Stepping back from the Israeli-Hamas war, with 1400 Israelis, 4200 Palestinians, and 32 Americans dead, this conflict is potentially prolonged proxy war, one with Iran – which finances Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, and Hezbollah. Add this one to Biden’s proxy with Russia over Ukraine, and the implications are many.
First, wars are expensive – always more costly in lost lives and dollars than anticipated by those who prosecute them. Old men send young to war. Direct or proxy, wars become a massive drain.
Fighting two wars at one time is a double drain. While Ukraine and Israel suffer on the front lines, the US is – for all practical purposes – underwriting both. No end in sight, we are caught in a spending vortex, defending allies under attack, multiplying the drain on US taxpayers.
The point is proxy wars are expensive, like direct wars. Avoiding them is cheaper. The Cold War, proxy for a hot one with the Soviets, cost nine trillion dollars, with 100,000 dead Americans in Korea and Vietnam.
Likewise, Bush-era wars were staggering affairs. Iraq cost us a trillion dollars, 4,492 American dead, 32,292 wounded, 100,000 Iraqis killed. History records Iraq made Afghanistan harder.
Even the Afghanistan war, response to 9-11, cost two trillion dollars, 2,324 American service members, 3,917 contractors, 1,144 allied troops dead, 20,713 wounded, 70,000 US-aligned Afghan military and police dead, 46,000 Afghan civilians, 67,000 Pakistan civilians dead.
What does this tell us? Wars are expensive, in life and treasure, expand, extend, are hard to end.
Today, thanks to Western resolve, ISIS is out of business; Trump ended their ugly run. But the combination of fumbles under Bush and Obama brought ISIS to life, cost half a million lives. Today, Iraq is dominated by Iran and Afghanistan is led again by the radical Islamic Taliban.
So, what is the “go-forward?” Wars may need to be fought, but preventing them – investing in “peace through strength” or budgeting for deterrence – is always cheaper, smarter, better.
Similarly, preventing wars from expanding, working to concentrate power, using overwhelming force to decisively end the conflict, while protecting civilians, always trumps escalation.
Put differently, if we fail to deter war, a decisive victory is the next best option, creating more enduring peace; sprawling wars with no endgame extend pain and cost.
Second big implication: Proxy wars mask bigger ones. They represent persistent instability, making bigger wars more likely. Thus, working overtime to secure peace is worth it.
In the Russia-Ukraine-NATO and Iran-Israel-US sagas, finding a way to end conflict gets more urgent over time, not just because of mounting loss and cost but proxies tempt fate, bigger costs.
Third, proxy wars generate unintended consequences. Most of the world joined the Cold War. Europe and others are sucked into Ukraine’s battle; more will be into the Middle East conflict.
Unintended consequences flow from weakness, distraction, and opportunity. China and Russia see the Iran-Israel-US embroglio as useful; China sees the Russia-Ukraine-NATO war same way.
These bad actors, working together, represent a morally and ideologically corrupt counterweight – and rising threat – to freedom-centered Western nations.
The new Middle East conflict raises the likelihood that China, North Korea, Russia, even Iran may act in a rash, opportunistic, and profoundly dangerous way. We need to be ready.
For China, that could mean actions against Taiwan. For North Korea, actions against South Korea or Guam. For Iran, it may mean hitting US flagged tankers, even US warships.
In short, the world has – overnight – become less stable, US embroiled in two proxy wars.
In closing, as wars do not last forever, we can only hope these will both end soon, on decisive terms. But we need to look ahead, try harder for peace real, and work to deter the next one.
Bottom line, looking back: Biden’s team invited this terrible turn, running from the Taliban, allowing Putin a “minor incursion,” greenlighting Iran with money, indulging China. Looking forward, if we can only remember the seminal lesson, “peace through strength” is always better.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.