US and Israeli strategists are undoubtedly assessing the numerous escalation pathways for the current fighting in Gaza, including the possibility of its regionalization to include other actors such as Iran and/or Hezbollah. This is common practice for those in the analysis industry during times of conflict and heightened international tension. Less common is the practice of identifying internal factors that impact the probability of escalation. This is because it would require that strategists conduct a significant amount of self-reflection about the state and behavior of their own governments, leading to what they may consider to be uncomfortable truths.
One such uncomfortable truth is that there has been a noticeable failure of US deterrence over the years, with America’s adversaries increasingly not taking it seriously. Many cite the indifference of President Donald Trump to the Iranian attacks on Saudi oil installations in 2019 as a recent example, but President Barack Obama’s “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 was probably the major turning point in the credibility of US deterrence (it did not deter Syria from using chemical weapons, nor were there any major consequences).
The root of the issue probably predates both Trump and Obama. The US’ experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have effectively made it unwilling to go to war in the Middle East again. It simply cannot afford to, politically and perhaps even financially. While last month’s deployment of a US carrier group to the Eastern Mediterranean was meant to send a strong message to Iran and Hezbollah, it may not be enough to deter either because they may assess that any US response to their involvement would be limited to airstrikes or be short-lived in duration.
Another reason why escalation is likely is the increasing militarization of US foreign policy. Ever since 9/11, which saw the start of funding imbalances between the State Department and the military, the military has played a disproportionately large role in dictating foreign policy. This means that US diplomacy has effectively taken a back seat to the military because diplomacy is typically not the remit of the military establishment.
Iran and Hezbollah may assess that any US response to their involvement would be limited to
airstrikes or be short-lived in duration.
As for Israel, developments that have taken place in its decision-making during the intermittent tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past 27 years also point to the increased likelihood of escalation. One key development is that the gradual narrowing of Israeli decision-making to a very limited circle means that there are fewer and fewer contrarian or dissenting voices that can challenge the prime minister’s decisions and fewer checks on his authority. The sidelining or replacement of sobering voices from the defense and security establishment is another. Previously, these voices recognized the limits of military options in advancing security, giving rise to a generation of Israelis in the 1990s who recognized that peace would be the only option to bring Israel security. Lastly, Netanyahu’s growing populism and the extremist makeup of his government, coupled with a need to make up for the colossal intelligence and military failures of Oct. 7, also make escalation more likely.
Developments in the US and Israel are reminiscent of the saying, “if all you have left is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The only way to limit the regionalization of the conflict is through leadership and nonmilitary solutions, both of which are difficult to realize. Ironically, the only chance for de-escalation is for Iran and Hezbollah to bide their time and simply wait out the US’ short attention span until the next crisis comes along. While this might help contain the current fighting in the short term, it will only delay its regionalization.
• Nasser bin Nasser is the CEO and founder of Ambit Advisory, a senior adviser to the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Complex Risk, and a fellow at Agora Strategy Institute.