It's Debatable
Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Is the U.S. Using All Its Leverage in Gaza?

Washington has influence and, with its allies, could shape an endgame that serves long-term U.S. interests.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , a columnist at Foreign Policy and vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Blinken in Israel
Blinken in Israel
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Nov. 5. Jonathan Ernst/AFP via Getty Images

It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt. Are you back from Norway yet? I just spent the week in Finland, learning about our newest NATO ally. It would be nice if every NATO ally were as self-sufficient and prepared to fight without U.S. troops as the Finns clearly are.

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt. Are you back from Norway yet? I just spent the week in Finland, learning about our newest NATO ally. It would be nice if every NATO ally were as self-sufficient and prepared to fight without U.S. troops as the Finns clearly are.

Matt Kroenig: Yes, I am back. It was good to bump into you briefly at Dulles Airport! I was traveling on an Atlantic Council delegation trip, and I have many new insights about Arctic security. We traveled to Kirkenes in the High North, and—to paraphrase Sarah Palin—I could see Russia from my hotel!

EA: Wow, that brings back memories. Remember when Palin was the craziest person in politics? 2008 seems like such a long time ago! Today, of course, travel to Europe is as much about explaining to Europeans that U.S. politics is even less predictable than it was when Palin was in the public spotlight and emphasizing to them that they really should step up their own military capabilities to hedge against U.S. domestic political dysfunction.

MK: Well, as we’ve debated here before, I think they should step up to contribute to an American-led, whole-of-free-world defense strategy. But, as much as I am eager to share my insights on Nordic-Baltic security, we should probably turn to the most urgent issue facing the world, which is of course the Israel-Hamas war.

EA: Yes, the war in the Middle East is increasingly sucking up all the oxygen in the room, pulling the attention of policymakers away from Europe, creating diplomatic difficulties for the Biden administration’s global strategy, and even creating fights in Congress over which of the many contingencies on the table—Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, the border—should be prioritized.

Last time we debated, we were imminently expecting an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. That has happened. Indeed, reports suggest that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has now encircled Gaza City and is beginning urban combat operations. The humanitarian toll has been horrifying already, and there’s increasing animosity across the region—and in the West—between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian voices. What’s your take on the current situation?

MK: Israel’s ground invasion seems to be proceeding as planned. You are right that opinion around the world seems to be shifting, with many sympathizing with the plight of Palestinian civilians trapped in Gaza. Washington’s position seems to be shifting with it, with the Biden administration now asking Israel for a “pause” to the war in order to deliver humanitarian aid. Apart from short daily windows, the Israelis are understandably rebuffing these calls for a longer pause in fighting. After all, the United States did not take humanitarian pauses during its wars against Nazi Germany or the Islamic State.

EA: I’m skeptical about the idea of a pause for humanitarian reasons. It would be one thing if—as some reports suggest—a sustained pause might be traded for the release of more hostages. That would probably be worth doing. But otherwise, it’s not clear what the point of a pause is. It’s not to give civilians time to flee Gaza, because there is nowhere outside the strip for them to go; Egypt is still restricting exit from the Gaza Strip, and the south of the strip—to which many people have fled—is still in Israel’s crosshairs and is still being bombed. If it is to allow more humanitarian aid, then—as callous as it sounds—is there really any point to allowing a pause for aid when Israel seems intent on flattening Gaza anyway?

U.S. officials either need to think bigger or acknowledge that there is little that can be done here. That means pressure, genuine pressure, using the leverage of U.S. arms shipments, on Israel to stop or limit its assault. Or it means accepting that the humanitarian toll here will be catastrophic. Everything else is just an attempt to make ourselves feel better.

Or how about this? If U.S. officials don’t want to use their leverage to slow or stop the carnage now, perhaps they should leverage their unquestioning support today for more influence on the post-conflict situation. They could condition continuing support on the Israeli government putting Gaza under international administration or peacekeeping, rather than occupying it, for example. President Joe Biden has so much capacity to influence events here that he is not using.

MK: It does seem like the United States is trying to micromanage the war, largely for domestic political reasons. Washington wants to stand behind Israel’s right to defend itself. But it also wants to be seen as trying to relieve Palestinian suffering. This recent American tendency to be half in and half out of wars at the same time does not make sense; it is partly what contributed to the decadeslong wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for it.

I would like Israel to better explain how it is complying with the Law of Armed Conflict, including how it is calculating proportionality in its airstrikes. I hope that these conversations are at least taking place privately between Washington and Israel, but otherwise, Washington should let Israel prosecute the war to eliminate Hamas—which I do believe is an achievable objective—as it sees fit.

As the generals complained about U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s approach to Vietnam, managing a war with a long screwdriver from the White House doesn’t work.

EA: I may have said this before, Matt, but I think Vietnam is rarely going to be your best example of why the United States should lean in more.

In reality, the big problem with letting Israel prosecute this war as it likes is that the Biden administration has tied itself firmly to the mast, openly supporting Israeli actions, sending extra arms, and defending Israel from criticism at the United Nations. To the rest of the world, he is already complicit in civilian deaths in Gaza. What do you think countries in the global south see in U.S. support for Israel, sending arms, vetoing U.N. resolutions? They see hypocrisy: When the same happens to white Europeans in Ukraine, it’s a war crime. When it happens to Palestinians, it’s apparently fine for U.S. leaders.

And it is genuinely hard to argue that the Israeli campaign so far has been proportional, not least because the Israelis have been incredibly incoherent about their actual long-term goals. Simply killing all Hamas leaders might be effective. Destroying their tunnels might be possible. But ensuring that Hamas or other groups cannot threaten Israel again is not militarily achievable. How can you have a campaign where the violence is proportional to the goals sought when the goals are unclear? There’s a lot of violence and very little serious discussion among U.S. and Israeli policymakers of what the day after the war looks like.

I’m sympathetic to the difficulties the IDF faces in rooting out a deeply entrenched enemy like Hamas in an urban setting, but it does seem like it is mostly insensitive to civilian casualties. The Biden administration has been trying to nudge Israel toward more caution, but it doesn’t seem to be working. The White House should be strongly criticized for this. Most Middle East hands saw this coming and tried to warn U.S. officials about the consequences of unlimited support for Israel weeks ago; the Biden team didn’t listen.

MK: I want to pick up on what you said about goals. A good strategy starts with clear goals. Israel has been clear about the goals of its wartime strategy: eliminate Hamas. That is a feasible goal. We saw a U.S.-led coalition wipe the Islamic State from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas is trapped in Gaza. Israel can kill or capture everyone affiliated with the group. To be sure, pockets of resistance and underlying sources of instability and ideological support for the group may remain, but that becomes a question of postwar reconstruction.

This is where there has been a lack of clear thinking. What happens after the shooting stops? Who governs Gaza? With America’s experiences in the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan fresh in mind, it seems that there should be some more thinking around postwar planning.

EA: Yes, I think that’s the key point. Israel can flatten the Gaza Strip if it likes; it looks increasingly like that is indeed what it’s planning to do. But at the end of that bloody, awful process, it’ll still be left with a Palestinian enclave with no clear government, an ongoing embargo and humanitarian crisis, and no path toward peace or coexistence. At present, it sounds like the Israeli government intends to govern Gaza directly, which would transform the current confused reality into an actual occupation.

This is why I think it’s a real mistake that the White House is emphasizing its ties to Israel over other options. There are other places the U.S. could seek solutions. One is Qatar. As a recent piece by Jason Pack here in Foreign Policy argued, enlisting Qatar and Turkey in a solution might be a way to not only stabilize the Israel-Palestine conflict, but to soften the region’s dividing lines more generally.

Another option is the Saudis hosting a conference of Arab and Islamic states, including Iran, to discuss the conflict. The Saudi-Israeli normalization deal that was being floated a few months back proved impractical and is off the table at this point. But what if a genuine solution to the Palestinian question, backed by Saudi money and with Iranian, Qatari, and Egyptian cooperation, could be found? That would actually be a game-changer.

MK: Well, this is an area where creative thinking is needed. The past solutions, Israeli occupation or Palestinians in Gaza governing themselves, both failed. A new approach is needed, and every crisis presents an opportunity.

I liked Pack’s conceptualization of the regional blocs, which I will paraphrase as the sources of instability (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen), the sources of stability (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, etc.), and those trying to have it both ways (Turkey and Qatar).

But I don’t think his solution (a pact between the latter two groups to nation-build in Gaza) is compelling. Pack argues that Qatar can be helpful primarily because of its ties to Hamas, but I hope that Hamas will cease to exist when the shooting stops. And if Turkey and Qatar were to help bring Iran and the other sources of instability into the process, then we should not want any part of that.

The better solution, in my view, would be a nation-building project led by the countries in the sources-of-stability bloc. While I would prefer that Palestine look like Sweden some day, a new Palestinian state governed roughly like Saudi Arabia or the UAE would be a big improvement over past practice.

EA: But the point of Pack’s argument—at least, as I read it—is that you can’t get to a stable equilibrium in Gaza without including states like Qatar (or, in my view, even Iran) that have interests or clients there. You can seek to double down on existing U.S. allies in the stability bloc, but that offers no path to actually resolving the conflict more broadly. In fact, Washington has already seen this approach fail.

The U.S. attempts to push through Saudi-Israeli normalization by ignoring Palestine undoubtedly contributed to the current conflict. I don’t see how doubling down on that approach will yield better results next time.

MK: With Hamas eliminated, who are Iran’s and Qatar’s clients in Gaza? The goal should be to keep Tehran out, not invite to the party the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.

EA: It sounds like even you don’t believe the IDF can completely eliminate Hamas or prevent its return. In the aftermath of this brutal war, under an almost certain direct Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip—or even an indirect occupation of the kind seen until now—new opposition and militant groups will emerge.

One problem with Washington’s focus on Iranian proxies as the source of all instability in the region is that it largely ignores the underlying conditions that cause those militant groups to be attractive. If the United States doesn’t mitigate the suffering of Palestinians and find a long-term political solution, something new and probably just as bad will rise up to replace Hamas.

MK: If Iran is invited to nation-build in Gaza, that is exactly what will happen. It will fund, arm, and train a new terrorist group. Its solution to Lebanon was to help create Hezbollah, and its contribution to governance in Yemen was to arm the Houthi rebels. No, thank you.

How do Saudi Arabia and the UAE prevent new militant groups from rising up in their countries? Let us have them implement a similar solution in Gaza.

EA: Well, they’re actual governments, for one thing, and they control sovereign countries. The underlying problem with the Israel-Palestine conflict is political: Whether it’s a two-state, one-state, or even nutty ideas like a three-state solution, there will be no resolution to this conflict so long as Palestinians remain disenfranchised and oppressed, and so long as Israelis fear for their security. The Palestinian Authority is a shell of a government—an appendage of the Israeli security services—and not a viable government in Gaza.

But even a region-led initiative to govern Gaza would be better. Arab governments fear not being seen doing enough on Palestine by restive populations; they have an incentive to do something here. Right now, the Saudis and Emiratis seem to be hoping this blows over. Riyadh has called for a summit this weekend, but the U.S. government should be pushing them to take initiative and consider what they could do to improve the situation.

MK: But would Palestinians feel oppressed and Israelis fear for their security if Gaza becomes a protectorate temporarily under the control of Saudi Arabia or the UAE? I don’t know if that will work, and these countries are not volunteering for the role, but we need to think creatively. And maybe they could then make you the monarch of the new Kingdom of Palestine!

EA: No, thank you. Something tells me no one in the region wants to invite the British back to rule Palestine. Besides, my current career plans involve becoming the U.S. envoy to the Seychelles in the next administration. I’m sure I can make the case that the U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific is so vital, it requires me to relax on an Indian Ocean beach for the next four years.

Before we wrap up, though, I wanted to mention the role of the U.S. military here. The Biden administration has leaned heavily into deterrence as the central pillar of its regional strategy; it has sent multiple carrier strike groups and a submarine to the region in the hopes that it will prevent further regional escalation of this conflict. At the same time, however, U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq are under rocket attacks from militants. Is the U.S. military posture here helping or hurting?

MK: The U.S. posture is not hurting. It is the perception that America is irresolute that hurts. Instead of empty shows of force, Washington should actually use force against Iran and its proxies and let Tehran know there is more where that came from, unless it knocks off these attacks.

EA: Yeah, using force against Iran should definitely stop this conflict from escalating. That’s sarcasm, in case you weren’t clear. I’d say instead that the U.S. government should bring those troops home—where they won’t be a big sitting target—and rely on more effective naval assets for deterrence.

But we are out of time, and, like everyone else, out of ideas when it comes to the Middle East. See you back here in two weeks, hopefully to discuss a more tractable crisis?

MK: Well, I am eager to share what I learned on my recent trip about growing strategic competition in the High North.

EA: I’m telling you: The Seychelles is a much better—and, more importantly, warmer—topic.

Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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