The names and weapons have changed, but fifty years to the day after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, Israel has again suffered high casualties from a surprise attack, just as it did in October 1973. I recall vividly that October day because I had just been assigned to the Middle East Task Group in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It was my first real job in government and I was twenty-two. When the war broke out, I was assigned as a staff aide in the National Military Command Center, where I had a ring-side seat to watch as Israel went from defeat to victory, with America’s help.
In that 1973 war, the Soviet Union prepared to intervene against Israel and began moving airborne troops and “tactical” nuclear warheads. The American response, going to full Imminent War alert (DEFON-3), had me convinced that a superpower nuclear war was possible within days and that I might die young. Now, like then, as horrific as the fighting has been, the conflict could slip into a major war involving large military powers, including the United States.
I believe that America is right to support Israel in its decision and actions to eliminate Hamas, just as I urged President Bush to destroy al Qaeda before and after 9-11. No one expected the US to allow al Qaeda to continue to exist after 9-11 and no one should ask Israel to settle for anything less than the elimination of the terrorist group that has perpetrated these atrocities. However, in their efforts to eliminate Hamas, Israel creates a heightened risk of a wider war.
If, as looks likely, Israel plans to send the IDF deep into Gaza to eliminate Hamas, the urban combat will be prolonged, will result in high casualties, and will be accompanied by widespread Palestinian civilian collateral damage deaths. Hizballah may well use that awful scene to justify their jumping in, raining thousands of more capable and destructive rockets on Israel from the north. Indeed, this may have been Iran’s plan all along.
Fighting Hamas in Gaza and against Hizballah in Lebanon (as well as with Iranian-sponsored militia terrorist units in Syria near the Israeli border) would stretch Israeli’s capabilities, perhaps to the point where it might request direct US military involvement against the Hizballah missiles. If Israel makes that request, we should come to their assistance despite the risks of further escalation with Iran and Syria. If we will not defend Israel when it needs for and asks for our direct assistance, no one in NATO or in Asia will believe our security commitments. Russia and China would then be more likely to engage in aggressive action in the years ahead.
The war could also expand if and when Israeli or US intelligence develops convincing evidence of Iranian involvement in the initiation of the Hamas attack. I believe it is likely that evidence will emerge. If the United States Intelligence Community develops that information, it has a moral obligation to share it with Israel. Given the failure of US intelligence analysis that was used to justify the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Congress and the public should be shown the US or Israeli evidence to the maximum extent possible while protecting sources and methods.
Israel and the US will then have to make the very difficult decision of how and when to respond against Iran. That could come, in the phrase often used by the Israeli government, “at a time and place of our choosing.” It would pose hard choices for Gulf Arab nations, who oppose Iran but have been trying to deescalate tensions with Tehran. The Gulf Arabs could be badly damaged in a wider war with Iran.
Thus, as terrible as the current fighting has been and continues to be, the prospect for a broader war is real, a war that would bring with it enormous physical destruction, human losses, and worldwide economic damage. Such a war with Iran and its proxies might not even result in regime change in Tehran, but could only light the fuse for a rekindled conflict years later.
Now, therefore, leaders in the White House, in Israel, and in Tehran need to visualize the horrific scene after that wider war. They must ask themselves what can they do now to prevent that worst-case outcome, how can they prevent the descent into the abyss. For Washington, the best course now must be to convincingly tell Iran that we will act decisively if Hizballah or Iran tries to broaden the war. We must re-create deterrence.
Israel, in particular, should be asking itself who will rule Gaza and how, and for how long, if it occupies the territory. The late Colin Powell once coined the “Pottery Barn Rule” (you break it, you own it), saying that if the US occupied Iraq, it would be our problem to run the country. That rule will certainly apply to Israel if they re-occupied Gaza. Yet, prolonged Israeli occupation of Gaza could create an open-ended urban terrorist conflict.
What the ongoing war and the prospect of its expansion should also cause us to ask is: after the necessary retaliation against Hamas, if conflict can be contained, how do we address the root causes? For if we do not address the causes of the wars in the region, some young twenty-two year old involved in today’s conflict, will witness its reoccurrence fifty years later, as I am now. Those root causes include both the untenable current status of Palestine as a semi-occupied zone and the continued rule of a cult/criminal gang in Tehran, a group genuinely committed to Israel’s destruction. Both of those are extraordinarily difficult problems to address and both will take creativity, perspicacity, and focus, but pretending we can ignore them by “pivoting to Asia” will only mean continued wars that threaten our friends, allies, and the United States.
Richard Clarke had roles in the Defense Department, State Department (Assistant Secretary), and White House National Security Council (for three presidents) for thirty years. He then was Chairman of the Middle East Institute for ten years.