A Therapeutic Middle East Versus A Tragic One

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

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

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.

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, or is 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 casualities 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.”


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’s implausible propaganda, then America must be truly hesitant, even timid.


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 Hamas’s 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’s 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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’s 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?”

But 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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19 thoughts on “A Therapeutic Middle East Versus A Tragic One”

  1. The anti-Israel- Jewish demonstrations in our streets reminds me of Germany in the ‘30’s. Beside the Muslims who obviously have a bias, the crowds seem to be young people completely ignorant of the past. Our education system no longer teaches history. I received that watered down, fence sitting letter from Stanford which was absent any moral value. My response was not kind but deserved.

    1. What percentage of these pro Hamas student supporters can find Gaza on and unmarked map of the Middle East? I’d wager less than 50%.

    2. Considering the large number of US institutions of “higher learning” who have partnered with moslem forces by establishing and maintaining large campuses in “that part” of the world it is no surprise that so many gullible but vociferous students this side the puddle came out so heavily in support of Hamas and the rest, and against Israel.Add in the many Bn$$$ of involvement in the US campuses of those same universities, and it would be surprising had it gone any other way. Fed something you get more of it.
      as ever, Follow the Green Brick (money) road.

  2. The civilizational level wisdom you tap into Victor is somber but also clarifying. Your work and analysis (to me) always reflects the nature of the world we live in, the world where Thomas Sowell’s idea of no perfect wins, only trade-offs exist. I also like Jordan Peterson’s contribution to this, that completely renovating a complex system is infinitely more likely to result in crashing the enterprise than would making incremental changes and analyzing the outcomes soberly and judiciously would be to slightly improve the system. I wonder what you would think about my observation that the most helpful people in our world today are those who are masters of multiple disciplines. No one can master all of the aspects of our modern world, there are just too many facts and discoveries, but people trained in something like economics and politics, or like you, in history and philology (and the physical, practical world), can bring together threads of evidence and events that brings coherence to the arguments and sheds light on what is playing out on the world stage. It seems that statisticians and masters of economics (like Thomas Sowell and Mattias Desmet) gain deep practical insight into the mechanics of societal dynamics. I’m still trying to work all these things out.

  3. The word is WEAK, not hestitant or timid professor. Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah are not thinking, or even caring what the US government is anymore as they know the current occupant of the Oval office is weak and ineffective. I suspect Iran believes NOW is the time to strike before a new POTUS puts the US back on track as a force for freedom.
    Israel is caught in a Catch 22 scenario, as the professor accurately describes. It is incumbent for Israel to take the ‘oblierate Hamas’ at any cost route. Safety of the people is the primary function of government, something the USA has forgotten; so the IDF must wipe out Hamas to prevent any future attack from Gaza. We can hope that might deter Hezbollah and Iran. That there will be civilian casualties, as in every war, tragic but unavoidable.

    1. Kristina Binder

      The current occupants of the White House are not by definition, weak and ineffective. Rather they are actively and successfully cutting America off at its knees, deliberately. They despise the US Constitution and true Americans. They have sold America to the highest bidder. The enemy is within.

  4. The last paragraph pretty much sums it up.

    When you do not approve of another’s behavior, you generally have a few options to consider:

    1. Ignore the bad behavior. This option appears to be impossible in this case. The acts committed were so horrible and obvious that inaction would lead to dissension in your own ranks and scorn from the aggressors. Long range, this alternative leads to internal weakness that also emboldens the enemy.

    2. Appease the bad actors by giving them what they want, without punishment. History tells us that this type of response leads to long term erosion of respect and unending future tragic events. This encourages, rather than discourages, bad behavior. Not an option, unless you are too weak to stand up to the aggressors and you are just buying time.

    3. Vacate the premises and go somewhere else to avoid the situation. Not an option.

    4. Protest loudly and often in an attempt to discourage the behavior, but don’t really do anything about it. This appears to not work very well in the real world, though it may garner support from one-step thinkers on your side.

    5. Fight fire with fire with a vengeance. This is the most difficult, disagreeable, and most expensive option. It is the only option that works over the long term.

    Option 5 can alter behavior in the direction you want it to go. The other options are proven losers.

    We already know all this. I just wanted to simplify it so that my pea-brain could make sense of it.

  5. The war in the Middle East is deeply routed in clashing philosophies. While no country is perfect, Israel is significantly more oriented to, and supportive of, freedom and individual rights than the Islam driven, savage, authoritarian countries around them. Given that the left wing everywhere hates, fears, and desperately tries to destroy freedom and individual rights wherever they find them, the left frantically supports cheap vicious thugs such as Hamas. Meanwhile ‘watered down’ leftie Biden and his gang of thoroughly incompetent leftie cowards masquerading as ‘an administration’ dithers, uselessly pursues ‘peace through negotiation’, and hands money out to all manner of vicious murdering thugs including those running Iran, thus prolonging the inevitable conflict and leading not to peace but to more more slaughtered innocents. Israel’s only choice is to fight and survive on their on. I do think that (since guns in Israel were locked up and only held only by the military) what happened to Israeli citizens after Hamas got by their military is a clear example of the obvious fact that an armed populace is a much safer populace and we in America should fiercely defend our 2nd amendment rights against those who would put an end to them.

  6. The two-state solution will never work for obvious reasons, and Palestinians are outpopulating Israeli to result in more internal problems. In my opinion, Israel should clean house by wiping out Hamas & Hezbollah, seizing more territory, and then cripple Iran’s defensive industry. IDF & Mossad can get the job done.
    Other Mideast nations will be grateful or not intefere, especially will renewed Abraham Accords. U.S. should remain firm & resolute in its support of Israel. At some point, there should be an international summit to address the inherent beligence of Islam, which seems to be more a political construct than a religion per say.

  7. john clay price

    Make every effort to get the hostages back now, or write them all off now.Keep track of all the anti semitic institutions and organizations and their actions throughout this episode. flatten and destroy all hamas infrastructure , do the same with hezbollah. Infrastructure includes people. Figure out the way to educate your people, the chosen people to understand that bleeding heart liberalism whether in Israel or the US or UK will never overcome Gazans teaching children how to add and subtract using dead Jews for their grim math. This ends one way in the most grisly of ironies, yet noo one has the courage to acknowledge the obvious.

  8. America’s conservative intellectuals can be summed up by listening to William F. Buckley Jr. who founded National Review and hosted the program Firing Line. Buckley’s influence on conservative strategy and tactics was to reduce action to paralysis. In the decades since he appeared on the scene and was anointed as a thought leader, the floodgates of our borders have remained unguarded while conservative leaders have fallen into endless reflection, shallow analysis and inaction. In 2020, while conservatives sat back discussing their lofty ideas, the hordes inside our castle walls laid siege to cities across the U.S. and showed us there will be no resistance to future planned attacks.

  9. Reminds me of the children’s story of the little boy who kept a small pet dragon while the parents told him there are no dragons, until the day the dragon grew so big it ran away taking the whole house with him; or the man who adopted and fed a baby python until it grew full size and strangled him for diner. Better to “nip it in the bud” before it does the same to you.

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