What’s happening in Ukraine and the Middle East may well be the test of our times. “It is the strategic decisions countries make that matter most… U.S. alliances are a source of American strength, rather than a liability.” These words were taken from the November to December edition of Foreign Affairs, written by Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security advisor to the president. They apply both to Ukraine and Israel, if not more broadly to the Middle East and the rest of our interconnected and authoritarian-challenged world.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine under the pretext of ferreting out Nazis was, and is, a challenge to the sovereignty of the free nations of Europe. If that aggression had gone unanswered and Ukraine overrun, Vladimir Putin would, as surely as day follows night, believe that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be the next dominos to fall. Armenia, Tajikistan, and Moldova are already feeling the weight of the Russian military in their so-called independent states. Xi Jinping’s nationalistic eyes are fiercely focused on Taiwan, and how Ukraine and Israel play out is surely shining brightly in his crystal ball.
Is this, as some have insinuated, becoming the battle of civilization? That appraisal may be a bit premature. But as an editorial in the WSJ indicated, “This is a turning point for leaders and nations,” perhaps paraphrasing President Biden’s, “We are facing an inflection point in history.”
This moment may not yet be Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, or Stalingrad as those dramatic historical turning points were, but the underlying threats are vectoring in that direction. Separate from the moral imperative of leadership to avoid wars at all costs (90% of casualties in wars are civilians, not soldiers), the imperative of standing our ground for democracy is paramount.
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are absolutely if not lethally focused on our weaknesses, our hesitations, and any decisions that may demonstrate to others in the world that we are vacating our democratic precepts, principles or values.
Untethering Ukraine from the Middle East would be a costly mistake. Here’s why.
First, U.S. intel as recently as Nov. 2, indicates that Russia is sending to Hezbollah, via the Wagner Group, the Russian SA-22 antiaircraft system and air-defense guns. Hezbollah is Iran’s militia in Lebanon on Israel’s northern border, already threatening to engage Israel if it proceeds into Gaza City. Russia has no global policy agenda except war, chaos and political disruption at the expense of democratic nations.
Second, most foreign policy experts are coming into agreement that the reason Hamas launched this attack against Israel was because they wanted to disrupt (as in kill) the diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a reconciliation that would have dramatically changed the strategic state of affairs in the Middle East. Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis of Yemen are clients of Iran and enemies of Saudi Arabia.
Normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel would likely bring the prospects of normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. The hope was that this agreement would encourage a broader reconciliation between Judaism and Islam and between Jerusalem and Mecca. Overall, the hope was that it would bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.
Is it any surprise that Vladimir Putin has interest in enabling the disruption? It’s already using Iranian drones in its fight against Ukraine. The links are more than apparent, they’re strategically interconnected.
What’s Israel to do at this point? The brutal attacks on its citizens were beyond the pale. The suffering was horrific. Now the suffering has spread to Palestinian civilians who are less than pawns in this war. The supposed 8,000 who have died probably don’t even account for hundreds buried under the rubble. As I indicated earlier, according to the United Nations, 90% of war casualties are citizens, not soldiers.
Avoiding an escalation of the war that could involve Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran, Yemen and further interference from Russia is job number one. Israel could garner broader global support if it agreed to a ceasefire that allowed civilians to evacuate, hospitals to resupply, and Hamas leadership to surrender or vacate. Short of the latter, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) will pursue their mission to kill Hamas.
One cautionary note is worth mentioning, but not by me. It’s by Efrain Halevy, former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service on PBS this past week.
He said, “I think it would be wise for the powers that be in Israel to think about what kind of account we would be able to give to the Israeli people. Is it simply going to be a military victory? What happens next is what I’m very worried about. (It) is that in the end we don’t really have a viable solution for Gaza. What I’d like to say with all due respect to the powers that be in this country is, I don’t think that anybody in the Israeli hierarchy these days is giving very much attention to the future.”
With all due respect to the powers that be in our country, the purpose in this column is to conflate what is happening in the Middle East with what is happening in Ukraine. This is no time for fiscal parlor games with respect to standing our ground against the global threats to democracies. These threats are absolutely commingled, and unless we respond absolutely, things can get out of control swiftly. This is indeed the test of our times.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.