The October 7 attack by the terrorist group Hamas is unprecedented in Israeli history, leaving over 900 dead and hundreds of civilians kidnapped. Missiles from the Gaza Strip reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The total death toll now is headed toward 2,000. Reportedly, eleven U.S. citizens have been killed. The aggression has been described as Israel’s 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly declared that Israel is in a state of war to end Hamas’ capacity to fight. The Israeli Air Force has begun targeting Hamas sites in Gaza. Yet, alongside this resolve to defeat its enemy, Israel will have to grapple with its own military and intelligence failures that allowed this tragedy to occur. Lessons will be drawn for policy and politics in the ongoing Palestinian conflict.
It is also time for the United States to draw its own lessons that go far beyond Israel and the Palestinians. The Hamas attack took place at the behest of and with the material support of Iran, a sworn enemy of the United States. In other words, one of America’s closest allies was attacked by one of our most vicious opponents, acting through one of its puppet proxies. The White House must hold Iran responsible. President Biden chose to declare the crown prince of Saudi Arabia a “pariah” because of the murder of one journalist. What will be his response to the murder of 900 Israelis, plus the hundreds captive and the thousand wounded? The fiction of Iranian innocence has become obscene.
Recognizing the regime in Iran as the enemy that it is (the Islamic Republic has never pretended otherwise since the Islamic Revolution of 1979) is only the first step Washington must take to craft a realist foreign policy adequate to the historical moment. The United States faces an axis of adversaries: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. No matter how these regimes differ among themselves and despite divergent regional ambitions, all pursue the goal of reducing the power of the United States and its allies. Beijing wants to push Washington out of the western Pacific, while Moscow plans to reassert its hegemony in Central Europe and the Black Sea. Tehran wants to dominate the Middle East and the Muslim world, and Pyongyang’s target is northeast Asia, including South Korea and Japan. Together, they want to drive the United States back to the Western Hemisphere. In the wake of America’s embarrassing exit from Afghanistan, Russia took the next step with the invasion of Ukraine. Iran has followed by way of the Hamas attack on Israel. It isn’t crazy to think that such unanswered aggressions will embolden China to make a move against Taiwan next.
Against those adversaries, the United States must construct a new effective security alliance. It will include democracies and non-democracies because the security interest necessarily overrides our commitment to the value of democracy. If we lose security, all our values cease to be relevant. South Korea, Japan, and Australia, our democratic partners, can be linked to Vietnam as a bulwark against China and North Korea. India will play a vital role despite criticisms of its Hindu nationalism. Israeli democracy and the Saudi monarchy are crucial partners, as will NATO ally Turkey if we can mend our fences. The countries on the eastern front of the European Union understand the threat from Russia and will join eagerly. Whether the free riders in Western Europe participate remains to be seen.
The principle grounding this alliance will be a realist commitment to security against the revisionist powers, not the vacuous idealism of the “democracy summits” of the current administration. Instead of haranguing the Saudis about liberal reforms to meet our taste, we should offer a security guarantee contingent on their refraining from partnering with Russia in the oil market and eschewing future entanglements with China. Similarly, we should stop badgering the Israelis to make pointless concessions to Hamas—pointless because no concession ever will be enough. The Hamas attack and hostage seizure show that their real goal is the ethnic cleansing of all Israelis. Our goal with Israel instead should be that it hermetically seals China out of its advanced technology sector. Mutatis mutandis across the alliance: security trumps values in this time of war.
Our enemies are tag teaming us, dealing us blow after blow: Afghanistan, Ukraine, Israel. They are playing great power competition while Washington dithers. The October 7 attack was a rupture for Israel, but it is now the ultimate test for the Biden administration. Will President Biden go down in history as the weak old man who embraced the Afghanistan defeat, failed to provide Ukraine with weaponry quickly enough, and decided to shower the Iranian regime with $6 billion while it suppresses its own people and spreads chaos throughout the region? Or will Biden dare to become the President who finally holds the regime in Tehran accountable for its crimes? That means responding to the attack on America’s ally by punishing Iran. This may be the last moment before it becomes a nuclear power, a potential North Korea looming over the Middle East and Central Asia. It is also a regime that has lost legitimacy in the eyes of its own population.
However, the key reason for America to act against Iran now is to make it clear to our adversaries that their acts of aggression—whether via proxies or not—come at a cost. In this great power competition, we should play to win.
Russell A. Berman is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Professor of Humanities at Stanford.
Kiron Skinner is the Taube Professor of International Relations and Politics at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and the W. Glenn Campbell Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. She served as director of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning from 2018–2019. She tweets at @kironskinner.