June 17, 2024

Israel’s War of Regime Change Is Repeating America’s Mistakes

The term “regime change” has fallen out of favor in the past two decades, and it is not a term that Israelis use to describe the war they are waging in Gaza. But regime change is precisely what Israel is seeking. Its military operation in Gaza aims to destroy Hamas as a political and military entity and eliminate the de facto government the group has overseen for nearly two decades.

The Israeli campaign is an understandable response to the horrific attacks of October 7, in which Hamas-led terrorists killed around 1,200 Israelis, took some 250 hostage, and deeply traumatized the Israeli public. In the aftermath of the attacks, Israeli leaders rightly concluded that it was unacceptable for Hamas to continue running Gaza—just as American leaders decided after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that they could no longer accept the status quo in Afghanistan, where the Taliban was harboring al Qaeda, and that they had no choice but to carry out regime change there.

Israel should begin planning not only for taking on such responsibilities but also for later handing them off to Palestinians.

Of course, Afghanistan was not the only place in the greater Middle East where the United States sought regime change after 9/11. In the years that followed the attacks, U.S.-led coalitions also toppled regimes in Iraq and Libya, and helped (albeit modestly and inadequately) Syrian opposition forces seeking to overthrow the dictator Bashar al-Assad. These were searing experiences for Washington: bloody, costly, and humbling. The most consequential of those campaigns—the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq—were shaped by a number of fateful strategic errors, as well as a smaller number of important successes.

Today, Israel is making many of those same errors, including some of the most glaring mistakes that the United States made in the early years of the Iraq war. As the United States did in Iraq in 2003, Israel began its war without a plan to create a governing structure, in its case to replace Hamas, and no clear blueprint has emerged after months of fighting. As the United States did in the early phases of its post-9/11 wars, Israel has moved decisively and at significant human cost to clear territory of terrorists, only to see them reconstitute after troops depart—a flawed approach that American military officers came to call “clear and leave.” And to an even greater degree than the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel has come under intense international criticism for the civilian casualties its operations have produced.

But just as Israel has made errors akin to those made by the United States, it can also learn from some of the successes of the American campaigns—especially those of the “surge” strategy that Washington adopted in Iraq beginning in 2007. Analogies always have their limits, and the U.S. experience cannot supply all the answers that Israeli leaders need in Gaza. It may, however, raise the right questions and provide relevant ways to think about the choices that lie ahead.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.

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