Dr John C Hulsman is the Founder and Managing Partner of John C Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. He is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
“Events, dear boy, events.”
One of my favourite vignettes in my last book, To Dare More Boldly, concerns the rather touching friendship of world-weary Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, with bright young thing, John F. Kennedy. They immediately hit it off, talking not only about their shared interest in history, but also the things in their lives that both found ridiculous, funny, or deadly serious.
When having their one-on-one, Macmillan queried JFK about what he feared most. Kennedy, ever the literal rationalist, admitted that nuclear weapons and the American balance-of-payments deficit were the two issues that most frightened him. Kennedy feared the known.
However, when the President asked Macmillan what frightened him the most, the prime minister (perhaps mythically) replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” Macmillan, unlike the modern, cerebral President, knew from the bitter experience of World War I and Suez that it is the unknown that is most to be feared by analysts of all stripes, as it can — at a stroke — upend the best laid plans of mice and men.
I was thinking about this when, entirely out of the blue, Hamas launched its devastating and unprecedented assault on Israel. Human beings simply do not control what circumstances are thrust upon them, yet they must respond. Macmillan is right: it is the bolt-from-the-blue that is to be feared.
A woeful intelligence failure, and the political reckoning to come
The first analytical move here is to pierce the fog of war, and look at what we are dealing with.
First, there is absolutely no doubt that Hamas, the Palestinian militant group running the Gaza strip and radically opposed to any sort of genuine political dealings with Israel, caught the famed Israeli intelligence services — the Mossad and Shin Bet (dealing with domestic matters) — entirely off guard.
With the coming of the weekend Jewish holiday Simchat Torah, over a thousand Hamas militants — in a highly coordinated attack by land, sea, and air — crossed the country’s southern border, penetrating Israel proper for the first time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Amid acts of barbarism and carnage, over 130 Israelis were taken hostage and hauled back to Gaza.
At the same time, an incredible 5000 projectiles were fired, in an effort to overwhelm Israel’s famed Iron Dome anti-missile system, with partial success. Iron Dome couldn’t cope with the onslaught of so many missiles at once, shooting down only 85 per cent of its targets.
How could the famed Israeli intelligence services have been caught so flat-footed? Hamas’ operational planning for the attack is estimated to have taken a full two years without being detected. The Gaza leadership seems to have lulled the Israeli government to sleep, believing its own story that a wounded Hamas was past its sell-by date, unable to do more than prove a nuisance. Hamas sold the bogus story to the Israelis that it was more concerned with securing Gaza residents work permits and jobs in Israel than it was in starting a new war. In essence, it managed to convince Israel that its goals were immediate, economic and rational, rather than strategic, military and symbolic. Israel simply forgot that Hamas were radicals.
Politically, it did not help that the Israeli security services and army have been greatly distracted by the country’s increasing political divisions, centred around Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to water down the powers of Israel’s judiciary and escape possible imprisonment over corruption charges. The judicial changes have fundamentally divided Israeli society. Many of the country’s reservists were effectively on strike in opposition to Netanyahu’s plans.
The whole defence establishment, politically preoccupied as it was, may well have taken its eye off the Hamas ball.
After the war, given Israel’s unique political culture, there is sure to be a reckoning for these failures. In Israel, prime ministers simply do not survive military debacles. Within two years of the earlier setbacks, Golda Meir resigned after the Yom Kippur War, Menachem Begin after the first Lebanese War, and Ehud Olmert after the second.
Netanyahu, the longest serving prime minister in its history, is surely the Harry Houdini of Israeli politics, coming back from the political dead time and time again. However, this is different and ought to, after the dust settles, finally spell his end.
Hamas has already achieved its goals
Strikingly, in a sense Hamas has already won, achieving its goals ahead of the coming conflict, for all that Israel is poised to invade Gaza outright. Israel has called up 300,000 reservists, the largest troop concentration in its history, set to invade the Gaza strip. It has been widely reported that, when speaking to Joe Biden, Netanyahu said he had no choice but to order a ground invasion of Gaza. Biden was said not to have tried to talk him out of it.
But for all the thunderous blow-back that is undoubtedly coming, Hamas has already got what it wanted, both domestically and strategically. Domestically, it has surely reminded the Palestinian people (and the world at large) that it remains a potent, underestimated force, able to strike Israel directly and effectively. It has demonstrated that its belief in armed resistance is not futile, and that Israel and its American ally are not all-powerful.
With the waning of the dominant (in the West Bank) Fatah organisation and its uninspiring leader, Abu Mazen — the rival to Hamas for the political leadership of the Palestinian people — such a bold move is likely to greatly help Hamas in terms of Palestinian domestic politics in the years ahead.
Strategically, the attack has been even more successful. Ominous and repeated rumours of a coming US-Israeli-Saudi agreement, whereby Riyadh would formally recognise Israel in return for US defense guarantees for Saudi Arabia (along the lines of the side deals done with Bahrain over the Abrahan Accords), pose a mortal threat to both Hamas and its paymaster, Iran.
With immediate Palestinian statehood no longer an impediment to such an accord, the Palestinian cause risked becoming an even more peripheral concern of the region. From an Iranian point of view, the coming deal was also a nightmare, in that its two great regional enemies— Saudi Arabia and Israel — would have formally found common cause together.
Hamas’s strike has instead scuppered the immediate chances of such a deal taking place. Undoubtedly, the bloodletting to come in Gaza will be seen by the Arab street as an Israeli ‘overreaction,’ making it impossible for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia to conclude the pact, for fear of enraging his own people. At least for now, Hamas and Iran have turned to tables on their regional enemies.
The hapless Biden White House
Finally, Biden finds himself overmatched by yet another foreign policy crisis from out of the blue. It surely doesn’t help that just days before, Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, happily proclaimed that the Middle East was quieter than it had been in memory.
Beyond entirely missing the boat, the Biden White House has just released $6 billion to Iran (which may or may not have set the whole Hamas operation in motion, rather than merely paying for it) in return for some kidnapped American hostages. In both cases, to put it mildly, the White House looks badly out of touch with what has actually been going on in the region.
Finally, populist Republicans (such as myself) have a final damning attack point directed at the Biden administration — and one that Macmillan would appreciate. The true link between the Ukraine War and the Hamas War is this: America simply does not know when ‘events’ will descend upon it like a thunderbolt. Given that this is surely so, and that America — powerful as it is— has limited munitions and material to offer to its allies, choices actually have to be made, beyond saying ‘do everything.’
In this practical case, giving the munitions candy store to third-rate-interest Ukraine has obviously limited what America can offer Israel, which is surely one of America’s closest allies, along with the UK, the Anglosphere countries, and Japan.
To care about everything is to care about nothing. Macmillan’s warning to Kennedy is as true today as it was in the early 1960s: events will always strike decision-makers, all the more reason to have a clear sense of priorities, to what must be done and what must not be done. To pursue a grown-up foreign policy, it is past time that the Biden administration bases it foreign policy on America’s actual national interests.