‘We are in the most sustained period of high crisis since 1962’ — in conversation with Philip Zelikow

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Iran, Israel, Israel-Palestine, War

EI’s Angus Reilly talks to Philip Zelikow, former Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission and Counselor at the US State Department, about the crisis in the Middle East, the dangers of escalation, and the urgent need for the United States to prepare for war. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A US Navy sailor stands by a machine gun aboard the USS Paul Hamilton in the Strait of Hormuz, 19 May 2023.
A US Navy sailor stands by a machine gun aboard the USS Paul Hamilton in the Strait of Hormuz, 19 May 2023. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

AR: In a piece that you wrote in 1998, with Ash Carter and John Deutch, for Foreign Affairs you warned of the threat of ‘Catastrophic Terrorism’. Do you believe that is a useful framework through which to consider Hamas’ attack on Israel?

PZ: Catastrophic terrorism is an act that’s designed to produce a mass casualty event that kills hundreds or thousands of people. Up until 9/11, there had been a number of terrorist events that might kill 20 to 30 people. The one exception was the Lockerbie bombing which we would now consider a state-sponsored act of terror.

From Al Qaeda, there were the attacks on the embassies in East Africa in 1998, in which you see they were clearly raising the magnitude of the events they were seeking to produce. Then there was the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, after Al Qaeda had declared war on the United States. The 9/11 attack was a whole different matter. Al Qaeda deliberately caused a mass casualty event by attacking civilian targets.

The Hamas attack was also clearly such an act. It was organised as a gigantic raid to kill as many men, women and children as possible and take hundreds of them hostage.

In your Foreign Affairs piece, you warned about the employment of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in acts of catastrophic terrorism. What occurred on 9/11 and in Israel, however, was the use of more traditional and less complicated methods to inflict mass casualties.

If your goal is to produce a mass casualty event it’s natural to look for short cuts to do it. It turned out that the idea of doing a mass-casualty event by flying large, fully-fuelled airliners into buildings had already been broached in fiction; Tom Clancy had made it the opening set piece of a novel in the mid-1990s. It was ingenious and creative to think that these short cuts could be as effective as nuclear weapons.

In Hamas’ case, they came up with a very elaborate plan to exploit Israeli weaknesses, but it doesn’t mean that if they had had better means by which to attack, they wouldn’t have used them.

9/11 and America’s ensuing military actions have provided a popular reference point by which to assess the attack on Israel and its response. That could also be applied to Hamas, however. What lessons have they taken from the past 25 years of the War on Terror?

Al Qaeda wanted to make an existential statement to the Muslim world that they were important and that they were leading the war against the Americans. After that, there was almost a level in which it didn’t matter what the Americans did because they were now the vanguard of the Islamist struggle against America and the West.

There was a tendency, as well, to deride American willpower or ability to pursue them into Afghanistan. They had picked the hardest place on earth for the Americans to reach. To a significant degree, they did not care. They were the lineal descendants of anarchist terrorists and did not have a coherent government agenda.

This is different for Hamas, which has actually been ruling a statelet for 16 years, and who were the only truly autonomous rulers of a Palestinian state.

How did Israeli intelligence misjudge Hamas’ plans?

There has been good work by Tim Naftali and Keren Yarhi-Milo in The Atlantic drawing on the work of the Israeli scholar Uri Bar-Joseph. Basically, the Israelis had a theory of how Hamas was being deterred and that theory was mistaken.

Their theory of deterrence was that Hamas was actually trying to run Gaza like a state and did not wish to tolerate too much disruption to that. The terrorist organisation was assumed to be thinking like a government with obligations to its people. The theory also stipulated that they knew the Israelis would counterattack, and that deterred them.

Why were Hamas not deterred by that prospect? That is a huge question and we still don’t know the answer. And now the other half of the story is about to unfold and we don’t know what Hamas and its allies have prepared for that. They prepared in a fashion that nullified the deterrence. We don’t know how but we will likely find out soon.

How does this conflict fit within the evolutions of the politics of the Middle East that have taken place in recent years?

Americans tend to think of the global War on Terror and the 20 years of struggle in the Middle East, as kind of a story in which America is the subject and the Middle East is the object. That is a profoundly misconceived way of understanding the conflict and, instead, it should be regarded as a struggle within the Islamic world.

The core of the struggle is for the domination of the world of Islam. That started in 1979, with the Iranian Revolution and attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca and has gone through several phases.

In the current phase, the Islamic world is reorganising around different poles of attraction. There’s one pole in which Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are trying to develop and model a vision for the future of political Islam. Iran is the pole of attraction on the other side and has organised, what it calls, its ‘Axis of Resistance’ from the Levant to the Indian Ocean. There’s also a strong relationship between Iran, China and Russia, and occasionally North Korea.

I think that the Hamas attack is the opening salvo of a commitment to violent revolutionary assault designed to polarise the Islamic world and make the position of the Saudis and their partners increasingly difficult.

And Israel is partnering with those nations advocating and implementing political Islam.

I believe Israel is in grave danger. That danger may grow in the coming weeks and months.

The United States and Israel need to think about a political strategy that strengthens their side. The options there are hard because the Americans have carried the economic warfare against Iran about as far as they can.

The Iranians may have already decided that there is no way out of the box peacefully and the only way to do so is to turn over the table.

The views of the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Emiratis on this strategic problem will be really important to hear. Their vision for the future of the Islamic world is being tested and the struggle is whether their ideas of governance can survive an extremely polarised and violent conflict.

What do you think those nations are saying to the United States?

Firstly, I think they’re saying that the Israelis need a political strategy to go with their military strategy on the ultimate future of Gaza.

The second message is that the Americans need to do some really serious military planning for Iran contingencies. It’s obvious that the American and Israeli governments are already hedging against the possibility that this attack was set off as part of a larger struggle across the region by Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’, including a possible Iranian nuclear breakout and Israel-Iran war.

Has this conflict shown a failure by the Biden administration in its political and military strategies for the region?

It was not the case that the United States was ignoring the Middle East. The Biden administration was engaged in an incredibly labour-intensive effort to broker an extraordinary deal with Saudi Arabia, so their eyes were not taken off the Middle East.

If there is a criticism, it might be that they were working so hard on that objective that they missed other dangers in the region. They were working on the potential upside gains and not on the downside risks and what the enemy was going to do to stop them. I’m not sure that the Biden administration’s commitment to that upside gain was the correct call at this moment in history, but, in any case, that now has to be put on ice as they focus attention on a more desperate agenda.

In retrospect, how will historians analyse this period of international disorder?

The fundamental point is that we are in the most sustained period of high crisis since 1962.

The primary job of the Biden administration is to move into a potential pre-war position and begin preparing urgently for possible moves our enemies might make.

I think the administration has done some of this, but the country and our defence-industrial base have not moved into a pre-war condition. Many Americans have not begun to fully internalise the scale of risks, though the President has started to emphasise the stakes of this moment.

Sadly, the usual pattern is that it’s very difficult for US presidents to move the American people to that level of engagement unless America suffers profound shocks, as the Israelis have. In the Second World War, the first profound shock was the fall of France, and then of course Pearl Harbor. In the Cold War, the North Korean attack in 1950 and then the Chinese intervention were profound, successive shocks.

The United States has not yet felt a sense of shock on that scale.

What are the necessary steps that need to be taken by the United States to prepare?

We need to be doing everything we can to move into a potential pre-war stance. This needs to be paired with political and economic strategies. I’ve been advocating political and economic strategies in the Ukraine war that mobilise available resources much more energetically than has been done before. I think that’s also true for the Middle East and East Asia, too.

This programme requires a scale of civilian and military effort that I think the government has not yet been fully summoned to make. The crises of the period, across the world, require a much more realistic evaluation of what needs to be done.


Angus Reilly