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The Moral Dilemmas of Total War
The "Hamid Plan" for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire is well-intentioned but it misses something vital. The battle for Gaza is not an ordinary one.
Editor’s Note: We’re excited to publish this essay by , his first for Wisdom of Crowds. You may recall Tom’s rich debate with our very own from earlier this year. Tom is one of our most engaged and thoughtful subscribers. In this essay, he takes issue with my recent arguments in favor of a ceasefire—and grapples with the broader implications for how we understand the nature of war. His piece is reflective of the kind of work we want to do and the kind of community we want to build here at Wisdom of Crowds. Enjoy.
On a shelf in my bedroom is a book called The Ordeal of Total War by the late Stanford historian Gordon Wright. It’s an old book, published in 1968, and I couldn’t, if you asked me, recite any of the book’s major findings. But I could and would show you its bleary black and white photo of Stalingrad in utter ruins, of randomly standing brick and stone facades in a landscape of dust. That this scene, despite its grainy rendering, has a contemporary feel almost goes without saying.
My wife and I are both children of survivors of the Second World War, a conflict whose death toll mounted to tens of millions. Nancy’s father was on active duty for four years, while mine was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge on his eighteenth day with his unit. Had our fathers been among those killed which easily could have been the case: she and I would never have been born. That “never” has haunted my thinking over the past month, as the intensifying battle for Gaza has extinguished ever more present and future lives.
Such a catastrophe—amid all the rage and hatred that it generates—naturally brings calls from popular, political, and media quarters for a ceasefire, or at least for “humanitarian pauses” to allow the removal or succor of civilians. Let’s allow that such demands are not always as humanitarian in motivation as claimed; the demonstrators calling a ceasefire do not always show the same sympathy for Israeli hostages as they do for Gazan civilians under bombardment.
Let’s allow further that the ceasefire demands are seldom non-partisan; indeed, in the United States, the demonstrations are important evidence of a surprising, though still far from majoritarian, amount of sympathy for Palestinian cause. While many of the calls for de-escalation, to be sure, do seem to arise out of revulsion over conditions in Gaza, it’s the frequency and intensity of all these demands together, regardless of motivation, that are presenting officials in the United States and other democracies with a new political fact: for the first time in many years people seem to care about what happens between Israel and the Palestinians.
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Perhaps because he could sense this change, certainly out of his intense moral approach to issues, and maybe because Middle East experts are under pressure these days to have answers, Shadi Hamid first on X and then in the Washington Post has put out whathas dubbed the Hamid Plan. Shadi’s proposal calls explicitly for humanitarian restraint on the part of Israel (a conditional ceasefire), implicitly for the reestablishment of the Palestinian Authority’s control over Gaza, for Israel’s commitment to specific steps towards a two-state solution, and, most importantly, for making future U.S. military aid to Israel contingent on its good faith participation in any peace process.
It's not my purpose in this essay to evaluate Shadi’s plan. Readers can easily do this on their own. My goal is more to probe my reactions to the plan—of which there are just two, really—and then ask whether the assumptions behind them are valid.
My first reaction was simple and almost instinctive. The photograph that stared back at me from Gordon Wright’s book compelled me to ask whether we are in a different situation than the one Shadi believes he is speaking to. What I see in the ruins of Gaza no longer looks like a chronic conflict in which both sides make tactical use of violence in an ongoing war of nerves. What I see resembles a total war, albeit in miniature, in which each side’s stated objective is to destroy the other. Given the New York Times’ summary account of recent interviews with multiple Hamas leaders, Hamas’ determination should be clear to everyone. And it is equally clear Israel considers Gaza City, essentially, to be a Hamas military fortress—one that it intends to destroy along with its defenders. Whatever the degree of folly or miscalculation in the combatants’ aims and actions, wars of this type typically end in one side’s defeat or both sides’ exhaustion, not in ceasefires and certainly not, until someone’s defeat or exhaustion is apparent, in peace talks.
My second reaction was more complicated, and stems from the fact that in almost all calls for a ceasefire as well as Shadi’s more nuanced call for recommitment to a peace process, the conversation turns quickly to the role of the United States.
As Shadi writes in his column:
The United States must use its leverage to bring Israel to the table…. Future U.S. military aid to Israel must be made contingent on it committing in good faith to [progress toward a two-state settlement].
True, Shadi is placing these contingencies on post-ceasefire progress, but there are plenty of people in this country—not all of them chanting “from the river to the sea”—who believe that the United States could simply pull the plug on the war in Gaza altogether.
My reaction to this has been to recall that it’s been over twenty years since the United States was willing to put its prestige on the line as a highly visible driver of Mideast peace negotiations. I say this even though U.S. involvement in the peace process did not definitively end with Camp David. Indeed, the George W. Bush administration brought a new turn to U.S. policy by formally endorsing a two-state solution and hosting talks in Annapolis in 2007. And Shadi has often remarked on Bush’s—if not always his advisors’—belief that democratization was the road to Middle East peace. But my sense is that few Americans noted and fewer remember these efforts, all of which were greatly overshadowed by the massive response to the 9/11 attacks and by the Iraq War.
What many Americans do remember, if they are old enough, is the failure – at the time widely blamed on Yasser Arafat—of the 2001 Camp David talks, after years of Clinton administration attempts to bring them about. The Camp David failure was quickly followed by leadership changes in America and Israel, and then by 9/11. At that point the thrust of U.S. policy turned from peace to war, and if the wars have mostly petered out, an appetite for peacemaking has not so far replaced them.
What could change this? A huge barrier is that there seem to be fewer grounds for agreement between Israel and the Palestinians than ever before. Why would the United States double down on a two-state solution and put pressure on Israel to negotiate with a partner it won’t accept on a solution it rejects out of hand? So my response to this part of Shadi’s plan was just to shake my head. An American government with the spittle to attempt such a high-risk approach—one that upon failure might leave the United States “owning” the problem—seems far from the one we have.
But both of my reactions may stem from faulty assumptions. In the first case, yes, Gaza City may be coming to resemble Stalingrad, but the combatants are not Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Israel and Hamas are highly militarized, powerfully armed opponents, but they do not possess standalone economies that can indefinitely replace expended military material. In that sense the “pull the plug” partisans may be technically correct.
But would the U.S. do such a thing? My second reaction, that the United States is unlikely to attach strict conditions on military aid to Israel, is harder to dislodge, because the answer is, “It depends.” For one thing, U.S. policy has to consider not just politics but geopolitics. To ask whether the United States might change the form of its commitment to Israel, we have to look beyond the pressures of the moment, beyond polls and demonstrations, beyond humanitarian concerns and even beyond the rotation of Presidents, and ask about the basis of American policy in the Middle East. Here, my assumption—and I believe it still holds—is that, since the Second World War, U.S. policy in the region has revolved around its seldom-stated but always present role of serving as guarantor of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.1
The previous statement might seem controversial. ”Oil,” after all, is a word that Shadi assiduously avoids and his plan takes no account of it. But if this characterization of U.S. policy is correct, then two things follow.
The first, and it’s safe to call this consequence of our policy a “fact” since Shadi has complained of it so often, is that as long as oil is flowing the United States prefers stability to political flux. It seeks to shore up the current order. It resists calls for drastic change. The second consequence is that conflict between the Israel and the Palestinians is unlikely to move the United States out of its stability-loving guarantor role unless that conflict triggers or threatens to trigger an oil crisis, as it did in repeatedly the 1970s. Those events generated over twenty years of constructive U.S. involvement.
Does this characterization hold water? One could object that protecting the flow of oil could not possibly be core policy now that the United States is largely independent of petroleum imports. The short answer is that stable energy flows and, just as important, relatively stable energy prices are crucial for political and economic stability almost everywhere in the world. Even in the United States, oil prices flow directly onto the political fever chart.
And current U.S. behavior seems consistent with this view. Today we see a massive American military buildup in the Mideast, not to intervene in the conflict but to contain it. And we see pressure on Israel from the Biden administration and other oil-producing and oil-consuming states, not to end its war on Hamas—show me a state other than one invested in creating disorder that would not be delighted to see Hamas eliminated as a military force—but to generate fewer bad looks in conducting it.
None of the above is to say that there aren’t important players in U.S. and other policy circles whose aims and motivations are centered around achieving peaceful solution in the Middle East and meeting immediate humanitarian needs. Such voices exist and have influence and effect. But they must operate in a world where geopolitics never stops and where the costs of geopolitical failure are enormous. It’s sobering to contemplate that it might take such a geopolitical breakdown—a new energy crisis, say, or a broader war—to draw the United States into the high-stakes role of heavyweight Mideast peacemaking. The bitter irony that this presents for Shadi’s peace plan is that if a ceasefire is achieved, or a further humanitarian crisis or broader war averted, it becomes less likely that the United States or other powers will lean hard on the parties to make further progress.
The question will then be, as it has always been, whether strong movements will emerge within Israel and among Palestinians that are willing to take hard and risky steps toward peace. Only then, when the images of a shattered city stare at us out of future history books, will it be possible to say that Gaza’s agony, like Stalingrad’s, proved to be a turning point.
I take this description of the U.S. role from Chapter 2, “The Impossible Oil Guarantee” of Helen Thompson’s Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2022). Thompson provided me with the word, “guarantor,” that I had been searching for, but I do not follow her analysis completely.
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