Victor Davis Hanson: A Therapeutic Middle East Versus A Tragic One

The usual advice is don’t-tread-on-me resoluteness, or what Teddy Roosevelt characterized as “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The alternatives – whether “speak loudly and carry a twig,” “speak softly and carry a twig,” or “speak loudly and carry a big stick”- are far worse...

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ur current diplomats have unfortunately forgotten that golden mean of guarded language backed with credible warnings of overwhelming force. And the result is a verbal mess, backed by impending attacks called off, confusion and harsh rhetoric rather than quiet retribution.

Classic diplomacy warns leaders to be neither obsequious and appeasing abroad, nor gratuitously boastful and hard-headed.

Our current diplomats have unfortunately forgotten that golden mean of guarded language backed with credible warnings of overwhelming force. And the result is a verbal mess, backed by impending attacks called off, confusion and harsh rhetoric rather than quiet retribution.

Biden and his team give us endless variations on the same loud threat to Iran along the following lines: “If outside actors are considering widening the war, DON’T!” They accompany this by reacting only four times to 83 documented acts of Iranian aggression directed at U.S. forces, by greenlighting a $6 billion ransom to Iran and by lifting sanctions, resulting in a $50 billion Iranian oil windfall.

As a general rule, the more one side appeases the other or is humiliated, shown to be weak or naïve, the more likely it is that the tentative party will vainly seek to restore lost deterrence by ever-tougher language—even though it must know that these ever-increasing verbal threats are becoming increasingly empty. Threats and taunts are like inflation: the more they are issued without reliable backing, the more worthless they become.

The murdered dead were not even buried in Israel, when the Biden State Department’s Palestinian Affairs bureau issued a call for a ceasefire—a plea followed by a similar one in a joint communiqué from Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Did such calls win either empathy from Hamas or prompt agreement from Israel to transcend any idea of meting out justice to the killers of more than 1,000 of their own? Or were they simply revelations of cluelessness along with an empty signal of “concern?”

Did Secretary Blinken’s invitation to American regional embassies to lower their flags to half-mast to commemorate civilian causalities in Gaza—unfortunately timed to the false news reports of an IDF strike on a hospital—win respect or cool tensions?

In Blinken’s words, the gesture was intended “to observe national periods of mourning following an official proclamation by the host government with respect to the loss of innocent lives at the Al Ahli hospital blast on October 18.” Did that U.S. “concern” work? Did protests abroad wane? Was Biden never snubbed? Did U.S. host countries express loud thanks?

Which was the more likely reaction from Hamas to Blinken’s act of magnanimity?

A) Hamas and other radical terrorist groups, as well the majority of the population in Gaza, appreciated Blinken’s gesture, even if – or rather perhaps because – Blinken probably knew the IDF did not hit a hospital, Palestinian groups knew that the IDF did not hit a hospital, and Palestinian groups knew that Blinken knew that the IDF did not hit a hospital—and knew that Blinken knew the Palestinians knew as well.

Nevertheless, they were thankful to the Americans’ hypersensitivity to their losses, especially when the U.S. was willing to canonize not just a lie, but a lie that was almost easily refuted in a matter of hours. Thus, they will likely moderate their attacks and pay more attention to American calls for “restarting” peace talks and “ending the cycle of violence.”

OR

B) Hamas and other terrorist groups, more likely, drew a far different conclusion from such “outreach.” If, after the greatest single-day murder of Jews since the Holocaust, the United States was still so eager to restrain Israel from retaliating that it would traffic in Hamas’ implausible propaganda, then America must be truly hesitant, even timid.

AND/OR

C) Hamas concluded that America must be desperate (for some unknown reason) to appease even the most bloodthirsty acts, and consequently will likely continue to defer to the sensibilities of radical Palestinians, regardless of whether they escalate their attacks on Israel—and therefore they will do just that.

Nowhere is the dichotomy between tragic and therapeutic diplomacy more on display than in the American efforts to delay, if not stymie, the long-expected Israeli ground invasion of Gaza to eradicate Hamas.

In a recent Foreign Affairs essay, the authors argue that prior to the current bloodletting, Hamas was increasingly unpopular among Gazans. But, they insist, Israeli bombing and proposed ground invasion will sadly have the unintended effect of gaining lost sympathy for a once-loathed Hamas among the people of Gaza, and therefore only intensify Israel’s problems and isolation. Maybe, maybe not.

But again, the tragic voice might counter this therapeutic call for restraint with a number of queries.

If Hamas has grown steadily-more unpopular since its 2007 “one man, one vote, once” popular victory, then has that disenchantment and cumulative anger in any material way stopped Hamas from siphoning off hundreds of billions of dollars in Middle Eastern, U.S., UN, and EU largess —or impeded Hamas in carrying out the attack of October 7?

Did the fact that numerous civilians followed Hamas fighters into Israel to loot, rape, and kill, while others reviled any Israeli hostage or Israeli corpse they spotted on the streets of Gaza, reflect widespread Hamas support, or not?

Are the masses in the United States who cheer on the Hamas bloodwork and call for the destruction of Israel at odds with Hamas? Are they proof of Gazans worldwide who would seek peace with Israel, if not for Hamas? Remember – they hit the street before, not after, the Israeli air response.

Or were past negative polls more likely evidence that the popular criticism of Hamas was not that they are utterly corrupt, barbaric, and premodern, but that they are all that and more and yet still-impotent in the face of Israel?

Accordingly, isn’t Hamas now recapturing its former popularity, not by ceasing its own barbarity and corruption, but by focusing its animalistic cruelty far more successfully on killing Jews? If so, the way to undermine Hamas’ popularity is not to enshrine its killing by inaction, but to destroy it utterly and definitively demonstrate that, for all its cruelty and thievery, Hamas was cowardly, weak, and thus justifiably perished.

The various diplomatic arms of the Biden Administration have repeatedly warned Israel not to go into Gaza on two grounds:

The subsequent collateral damage done to the people and infrastructure of Gaza would be so great that it would incite the fury of Hezbollah or Iran to intervene with attacks on Israel’s northern fronts. Supposedly, Iran and its appendages would surely attack out of either genuine pan-Islamic solidarity or worry that, without intercession, it would lose all the credibility that it has gained on the Muslim street with its enormous arms shipments to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Israel would lose all global support as it plays the role of the crazed bully battering a helpless population for the sins of a clique that had hijacked its government.

Yet there is a tragic retort to these common therapeutic scenarios.

The more severely Israel deals with Hamas and the more the world sees that Hamas’ massive infusions of international aid were almost all misappropriated for tunnels and rockets—soon to be rendered into rubble—the less Hezbollah will want a similar scenario in Beirut. And, therefore, the less likely it will be to intervene.

As for Iran, if Hamas is crushed, would it wish the same fate for its greater investment in Hezbollah? Would Iran like to say to the world, “Hezbollah and Beirut are in rubble, but their rocket barrages against the Jews topped even the late, great Hamas’s body count?” Without Hezbollah and Hamas buffers, will Iran be safer, or more exposed?

As for global opinion, it is now anti-Israel as never before, as the stronger power is currently shown to be the weaker. And so the anti-Israeli world concludes that there are no great consequences to its anti-Semitism, especially if Israel takes such a savage blow and does not respond. Is that not sad proof, in an abjectly amoral world, that Israel deserved the blow? If it did not deserve the blow, why did it not respond to kill the killers?

In contrast, if Israel crushes Hamas, the world will not like Israel, but it will caution prudence to anti-Semitic killers, lest they incite a righteous Israeli retribution. And they may well secretly hope that Israel deals with the murderers who deserve their fate. The more Israel hesitates, the more the EU crowd and the “moderate” Arab regimes will damn Israel: “Doesn’t Jerusalem’s hesitation reveal its guilt or fear?”

However, the more it blasts Hamas into oblivion, the more the opportunists will privately shrug: “Well, that’s that – good riddance. We warned the killers not to provoke Israel, so what did the late great Hamas expect anyway?”

There are two caveats, of course. First: the worst thing that Israel could do is inflicting enough damage on Gaza to incite global empathy, but not enough to destroy Hamas – an act that would justify the rubble videos on CNN and the BBC. And, second, it must continue to regret its need to bomb Hamas into smithereens, given the unavoidable collateral damage. The quieter and less triumphalist it becomes, the more the damage it does to Hamas will resonate.

Israelis are not haughty Athenians dialoguing with an innocent, Melian Hamas and its supporters on realism and human nature. Rather, they are the ones who were attacked and who now must make reluctantly clear to the attackers that they did not ask for and do not particularly enjoy the messy work of destroying them.

So we are back to square one: only speaking seldom and quietly, with the readiness to use force when necessary, achieves deterrence—and with deterrence at last comes peace.

The tragedy is that realist deterrence is moral, while naïve appeasement is immoral. Yet the former is unpopular and falsely dubbed cruel as it saves lives, while the latter is praised as humane as it dooms them. ✪

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