In 2009, when Israel was bombing Gaza, one of the most prominent advocates of the realist school of international relations, John Mearsheimer, wrote an article explaining that while the nominal goal of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” was to counteract Hamas rocket attacks, the underlying purpose was “to get the Palestinians in Gaza to accept their fate as hapless subjects of a Greater Israel.”
He predicted it would fail in this purpose and that armed conflict would persist until the underlying issue of the status of the Palestinian territories was resolved. Sadly, this analysis proved to be as prescient as his more famous warning about mounting tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
In both Eastern Europe and the Middle East, we can see the bitter fruits of policymakers ignoring these warnings. The United States is pumping arms and money into local wars that both threaten to spiral into far larger conflicts. In both cases, the stated war aims of our local proxies are unlikely to be achieved any time soon — if at all. And in each case, veteran advocates of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy have advocated a long-term ceasefire and moves toward diplomatic resolution of the underlying conflict.
University College London professor of international relations Philip Cunliffe, however, has argued that the Left’s foreign policy restrainers are being inconsistent. He thinks we were being driven by “sober realism” on Ukraine but have now “lost it” and let ourselves be swayed by humanitarian emotions about the Palestinians.
This critique doesn’t survive a closer look. It misunderstands the relationship between realist critiques of the aims of war and moral horror at the consequences of war. And it ignores everything the two cases have in common.
A Tale of Two Wars
Neither the terrorist attack on October 7 nor Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were morally justified. They were, however, both predictable and widely predicted. Cautious voices at the heights of the Western foreign policy establishment had been saying that encouraging Ukraine’s long-term ambitions to join NATO could inflame tensions with Russia since the end of the Cold War. And there were numerous similarwarnings that Netanyahu’s strategy of simultaneously digging his boot deeper into the necks of the Palestinians and trying to make a separate peace with surrounding Arab states, thus depriving the Palestinians of the one thing they had going for them — the support, however ambiguous and inconsistent, of those states — was a recipe for exactly this kind of explosion.
In both cases, failure to see the warning signs has been compounded by subsequent U.S. policy. While this policy may finally be changing in Ukraine, the Biden administration’s default approach to both conflicts has been to write blank checks. In both cases, there have been signs of regret and hesitation along the way — weapons systems that aren’t sent to Ukraine for a few months out of concerns that they’re too escalatory (and then get sent anyway) or Biden begging Netanyahu for “humanitarian pauses” even as 1.7 million of the more than 2 million residents of Gaza had already been displaced and thousands of children lay dead.
Both Zelensky and Netanyahu have pushed back hard against such squeamishness and both men have, more often than not, gotten their way — even though, in both cases, it seems quite unlikely that our allies’ stated goals will be achieved on the battlefield.
Ukraine retaking both Crimea and every last inch of the Donbas seems supremely unlikely even given another five or 10 years of more war. Similarly, counterinsurgency campaigns with the goal of “eradicating” some terrorist or guerilla force are a dime a dozen around the world. It’s far less common for such campaigns to lead to the actual extinction of the targeted force. As Israeli propaganda itself emphasizes, the top leadership of Hamas is not in Gaza but Qatar. Moreover, after seven weeks of “total war” that Israeli officials themselves are eager to compare to atrocities like the Allied bombing of Dresden, it’s not yet clear how much the Gaza-based operations of Hamas have been hampered.
Meanwhile, as even Elon Musk has realized, displacing millions of Palestinians from their homes and killing and maiming vast numbers of innocents is a recipe for supercharging future recruitment to Hamas or even more radical organizations. As is so often the case around the world, trying to solve long-term geopolitical problems by dropping bombs creates many corpses and few solutions.
In both cases, the most likely consequence of a less belligerent course of action would be some sort of territorial compromise that falls considerably short of perfect justice. I’ve arguedelsewhere that liberal democratic principles which in other contexts would be accepted by most Westerners across the political spectrum would entail simply offering West Bank and Gaza Palestinians citizenship in the single state that has de facto existed between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea for the last 56 years. But I’m not deluded about that happening in the short term — and even if a “two-state solution” involved Israel’s full retreat to its pre-1967 borders, that would mean the State of Palestine would be created in 22% of the shared homeland.
Similarly, as hawks have long fretted, any sort of negotiated peace in Ukraine will mean Russia retaining some of the land it illegally seized in the course of a bloody war that it started. These are bitter pills to swallow.
Nevertheless, you’ll find realist scholars and commentators advocatingpeace in both contexts — and for the same reasons. In both cases, pointlessly prolonging the wars would lead to enormous and avoidable suffering for civilian populations. In both cases, the families of the soldiers whose lives would be sacrificed by pointless extension of the wars can be spared. And in both cases, moves toward diplomatic resolution can head off the terrifying possibility of these wars spiraling into larger regional or even global conflicts.
Cunliffe accuses advocates of peace in both conflicts of selectively choosing not to share graphic images of the Ukrainian victims of the Russian invasion while over-sharing images of Palestinian death and destruction. Providing hyperlinks of articles by me and Branko Marcetic, he says the “strangest saddest cases” on the anti-war Left are those of us “who for long years managed to preserve their intellectual poise and political integrity in the face of monolithic mass conformity, elite hostility, and relentless gaslighting by the mainstream media, only to eventually crumble and succumb to supporting the ‘latest thing.’”
This is a misunderstanding on several levels. For one thing, I know of no case of a left-wing critic of both wars whose position on Israel/Palestine wasn’t the same two years ago. Second, the idea that “mass conformity, elite hostility, and relentless gaslighting by mainstream media” flow in the direction of advocacy for the Palestinians feels like news from an alternate dimension.
While I’ve never particularly enjoyed being called a “Putin apologist” for advocating de-escalation and peace negotiations in Ukraine, that sort of rhetorical ugliness doesn’t even begin to touch the tidal wave of firings, deplatformings, denunciations from politicians of both parties, and mass public shaming that’s come down on advocates of peace in Israel/Palestine since October 7. (There have also been some incidents of free speech crackdowns the other way, as institutions try to prove their “even-handedness,” but no one really denies that it’s been lopsided.) Nothing remotely equivalent has happened to advocates of a negotiated solution in Eastern Europe. There are no trucks driving around university campuses displaying the names of “anti-Ukraine” students and professors. There are no laws against boycotting Ukraine on the books in any state.
Finally and most importantly, Cunliffe misunderstands the relationship between humanitarian concern about the carnage of war and realism about what can be achieved by war. Outrage about one side’s crimes can be — and often is — used to whip up support for wars that will only make everything worse. So, for example, Russian crimes in Ukraine are often showcased for the purpose of bolstering support for prolonging a war whose continuation won’t move the eventual ceasefire line very far, but will result in decades of Ukrainian children being blown up by unexploded cluster bombs.
Furthermore, the grisly atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 are being used to justify mass death and displacement in Gaza, which will do nothing to reduce the threat of future terrorism. But the objection to such deceptive military solutions to long-term geopolitical problems isn’t just that they won’t work.
Anti-war protestors levitating the Pentagon through the power of meditation won’t work either — but if someone wants to dedicate an afternoon to giving it a shot, that’s fine with me. The problem with these awful and pointless wars is that they won’t achieve their stated objectives but they will result in vast numbers of dead, maimed, and psychologically broken human beings.
Cunliffe isn’t wrong that restrainers feel moral horror about this in the case of Gaza. He’s wrong to think we don’t feel it in the case of Ukraine — or that advocacy of restraint in both cases isn’t a consistent position.
Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.
Armed men stand on the beach as the Galaxy Leader commercial ship, seized by Yemen's Houthis last month, is anchored off the coast of al-Salif, Yemen, December 5, 2023. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah//File Photo
Any thoughts that bombing Yemen last week would bring a swift end to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have been quickly dispelled. The Yemeni militant group, after nine years of civil war and bombardments by Saudi Arabia and the UAE (with U.S.-made munitions), has already retaliated against U.S. airstrikes several times in the last few days.
But that hasn't stopped the Biden Administration from launching a fourth round of attacks at Houthi targets Yemen Wednesday night.
According to reports, U.S. Navy warships destroyed 14 Houthi missiles that were staged in a "Houthi-controlled" area of Yemen and posed an "imminent threat" to U.S. forces in the region.
Hours earlier, the Houthis struck and hit a U.S.-owned commercial vessel in the Red Sea with a one-way attack drone. Earlier this week, a similar vessel was hit by a ballistic missile. Little damage and no casualties were reported in either incident.
There have been over 30 attacks on commercial vessels as well as thwarted attacks officials say were aimed at U.S. and UK Navy in the region since the Gaza war began. The Houthis have said that they won't stop until Israel’s “crimes in Gaza stop and food, medicines and fuel are allowed to reach its besieged population.” My colleague Blaise Malley writes today that the Biden Administration — rather than seeing this as an opportunity to help broker some sort of ceasefire or cessation of the violence in Gaza, which has killed over 25,000 people, mostly civilians — has chosen to fight fire with fire.
There has been much ado about the Houthi threat to international shipping and the costs to the global economy. Interestingly, Eugene Gholz, a Notre Dame University and Cato Institute scholar, has pushed back on this narrative. He writes that, while ballistic missiles pose more of a risk, the drones cannot "pack a punch," and shipping companies know this.
That is why so many ships have simply continued about their business — and why we didn’t hear about substantial casualties or damage to target ships between the start of the attacks in November and the start of the protective Operation Prosperity Guardian in mid‐December.
Moreover, the cost of diverting shipping away from the Red Sea is not very significant in the grand scheme of the global economy—particularly to Americans. It may be annoying for certain companies (shipping companies or companies waiting to receive shipped products), but overall, the costs are small, and companies deal with disruptions of one type or another all the time. ...
He adds this, again challenging conventional wisdom that the West must bomb Yemen to save the economy:
Yes, it can take several weeks longer for cargo to circumnavigate Africa rather than going through the Suez Canal and Red Sea. The greater distance takes more fuel, and the merchant mariners aboard would draw more salary for the additional time at sea, but fuel and salary costs for cargo ships are trivial compared to the value of the cargo in the thousands of containers aboard (remember, each container might carry 20+ tons of goods across which those increased costs are amortized).
The real, though still minor, cost of the additional time at sea is that it takes a larger fleet of ships to maintain the pace of deliveries if each ship spends more time sailing. The good news is that there are already surplus cargo ships in the global shipping fleet.
It would seem that the real threat here is the escalation from continued U.S. airstrikes, which are killing people. As RS has reported on these pages time and again, the Houthis are battle hardened and even emboldened by the reaction of the West to their provocations. In a piece I published at the American Conservative today, a number of realist voices are decrying the folly of once again falling into a spiral of retaliatory violence that will likely lead to a real military crisis, even the death of U.S. service members, before it is done.
"They (strikes) won’t work. They won’t sufficiently degrade Houthi capability or will stop their attacks on shipping,” says Ben Friedman, senior fellow of Defense Priorities. “Why do something that is so evidently reckless? Restraint reminds us that no such law says we must conduct airstrikes that won’t work. We always have the option not to employ pointless violence.”
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Houthi supporters rally to mark the Ashura day in Sanaa, Yemen August 8, 2022. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
The United States is bombing Yemen, and according to the news coverage the reason is a string of recent attacks by Houthi militants on commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden. A New York Times headline from last week is typical: “After Red Sea Barrage by Houthis, U.S. and Allies Weigh Retaliation.”
This is technically true. Since November, the Houthis, who receive weapons and aid from Iran, have launched dozens of missiles at vessels in international shipping lanes, leading some ships to avoid the Red Sea entirely and sail all the way around Africa. But contra the headlines, the Houthis didn’t suddenly become aggressive last year nor did American meddling in Yemen begin yesterday.
The U.S. has been trying to dislodge the Houthis for almost a decade now. It’s failed, and there’s little reason to think the current effort will succeed either.
American involvement in Yemen began in 2015 after the Houthis invaded and captured the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. In response, Yemen’s neighbor Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition of Arab nations and began bombing Houthi targets, with the U.S. providing arms, logistical support, and other assistance like midair refueling for Saudi jets. It was seen as reluctant realpolitik on Washington’s part: The Saudis felt cold-shouldered by the West’s nuclear deal with their hated rival Iran, so the Obama administration reassured them by backing their war.
From the beginning, Yemen’s conflict was a strange fit for American involvement. At stake were largely local issues: The Houthis were Zaydi Muslims, an idiosyncratic sect of Shiite Islam, who had historically complained of discrimination. They were allied with a former president of Yemen who was trying to depose a then-current president of Yemen. There was also a sectarian overlay: The Houthis were Shias backed by Iran while the Saudis and its allies were Sunnis.
You’d think Washington would have learned from the failure of the Iraq war to stay out of Islamic sectarian battles. If the United States had any interests in Yemen at all, it was in keeping a Sunni group and an enemy of the Houthis, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), at bay. Instead as the Saudis further destabilized Yemen, into the chaos stepped AQAP. They fanned out across the eastern part of the country, establishing a foothold as never before, with many analysts suggesting they were the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise on Earth.
Here was another lesson from Iraq: Instability is a terrorist’s best friend. The Houthis in a sense were an echo of Iraq too. As Bruce Riedel has written, “The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 deeply radicalized the Houthi movement, like it did many other Arabs. …It was a turning point largely unrecognized outside Yemen, another unanticipated consequence of George Bush’s Iraq adventures.” Now, the American intervention in Yemen was yielding horrific civilian casualties and humanitarian strife, driving locals into the arms of both al-Qaeda and the Houthis, the very groups we were trying to stop.
This is the Yemen into which America is hurling fresh ordnance today, one emaciated by war and bloodshed. It’s the poorest country in the Middle East. The U.N. says it’s home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Houthis have survived the Saudi coalition and are increasingly confident they can outlast any challenger. The American-recognized Yemeni government is still banished from Sanaa and holed up in the country’s south.
Meanwhile the United States is once again finding that dislodging the Houthis is more complicated than it seems. Dropping bombs is easy; influencing events on the ground less so. So it was that, as the New York Times reports, while recent U.S. airstrikes in Yemen “damaged or destroyed about 90 percent of the targets struck, [Houthi forces] retained about three-quarters of its ability to fire missiles and drones at ships transiting the Red Sea.” The Houthis have since vowed to retaliate against the U.S. while Sanaa recently hosted a large anti-American rally.
It’s a pattern that’s played out time and again: The U.S. intervenes somewhere; this empowers our putative enemies who take advantage of the chaos and win hearts and minds; those enemies launch an attack; the U.S. uses the attack as a pretext for another military action; rinse and repeat sans any historical memory. Remember this the next time you hear that our hand was forced by the Houthis.
The first Congressional vote focused on Israel’s conduct during its ongoing war on Gaza took place on Tuesday evening. It failed when a motion to table the resolution passed by 72 votes to 11.
The resolution in question, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) last month, would have forced the State Department to issue a report detailing whether Israel was using weapons provided by Washington to commit human rights violations.
The eleven Senators who voted to advance the resolution were Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sanders.
During his remarks on the floor, Sanders said that his resolution was “not a radical idea” but rather “a very modest, common sense proposal.”
“This is a simple request for information,” Sanders said. “That is all this resolution is about. It does not alter aid to Israel in any way, it simply requests a report on how US aid is being used.” As Sanders noted, serious discussion about unconditional support for Israel’s war has been severely lacking in the U.S. Congress.
The Senator from Vermont went on to describe why this report would be important, describing the striking figures of death, destruction, and displacement in Gaza. Over 24,000 Palestinians have been killed, 1.9 million forced from their homes, and more than 46,000 homes completely destroyed in the 100 days since Israel officially declared war.
“As we all know, the military campaign being waged by the right-wing Netanyahu government has led to massive destruction and widespread civilian harm,” Sanders said. “This has been far and away the most intensive bombing campaign of the 21st century.”
“When there's been this level of casualties, and we are this closely tied to it, it is the right thing to do to get the type of information that would come through this request,” said. Merkley, speaking in support of the resolution.
The resolution was introduced under section 502B(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act. This national security tool has not been used to successfully get a report from the State Department since 1976. Had the resolution passed, the State Department would have had 30 days to submit its report, after which the Senate would have the opportunity to vote to either continue, alter, or terminate aid to Israel.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) spoke out in opposition to Sanders’s resolution, calling it “the most tone deaf thing, maybe in the history of the Senate.”
Graham said that he could “only imagine the joy that terrorist groups throughout the world have that we've been talking about such a proposal.” The senator also used his time to blast calls for a ceasefire, saying that one would allow Hamas to regroup, even though the resolution makes no mention of a ceasefire and Sanders himself has not called for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Last week, 75 organizations, including the Quincy Institute, which publishes RS, signed a letter in support of the resolution.
“S.Res.504 offers an opportunity to affirm Congress’s important oversight role, mandating that the Biden administration document and report on any human rights violations committed by the Israeli government,” the letter read. “Congress should ensure that arms transfers and military aid provided to Israel, or any country, are consistent with U.S. law and policy, international law, and civilian protection responsibilities. The resolution would be an important step toward these goals.”