By Randy Myers
Hamas’ brutal October 7 attack on Israel, and Israel’s swift response, have had tragic results for people in both Israel and the Gaza Strip. From a geopolitical perspective, the conflict could not have come at a worse time for the U.S., says retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Robert S. Walsh, nor at a better time for Iran. Iran has long sought to keep Israel isolated from the Arab community while the U.S. has been trying to foster closer times between Israel and its Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Israel-Hamas war threatens to slow U.S. progress toward that goal.
Unfortunately, the new war in the Middle East is just one of many geopolitical challenges facing the U.S., Walsh told members during a brief on national security issues at the Stable Value Investment Association’s 2023 Fall Forum on October 10.
A former commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and now a member of the advisory board at Academy Securities, Walsh noted that in addition to supporting Israel, the U.S. finds itself in a cold war with China, which is seeking to displace the U.S. as a global power and signaling that it may one day seize control of Taiwan. At the same time, the U.S. is deeply involved in supporting Ukraine following its invasion by Russia in February 2022; trying to prevent Iran from joining the ranks of countries with nuclear weapons; keeping a wary eye on Hezbollah, which has a vast store of rockets in Lebanon that could be used to attack Israel; and, of course, seeking to keep North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in check.
“This is probably the most chaotic time I’ve seen,” Walsh said. “The plates are just spinning for the U.S.”
While observing that Israel will do what it feels is necessary to respond to the attack by Hamas from its home base in the Gaza Strip, Walsh cautioned that Israel should want a fast end to the conflict and one that doesn’t spread beyond Hamas and Gaza. The more aggressive Israel’s response and the more that response leads to civilian casualties, he said, the greater the chances that Israel will lose the information war and, consequently, some of the support it enjoys outside its borders.
As for China, Walsh noted that it is a different cold war opponent than the Soviet Union was following World War II, given that China is a much more formidable economic competitor.
China is becoming an increasingly dangerous military force as well, although it is perhaps not as far along on that front as it might hope. While China President Xi Jinping has urged his country’s military to be ready to take Taiwan by force by 2027, Walsh calculates that, for now, China doesn’t have the overwhelming military advantage Jinping would want to undertake such a mission. On the other hand, China’s military prowess shouldn’t be discounted. Right now, Walsh said, China’s navy has more warships than the U.S. and can build aircraft carriers faster than the U.S. What’s more, he said that unlike their counterparts in the U.S., many individuals in the Chinese military, who have not been tested in battle, seem to be itching for a fight.
Like Israel, Walsh added, China will need to be mindful of the degree to which it is able to control the public narrative—the information space—around its actions, and has surely noted how poorly Russia has fared on that front since invading Ukraine.
Although Russia has not achieved its aims in Ukraine, Walsh said there appears to be little hope for a quick resolution of that war. While Ukraine’s military has performed surprisingly well in preventing Russia from toppling the Ukrainian government, it is finding offense harder than defense and will likely find kicking all Russians out of the country, as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would like, difficult as well. The two countries appear to be at a stalemate for the moment, he said, with Putin perhaps emboldened by his sense that there is some weakness in the resolve of Ukraine’s Western allies to continue supporting Ukraine for the long term.
On a brighter note, Walsh said he sees a big opportunity for the U.S. to bolster its relations with India, which with 1.4 billion people has now passed China as the largest country in the world by population.
“During the Cold War, India was partnered with Russia while we were partnered with Pakistan,” Walsh said. “That’s all changing because of China. We see an aggressive China as a threat to U.S. influence around the globe, and certainly India sees the same thing in their region.”
That shared perception of China as a threat, combined with the fact that English is spoken in both the U.S. and India, should help pave the way to greater cooperation between the two countries, Walsh said.
With so many geopolitical risks on the horizon, Walsh said diplomacy, as ever, must play a key role in tamping down conflict. But it will be challenging.
“There’s no white and black to any of this stuff, and that’s what makes it so hard,” he said. “If it was so clear and easy, some artificial intelligence program would have kicked out exactly how and when Hamas was going to attack Israel. They didn’t get that. This is subjective. It takes a lot of diplomacy—thinking things through, finding a way to negotiate, and coming up with the right solutions.”