How to Deter a Superpower
Taiwan, a weak case for genocide, and a broader war in the Middle East.
A belated welcome to 2024, dear Crowd. We’re getting back on the treadmill with Monday Notes, but hope to make the offering a bit more distinctive than it has been in the past.
Monday Notes were conceived of as a kind of notepad of things that were on the mind of WoC’s founders —and me — rather than anything approaching a column. But with time, and despite our best intentions, they grew to be full-fledged essays.
This year, we’re going to try to bring back the original concept. There will still be plenty of essays on Wisdom of Crowds. (Many more essays, in fact — stay tuned.) But for me, Monday Notes will now be a seed bed of ideas — things that have me thinking at the current moment, and hopefully will get you thinking, too.
I’ll be grateful for any reactions these musings generate in you, dear readers. Leave them in the comments below.
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America, the erratic
Hot on the heels of Taiwan’s elections last week, the New York Times ran an article documenting a decline in trust among the Taiwanese for the United States.
As they watch Washington deadlock on military aid for Ukraine and Israel, and try to imagine what the United States would actually do for Taiwan in a crisis, faith in America is plummeting… [O]nly 34 percent of respondents saw the United States as a trustworthy country, down from 45 percent in 2021.
Your reaction to this kind of news depends on your priors. If you’re a liberal internationalist who believes that progress can only be undergirded by U.S. power, you will weep. If you’re an isolationist, you’ll be pleased. Me, I’m tempted by neither side. Rather, I’m wondering what the world will look like given that America is likely to be unreliable for the foreseeable future.
I took a stab at analyzing the conundrum in 2018, noting that America’s fickleness in foreign policy was well entrenched before Trump arrived on the scene. That essay relied heavily on Steve Sestanovich’s excellent Cold War history, Maximalist, for its framework for thinking about American foreign policy.
I think I might give Steve a shout soon to chat.
Israel’s bloody campaign in Gaza is made all the more sinister by the ugly pronouncements of Israeli officials about what they are trying to do. Those pronouncements have played no small part in making the current genocide trial at the International Court of Justice seem plausible.
Regular readers are aware I’m plenty jaundiced when international law is invoked. But never mind my preoccupations. Read Yair Rosenberg over at The Atlantic on how many of the most damning statements by top Israeli officials, including those made by Benjamin Netanyahu himself, have been misreported.
Yair is both a staunch critic of Netanyahu, and he makes no excuses for some of the unhinged eliminationist rhetoric that Netanyahu’s coalition partners are spouting. But his defense of those with command responsibility for Israel’s operation — Netanyahu, Gallant, and Gantz — is detailed, and to me persuasive. (And yes, the “command responsibility” part matters a whole lot in these kinds of cases.)
Hamas in its own words
Hamas has published its defense and justification of its October 7 attacks. You should probably read it. Not because it’s surprising, necessarily, but it’s because it’s good to read original sources.
It’s worth observing that Hamas continues to put “Israel” in quotation marks whenever it refers to the Jewish state throughout the document. It claims that October 7 was solely directed at military targets. And in denying the now widely accepted evidence of mass rape committed during the operation, it cites Mondoweiss (“among others”) as exculpatory.
The most interesting point, however, comes towards the end. In a section on what it thinks is required for next steps, Hamas issues a call of action to the so-called Global South:
We call upon the free peoples across the world, especially those nations who were colonized and realize the suffering of the Palestinian people, to take serious and effective positions against the double standard policies adopted by powers/countries that back the Israeli occupation. We call on these nations to initiate a global solidarity movement with the Palestinian people and to emphasize the values of justice and equality and the right of the peoples to live in freedom and dignity.
Leave aside the question of whether Hamas considers Israelis to be a people worthy of self-determination. I was struck by how redolent of the 1960s this rhetoric is. “Third world solidarity” was one of the least consequential phenomena of the Cold War. It’s fascinating that Hamas is so enamored of it.
What matters more than Third World solidarity
In the American context, 1968 is rightly remembered as pivotal in the struggle for Civil Rights. But though Vietnam played a big role in mobilizing a broader protest movement, the movement itself did little to “end Vietnam”.
Much more consequential was the Tet Offensive itself, which kicked off that fateful year. Tet was not a particularly meaningful military victory, but it began to convince military leaders that the war itself was unwinnable.
Tet popped into my mind when I read the Wall Street Journal’s leaking of American assessments of Israel’s campaign thus far.
Israeli forces have killed 20% to 30% of Hamas’s fighters, U.S. intelligence agencies estimate, a toll that falls short so far of Israel’s goal of destroying the group and shows its resilience after months of war that have laid swaths of the Gaza Strip to ruin.
The U.S. estimate of the group’s casualties also found that Hamas still has enough munitions to continue striking Israel and Israeli forces in Gaza for months, and that the group is attempting to reconstitute its police force in parts of Gaza City, according to U.S. officials who confirmed a classified report.
Whether this is good faith data or a strategic leak intended to pressure the Israelis is impossible to tell. But anecdotally, Israelis are struggling to achieve their war aims. Hamas’ tunnels are more extensive than Israeli intelligence assumed. IDF soldiers are fighting pitched battles below ground, and progressing slowly. And even as the battle for Khan Younis culminates, Egyptians are warning Israel’s government to not attempt to capture Gaza’s entire border (the “Philadelphi Route”).
I cite all this in the shadow of the previous item — about Hamas’ quaint Third World solidarity ask. It seems particularly silly when contrasted with the plausible military reality on the ground — and its broader implications.
If Hamas survives in any shape, it will certainly count as a big victory, not only against Israel, but against the United States as well. Hamas is primarily concerned with Israel, but Hamas’ patrons, the Iranians, definitely see the Gaza War as part of a bigger fight.
As I write, the United States and its allies have launched yet another round of strikes against the Houthis in Yemen, which up until now have had negligible impact on deterring attacks on shipping. And there are rumors flying around that the Biden administration is contemplating pulling its troops from Syria as proxy battles in the region heat up.
If the IDF fails to dislodge Hamas, Israel is not going anywhere. But I wonder what America’s footprint in the Middle East looks like on the other side of this war.
Finally, a request…
I was at a party at’s late last year, probably in early December. Most of my Muslim friends I talked to said that the Gaza war would not only transform American Muslim attitudes and voting preferences, but that it would have an earth-shattering effect on Muslim attitudes towards the United States across the Middle East.
I was genuinely puzzled. Hasn’t America already adequately proven itself to be a power worth opposing in the Middle East? (for one) has adequately documented just how blameworthy Obama’s own policies have been after the expectation-raising Cairo speech. And that record comes on the heels of the disastrous invasion of Iraq. How much worse can America’s image get?
If any of you have any suggestions for reading — on the intricacies of Arab public opinion on the United States, and how it might be changing drastically as a result of Gaza — please send them my way.