Responsibility for the catastrophe now unfolding in the Middle East belongs to Hamas and its sponsor, Iran. The atrocities we are now discovering — the deliberate killing of innocents, the capture of hostages — were an integral part of Hamas’s military strategy and grew directly out of its vicious hatred of all Jews — and of Western civilization. These are acts of true evil and, in committing them, Hamas has the full backing of Iran. President Biden spoke for America when he said, bluntly, “The brutality of Hamas’s blood thirstiness brings to mind the worst rampages of ISIS. This is terrorism.”
It is important to begin with these basic points before discussing mistakes made by Israeli and American leaders. Theirs were policy mistakes, nothing like the barbarism of Hamas and its sponsor, Iran, or the moral wretchedness of those who support them in Europe and the United States.
What mistakes should Israeli and American leaders be held responsible for?
Israeli leaders are responsible for two major failures:
The surprise surrounding the Hamas attack, which underscores the failure of Israel’s spies and signals-intelligence to discover this massive, long-planned operation before it was launched; and
The inability to deter or defeat the assault as it unfolded
The United States also bears responsibilities for two failures, one is similar to Israel’s, one different. The similar one is an intelligence failure. The CIA and NSA have spent considerable time, money and effort focused on Iran — and for good reason. Yet they completely missed this huge initiative. America’s failure complemented Israel’s, which did not detect what was happening in the Gaza Strip. Taken together, those intelligence failures meant the invasion came as a complete surprise.
America’s other failure concerns its basic policy in the Middle East. That failure lies at the feet of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who has continued Obama’s policy in the region. To understand that failure, we need to recognize the basic policy choice confronting three successive administrations, those of Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden.
Their most fundamental strategic decision was how to deal with Iran, governed by a fierce Islamist regime, hellbent on developing nuclear capability and an effective delivery system, determined to assert regional dominance and often working with terrorist proxies to achieve that goal (in Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza, among others).
In dealing with Iran, the basic choice facing each US administrations was whether to a) oppose and contain the regime in Tehran, primarily through sanctions or b) provide inducements to them in hopes of facilitating their integration into a broader, more cooperative and peaceful Middle East.
Whether they chose option A or B, all three US administrations agreed that US troops should not become involved in local fighting and should seek a lower-profile, less costly role in the area. That makes sense. After all, Washington’s larger strategic problems lay in the Pacific, where China threatened the entire American-led order. Russia was not deemed an immediate problem until February 2022, when the Kremlin launched an unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine, threatening the US-led order in Europe. As Washington policymakers saw it, the problems posed by China and Russia were far larger and more pressing than any in the Middle East.
Still, Iran did pose problems, which American administrations dealt with differently. Trump chose sanctions and unambiguous opposition to the mullahs in Tehran, a policy that managed to push Iran to the brink of bankruptcy and limited their ability to fund terror proxies. Trump had no intention of committing US troops to any regional conflicts, a policy that became clear after Iran bombed a major Saudi oil facility. President Trump condemned it, naturally, but he did little more.
That reticence pushed the Saudis and their regional allies to bolster their security by turning to the strongest local power, Israel. The Trump administration fostered that emerging partnership, which culminated in the Abraham Accords, brokered by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Although the Saudis did not participate directly in those accords, they quietly approved the participation of their partners. The Saudis themselves were gradually moving toward more open cooperation with Israel before the Hamas invasion. (Indeed, one of Iran’s goals in sponsoring the invasion was to prevent that Saudi-Israeli rapprochement.)
The Obama and Biden administration choose a completely different strategy — the one that now lies in ruins. They chose to accommodate Iran and appease its demands. The idea was that loosening the sanctions on Iran, returning blocked assets, allowing them to sell oil to enrich themselves and replenish their foreign reserves, would encourage the regime in Tehran to see the benefits of cooperation within the region and with the United States. The Biden administration called it “an integrated Middle East,” which meant an Iran that cooperated with the Saudis and avoided direct confrontation with Israel.
That’s not how it turned out, to put it mildly. Tehran used its newfound wealth to expand its regional dominance and fund terrorist proxies. What the US saw as accommodation, the Iranian regime saw as American weakness, easy to exploit. That policy was already failing before Hamas launched its invasion, but the full effects had not yet been felt.
As late as last week, the Biden administration believed its “accommodation policy” was working exactly as they expected. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said so publicly, noting that the peaceful region allowed him to spend his time on other problems.
What he didn’t know, was that the elephant had already plunged off the cliff. We just hadn’t heard the gigantic splat yet.
Well, we’ve heard it now. Iran backed, funded and helped plan Hamas’s invasion of Israel, launching the largest war in decades.
That invasion means the Biden-Obama approach to Iran has failed catastrophically. America’s entire regional policy will have to be rethought and reconstructed. That must begin by returning to the basic goals of containing Iran and punishing them, not rewarding them, for their malign role across the region.
It’s too much to expect the Biden administration to publicly acknowledge its abject failure. They haven’t acknowledged their disastrous failure on the southern border — and they won’t acknowledge it in the Middle East, either. But if they won’t publicly acknowledge this disastrous miscalculation, they need to acknowledge it privately. That should be the premise of high-level meetings at the White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA. Officials there need to admit that the Obama-Biden strategy toward Iran did not work, contributed to the unfolding horror in Israel and must be revamped in fundamental ways.
The goals of any new policy are simple to state but hard to achieve. America needs to contain, punish and deter the malign, expansive, revolutionary regime in Tehran, prevent it from achieving nuclear weapons and do it without provoking a wider war or direct involvement by American troops. The immediate goal must be to prevent the Hamas-Israeli war from expanding — and that will take American threats, directed at Iran. Those are hard tasks, to be sure, but that’s the job they asked voters to entrust them with.