June 21st, 2024


Four myths exposed by the Hamas attack on Israel

Hal Brands

By Hal Brands Bloomberg Opinion

Published October 17, 2023


The horror unleashed by Hamas is only beginning. A terrorist group that killed at least 1,200 people in Israel last weekend is now endangering countless Palestinian lives, through its cynical practice of putting military capabilities in hospitals, schools and dense urban areas. But if shocks like the one Israel suffered have any upside, it's that they expose — and provide a chance to correct — the sloppy thinking that allowed them to happen in the first place. This attack highlights four intellectual failures in the recent approach to strategy by Israel and America alike.

The first is the search for technological solutions to vexing security problems. Israel, in the run-up to this crisis, placed its faith in high-tech defenses — such as the Iron Dome anti-missile system and a state-of-the-art security barrier — meant to keep Hamas contained. It relied on ubiquitous surveillance capabilities — radar coverage, sensors, electronic eavesdropping — to reveal the enemy's intent.

But signals intelligence couldn't pierce the fog of deception Hamas created by pretending to be pursuing détente with the Jewish state. Nor could it correct the damage created by political distraction and flawed assumptions: namely, the belief that Hamas was simply incapable of such a complex, impressive attack. The Middle East's most sophisticated military was humiliated by a decidedly low-tech assault, in which terrorists used tunnels, paragliders and bulldozers to breach the border in force.

Israel also suffered from a second fallacy: the conviction that our enemy thinks like we do.

"Mirror-imaging" plagues all countries, indeed all humans: We find it hard to imagine that someone else's definition of rationality may be different from our own. The Israeli version of this error centered on the idea that Hamas had become too hooked on the economic benefits of relative quiet in its relations with Israel — that it was too focused on securing leadership of the Palestinian movement by improving the lot of the people under its control — to risk everything in a major escalation.

That calculation of costs and benefits might have appealed to a democratic movement, or to an organization that was mostly interested in governing. But Hamas, alas, proved to be the same organization as ever. It has a penchant for the nastiest forms of brutality. It has a deep-seated hatred for, and a self-declared desire to eradicate, Israel. And it was willing to pursue that agenda at an appalling cost in Israeli and Palestinian lives.

A third myth has afflicted the U.S. more than Israel: the myth that lasting peace is possible with the current rulers of Iran. The U.S. has been searching for decades, without success, for Iranian moderates with whom to seek reconciliation. President Joe Biden settled for the more limited objective of de-escalation: Iranian restraint in the region and managing its nuclear program, in exchange for American restraint in applying or enforcing economic sanctions.

But Iran — which has armed, funded and assisted Hamas for years — apparently wasn't interested in de-escalation. A regime that was founded in anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, and that seeks to make the Middle East its privileged domain, was mainly interested in empowering the actors that help it batter its foes. And if Iran directly sanctioned this attack, it presumably did so to disrupt another aspect of U.S. strategy — the effort to broker normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia and thereby strengthen the anti-Tehran coalition.

The U.S. has long dreamed of a more reasonable Iran because it is eager to downsize American investment in a region that has consumed so much of it. A final myth recent events expose, however, is the notion that Washington can depart the Middle East without leaving strategic chaos in its wake.

For a decade, the U.S. has been trying to refocus on other priorities. Consecutive U.S. defense strategies have made clear that the Pentagon wants to take resources out of the region. But with depressing regularity, both Democratic and Republican administrations have been compelled to surge military forces back in, to deal with violent crises — the ISIS onslaught in Iraq and Syria, heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf, and now the risk that Tehran or its proxies might expand or escalate the current crisis.

The Middle East, unfortunately, can't police or stabilize itself. The U.S. still has important interests there, such as suppression of terrorist groups and the smooth flow of global energy supplies. If anything, the region is becoming more crucial as a locus of competition between America and its major rivals. Pulling back, then, tends to result in eruptions that compel reengagement, in worse straits than before.

America can have retrenchment from the Middle East, or it can have a tolerable situation there — but it can't have both. The sooner America and Israel learn these and other lessons of this crisis, the better positioned they will be for the difficult times ahead.



Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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