised he wouldn’t cut Social Security and Medicare. Because of powerful interest group support, politicians of both parties have learned over time that pledging to cut entitlements is a political loser. Pence, riding low in the polls, has only done so in a desperate attempt to distinguish himself from the large pack of candidates trying to challenge Trump for the nomination. 

Powerful interest groups also vociferously denounce cuts in other programs. For example, the federal security bureaucracies, defense industries, and media—supported by politicians of both parties—usually play the “patriotism” card to defend, spending almost $900 billion per year to police the informal U.S. global empire. Yet equating support for an offensively oriented military designed to project power around the world would not comport well with the nations’ founders’ conception of patriotism. The founders’ generation, and all American generations up until the post-Korean War Cold War period, were highly suspicious of large standing armies in peacetime and getting unnecessarily involved in faraway overseas quarrels. The founders correctly realized that both led to threats to liberty at home through the creation of overweening government power at home.

So, public support in America for keeping such large forces on hand permanently and using them to police the world is a fairly recent phenomenon. Currently, the American military budget is bigger than the next ten highest defense spending countries combined, including China, Russia, and many rich and robust U.S. allies. Despite the Cold War having ended long ago, the United States still has 800 military bases in seventy countries, many designed to fulfill formal and informal U.S. commitments to defend a plethora of allies and friendly nations. 

Frederick the Great, one of the best military minds in history, coined a phrase that best sums up a fundamental military principle: “To defend everything is to defend nothing.” Thus, adding countries under the U.S. defense umbrella (for example, adding Finland and maybe Sweden to NATO) or enhancing existing alliances (for example, President Joe Biden’s verbal pledge to defend Taiwan if attacked) merely adds to the already grossly overextended and therefore dangerous, U.S. security posture. Instead, given the excellent geographical security that the United States possesses, the U.S. government should choose more carefully what it critically needs to help defend, leaving the security of the rest to its many wealthy allies and friends worldwide. This more restrained American security posture would allow U.S. forces, bases, and defense budget to be cut, thus reducing the economy-dragging budget deficits and burgeoning debt. A healthy economy undergirds all forms of security through hard and soft power.  

Ivan R. Eland is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty. He is the author of War and the Rogue Presidency. He tweets at @Ivan_Eland.

Hamas’ Assault Is Shaking the Israel Defense Forces to Its Core

The National Interest - Wed, 11/10/2023 - 00:00

The sudden and unexpected aggression from terrorist group Hamas has thrown the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) into a conundrum. Historically a bastion of rapid adaptability and mobilization, this recent incident has exposed potential fault lines in the IDF’s operational culture and reservist system, demanding scrutiny.

The Reservist System: An Economic Necessity or a Strategic Vulnerability?

Inspired by a visit to Switzerland after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, General Yigael Yadin implemented the 'nation in arms' principle. The Israeli military was structured as a people's army, with a streamlined professional core during peacetime that could be bolstered by reserves during conflicts. This approach was economical, as maintaining a large standing army was not feasible. Since Israel's geographic position made it prone to sudden attacks, it couldn't adopt the prolonged mobilization of the Soviets. Yet, the sustainability of this reservist model has increasingly come under pressure.

As Israel's societal fabric transformed, moving away from its immigrant roots, and transitioning towards a more stabilized socio-economic structure, the spirit of collective defense began to wane. Individual ambitions, often accompanied by a lower tolerance for casualties, began to eclipse national defense priorities. This schism was most palpably felt in the reservist ranks, where compensation disparities with regular forces emerged as a source of contention. In stark contrast to NATO nations, Israeli reservists were financially disadvantaged, fostering a lack of motivation to serve.

Furthermore, the decision to deploy reservists, often in significant numbers, for duty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was a significant oversight. These zones, marked by intricate socio-political dynamics, arguably demanded the expertise of the regular forces and the need for deeper operational continuity, unit cohesion, and an enhanced capacity to nurture local rapport.

Operational Culture: A Double-Edged Sword?

The 1990s marked a paradigm shift for the IDF, with a clear tilt towards technocentric warfare, mirroring the U.S. Army's trajectory. Buoyed by substantial investments in guided weaponry, information technologies, and advanced command systems, the IDF aimed for surgical precision in its operations. The guiding philosophy was to achieve swift resolutions with minimal collateral, both civilian and military. However, this tech-driven strategy showed its limitations, most notably in the 2006 Lebanon War. The IDF's engagements with lesser equipped Palestinian and Lebanese factions exposed an uncomfortable truth: while technology can enhance capabilities, over-reliance can erode foundational military competencies.

Within the IDF's strategic corridors, voices from General Elyezer Schkedy and others, highlighted glaring operational disconnects, especially the rift between air and ground units. This lack of cohesive synergy can be traced back to significant events, such as Israel's strategic withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, which resulted from siloed operations. In response, General Yohanan Locker and Gabi Shachon spearheaded collaborative dialogues and integrated training sessions. By 2007, the IDF had launched its inaugural joint chief of staff course, and concurrently, the IAF earmarked specialized aerial resources for terrestrial missions. This revitalized partnership bore fruit during 2008's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, reflecting an enhanced air-ground alignment.

However, the most profound challenge lies embedded in the very fabric of the IDF's culture. The "'bitzu’ist'" ethos, which venerates intuition over analysis and lived experiences over theoretical rigor, is an offshoot of Israel's broader societal narrative. This perspective, celebrating on-the-ground problem-solving, has fermented anti-intellectualism in the military and has nurtured an environment where immediate tactical solutions often overshadow long-term strategic vision. Indeed, General Gershon HaCohen once articulated that active-duty soldiers couldn't afford the luxury of delving deep into military theory. With Israel's societal shifts leading many academically-inclined individuals towards civilian avenues, the IDF has found its strategic reservoir somewhat diminished. Even innovations, like the IDF's shift in urban warfare tactics, moving from street clashes to indoor house-breaching maneuvers because of enemy actions, indicates a reactive rather than a proactive strategic approach.

Though the IDF has borrowed from global armies, there's a marked reluctance to wholly adopt foreign doctrines. This originates from the same cultural underemphasis on formal military education and the pragmatic approach towards skills useful post-military service. Ironically, while General Shimon Naveh's effort to incorporate postmodern jargon into military tactics was valuable, it was frequently cited as a reason for the IDF's challenges during the 2006 Lebanon war. The IDF had also become overly dependent on high-quality intelligence from various intelligence agencies to reduce operational uncertainties. This often revealed the IDF's preference for practical goals over deeper strategic insights.

Towards a More Nuanced Future

In the aftermath of the recent Hamas-initiated hostilities, the IDF stands at a critical juncture. The timeless spirit of Israel's early pioneers, with their egalitarian values, must now dovetail with modern strategic imperatives. As the regional geopolitical chessboard evolves, so must the IDF's operational and strategic frameworks. A comprehensive reevaluation, encompassing both the reservist structure and the operational culture, is not just advisable—it's imperative for Israel's future security landscape.

Carlo J.V. Caro is a political and military analyst. He has a graduate degree from Columbia University.

This article was first published by RealClearDefense.

Image: ChameleonsEye /

Can Israel Save Its Captured Citizens from Hamas?

The National Interest - Wed, 11/10/2023 - 00:00

Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group that mounted a deadly surprise attack on Israel that has killed – at last count – at least 1,200 Israelis, has captured what are estimated to be 150 hostages. Brought back to Gaza, those hostages include children, members of the military and the elderly. Most are civilians captured from the towns bordering Gaza. President Joe Biden revealed on Oct. 10, 2023, that some are Americans. Hamas has said that every time Israel strikes a Gaza home “without warning,” a hostage will be killed, and that execution would be recorded and the recording played for the public.

The Conversation asked James Forest, a University of Massachusetts Lowell expert on international security, to help readers understand the dynamics of this hostage crisis.

The taking of hostages looks like a planned part of this Hamas operation – why would Hamas do this?

Terrorist groups have historically taken hostages to gain leverage in negotiating for policy concessions, financial ransoms or the release of imprisoned comrades, and generally to influence the decisions and behavior of the targeted government.

In this instance, Hamas has stated that its goal is about forcing Israel to release imprisoned Palestinians. Its threat to kill hostages in retaliation for unannounced attacks against Gaza is another example of attempted coercion of Israeli leaders.

Hamas also has a vulnerability that many other terrorist groups have not had – namely, a physical territory of its own that can be targeted.

Holding hostages in unknown locations throughout this territory is an attempt to prevent Israel from launching military strikes that could inadvertently kill Israeli citizens. And taking hostages could also be intended to generate morale among Hamas supporters domestically and internationally by showcasing the group’s abilities to frighten and harm a more powerful adversary.

Similar to the hostage-taking at the 1972 Munich Olympics by the Palestinian group Black September, another likely objective here is to draw international attention to the desperation of people living in blockaded, impoverished Gaza.

However, attention doesn’t necessarily lead to sympathy. Taking innocents hostage, especially children and the elderly, is condemned worldwide, and it will be hard to find sympathy for the perpetrators of such crimes even when they’re claiming to free their land from occupation. Further, when citizens of other countries – such as the U.S. – are among the hostages, Hamas will likely find this to have been a counterproductive decision because it could invite retaliation from multiple countries.

Two other strategic considerations behind this act would be provocation and spoiling. Hamas is likely drawing on classic strategy in which the terrorists try to provoke the targeted government into an overly heavy-handed response. Hamas likely wants to enrage Israel to the point that Israel begins lashing out against Palestinians with escalating brutality. This, in turn, would support the so-called spoiler strategy, by disrupting current efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Arab nations.

What choices do the Israelis have for responding?

Democratic governments face many challenges in responding to terrorist groups taking their citizens hostage. Israel cannot be seen to underreact, yet neither should it overreact.

Among the different counterterrorism strategies they could pursue, repression – including collective punishment, an approach frequently used by Israel in the past – would seek to deter Hamas from conducting further terrorist attacks, and also to raise the level of hardship among Palestinians in Gaza to a point that they rise up against Hamas. Examples of repression in response to terrorism include prohibiting free speech or public gatherings, arresting political activists without probable cause, arbitrary searches and destruction of homes, and deportations.

July 2020 United Nations report noted: “While Israel’s justification for imposing the closure on Gaza was to contain Hamas and ensure Israel’s security, the actual impact of the closure has been the destruction of Gaza’s economy, causing immeasurable suffering to its two million inhabitants.” To date, repression has not produced the results sought by Israel.

Another strategy, referred to by scholars as “decapitation,” involves the capturing or killing of a terrorist group’s leaders.

Three important challenges come with this approach, the most important of which is locating the group’s leaders when they are being sheltered within a territory with so many tunnels – as Gaza has – and among Hamas supporters.

Second, if Israel is able to capture Hamas’ leaders, there may not be much political will on either side of this conflict to negotiate a prisoner-hostage swap, at least not while the daily carnage fuels their desire for vengeance. Third, if top commanders of Hamas are killed, there is always a chance they could be replaced with new leaders who are more brutal than the previous ones.

Finally, another option available to Israel is negotiation. In years past, government leaders have arranged for the release of Israeli hostages, including soldiers, in return for the release of imprisoned Palestinians.

However, negotiation almost never takes place in the midst of an active military confrontation. Instead, the historical pattern suggests any potential negotiations would wait until some time after the guns and rockets have gone quiet.

Hamas leaders believe a fundamental source of their perceived legitimacy is based on their ability and willingness to violently confront Israel. So the underlying challenge is that there is no hope of negotiating a lasting peace with a group that does not see peaceful coexistence as being in its best interest.

How would a hostage in this situation be treated? Do we know based on previous hostage-taking?

It’s hard to say for sure. I think it will vary according to a mix of contextual factors, like who the hostage is and who is holding them hostage.

It is likely that Hamas leaders have given orders to their units that hostages are not to be harmed, and they are to be moved around and held in various locations in hopes of deterring Israeli military strikes.

However, disciplined adherence to such commands is not always the case among terrorist groups – especially in the midst of an active military confrontation. That said, most violent groups recognize that if their hostages are killed, they will lose whatever bargaining chips they had hoped to gain.

Is there a role for intermediaries? If so, who might they be?

Finding an intermediary who is trusted by all parties will be exceedingly difficult, as trust is hard to come by in this region. And whether it’s a country with influence – like the U.S. – or an international organization, it’s likely that an opportunity for intermediaries to help arrange the return of hostages will only emerge after the active shooting, rocket attacks and air strikes have subsided.

How might the taking of these hostages affect the conduct of the war, on both sides?

Israeli forces are surely being told to try to avoid actions that could harm the hostages. Throughout this conflict, assistance from U.S. and other intelligence agencies will likely help Israel locate targets to attack and hostages to rescue. Some hostages could be found and reunited with their families.

Hamas will likely use the hostage drama to generate lasting media attention. The group’s leaders may feel that a building destroyed by a bomb will generate some photos and headlines for perhaps a few days, but posting online photos and videos each week of Israelis being held captive would garner the spotlight for Hamas much longer. In the end, both sides must tread carefully.

 is Professor and Director of Security Studies in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at UMass Lowell.

This article was first published by The Conversation.

Image: Anas-Mohammed /

The One Test That U.S. Special Forces Aren’t Prepared For

The National Interest - Wed, 11/10/2023 - 00:00

The backstory to this article is a well-known one for Green Berets and Rangers. Green Berets and Rangers are all aware of the coveted award that was the Combat Diver “bubble” as the badge was affectionately titled due to its appearance that is awarded upon graduating from the Combat Diver Qualification Course.

“Earning” the revered scuba diver badge meant a hike in the base pay of the recipient by $175 monthly. (That was of course a slew of years ago and I don’t know what the monthly dive pay is now – if there is still one.)

Yet, the Combat Diver Qualification Course had a hideously high attrition rate. (I had to take it twice, having washed out on my first try.) So, the command’s answer to the high attrition rate was to give the men a “pre-scuba” training course that featured the first full of extremely difficult exercises that caused the majority of failures in the actual course.

Typically the responsibility for organizing and executing the pre-scuba course was assigned to one of the battalion dive teams, which would train the other men of the unit who wanted to attend the actual dive course in Key West, Florida.

This is where me and my Combat Dive team of 12 men come into the picture. We were chosen by the command to organize and execute a pre-scuba course for the battalion’s “wannabee” combat divers. I loved the idea of teaching the course and looked forward to the day that it began.

I would be the lead instructor for the swimming pool training. I sat in the lifeguard’s chair and blew the signal whistle indicating the start of various difficult training events. What a skate job, right? The men grew to hate the sound of that blaring whistle.

The entire pre-scuba training course lasted one week. Oh, and there was an end-of-course tradition that was as revered and as holy as the Ark of the Covenant. According to the tradition, at the end of the week, the students rally, apprehend by force, and toss the screaming instructor into the pool to ingest a little bit of his own medicine.

I knew it was coming for me too, but I had a plan: On the last day of training, I excused myself from the class saying that I needed to change clothes in order to attend a meeting involving the civilian gentleman who was the “owner” of the swimming pool training facility. With that, I retired to the swimming pool shower room.

Little did the men know (except a good friend of mine from my dive team), that I had gone to the Salvation Army the night before and bought a business formal suit for about $17.00 American skizzies.

“Here he comes!!” A student whisper-shouted when I came out of the shower room, and the men all poised themselves for the onslaught…

But out I stepped wearing my $17.00 suit. The class stopped still and was stunned with indecision.

“Get him and throw him in the pool!”

“No man! We can’t throw him in the pool ruining his suit and his meeting!”

“He’s wearing white socks… that’s not what a man in a business suit wears!”

As they stood frozen I began to taunt them:

“You men are all chickenshit, and don’t have the balls to keep tradition and throw me in the pool – I’m disappointed and ashamed of you all.”

“Every swinging Richard hit the pool deck and knock out 75 pushups for your cowardice and lack of temerity!” I continued. That ticked off and emboldened the warriors who finally made a consolidated and defiant move.

Three men stepped up and pinned me with my back to the pool. With one guy making the first move, the gang quickly sent me cartwheeling into the drink! *sniff*

Dang, but I was proud of them all for having the gall to uphold a sacred tradition… plus they didn’t want to do 75 pushups. I bobbed alone in the water and yelled at the men to still get down on the ground and do the aforementioned pushups. They all just laughed at me and the whole episode was over.

There was nothing left to do but vault my waterlogged body out of the water and pout. The whole bout went very well and the powers that be were quite pleased. I enjoyed every minute of it and slept well that night.

By Almighty God and With Honor,

geo sends

George Hand is a Master Sergeant US Army (ret) from the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. In service, he maintained a high level of proficiency in 6 foreign languages. Post-military, George worked as a subcontractor for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the nuclear test site north of Las Vegas Nevada for 16 years. Currently, George works as an Intelligence Analyst and street operative in the fight against human trafficking. A master cabinet-grade woodworker and master photographer, George is a man of diverse interests and broad talents.

This article was first published by Sandboxx News.

Image: Shutterstock.

The West Is Helpless Against Saudi Arabia and Russia’s Oil Coercion

The National Interest - Wed, 11/10/2023 - 00:00

At a time when the world is struggling to cope with high inflation, the rising cost of living, and the impacts of the Ukraine war and now the Israel–Hamas conflict, a 30–40% jump in the price of Brent crude per barrel since July entails serious economic, social and political consequences. The price per barrel is edging towards US$100. While that’s less than the US$130 a barrel reached in April 2022, it could still derail or prolong the global economic recovery. What has caused the price hike and who can moderate it?

Two oil-producing states from opposite ends of the political spectrum hold the keys to affecting the price of oil: Saudi Arabia and Russia. The former is supposed to be a US ally and the latter is a bitter US adversary. Yet the two countries have acted in concert in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—Plus (OPEC+) to reduce their oil production in the name of stabilizing the market. The Saudis have cut back their output by nearly two million barrels a day from a height of 11 million and Russia has dropped its production by some half a million barrels per day in the past several months, causing a shortage of supply in the global market.

Undoubtedly, both actors are driven by a desire for more revenue, but their actions also underline an alliance of grievances against the United States. The de facto and power-ambitious Saudi ruler Mohammad bin Salman (widely known as MBS) has acted for domestic and foreign policy reasons. The prince, who wants more revenue to accelerate his vision of socially modernizing his kingdom and turning it into an economic powerhouse, has been offside with the US since the advent of President Joe Biden’s administration.

MBS has, most importantly, resented the president’s early criticisms of him for human rights violations and the release of US intelligence findings that implicated him in the gruesome killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. He has ignored Biden’s request for Saudi restraint in any action that could increase oil prices and his overtures to return Saudi–US relations to their traditional status of close friendship.

The prince has subtly engaged in a process of diversifying Saudi foreign policy, not to completely debase the kingdom’s special bonds with the US as its main security provider, but to be in a position to deflect Washington’s pressure when required. He has opted for a mutual strengthening of relations with Russia and China. He has cooperated with President Vladimir Putin within the framework of OPEC+ and refrained from openly condemning Russia’s Ukraine aggression. He had very friendly interactions with the Russian leader at the G20 summits prior to the International Criminal Court’s issuing of a warrant for Putin’s arrest for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Meanwhile, he has offered to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv. This must be disconcerting for Washington, which has sought to limit Russia’s revenue and isolate and punish Putin for his Ukraine adventure.

Under MBS, Saudi Arabia has strengthened its trade and economic ties with China—the largest importer of Saudi oil. Riyadh has been invited to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and has even indicated a willingness to join the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a dialogue member. It has also restored ties with its regional rival, Iran, after China brokered peace talks between the two. And it has been looking to normalize relations with Israel—a US strategic partner and bitter foe of Iran—though that the Israel–Hamas war will likely confound that project.

Putin has been doing whatever possible to drive a wedge between the US and its allies. He needs more friends and money to fund the war in Ukraine and to deflect Western sanctions, while appreciating the cooperation of Saudi Arabia as the largest and therefore most influential producer in OPEC+. As long as the Saudi–Russian alignment of interests exists, the price of oil is unlikely to drop anytime soon, unless there’s a marked reduction in global consumption, which at this stage doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, despite China’s economic slowdown. Hard times for oil consumers lie ahead.

Amin Saikal is professor emeritus of Middle Eastern studies at the Australian National University and adjunct professor of social sciences at the University of Western Australia. He is the author of the forthcoming book How to lose a war: the story of America’s intervention in Afghanistan.

This article was first published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Image: Shutterstock.