In the lead-up to October 7, many of the key powers shaping the Middle East mistakenly believed they had found a formula to pull back from the riskiest wars and reduce explosive tensions destabilizing the region. The perceived shift from conflict to cooperation was based on four principles shared by regional stakeholders: realpolitik, economic interests, authoritarianism, and a willingness to manage rather than resolve wars. Governments in the region and the West believed they could simply sidestep hard-to-resolve problems like the Israel–Palestine conflict.

The Hamas attack and the unprecedented Israeli war in Gaza have killed tens of thousands of people, and rendered life in Gaza untenable for the foreseeable future. The wider implications have also been cataclysmic: the postures of Hamas and the current Israeli government have deferred, maybe even foreclosed, a peace process for Israel and Palestine. The region faces an incredibly high risk of an all-out war that includes the United States.

And yet, many key powers appear to be clinging to the flawed assumptions that drove the region into this crisis. The same approaches that merely papered over festering problems—making them worse, not better—are now shaping the policy responses to the war and the planning for a next phase.

A series of private expert roundtables at Century International, and discussions with policymakers, reveal the most important erroneous assumptions that have guided government policies and regional trends. Dominant but flawed views of realpolitik, economic interest, authoritarianism, and conflict management made October 7 and the Gaza War possible. Those misguided views continue to shape policy.

If the United States wants to shape different outcomes in the next phase, it will need to adopt different approaches—prioritizing values over realpolitik, and aiming to resolve rather than simply manage conflicts. In a subsequent commentary we will propose a detailed alternative policy. This commentary explains how the key governments got it wrong, and created the conditions for the war between Hamas and Israel.

Preconditions of a Tragedy

Before October 7 and the Gaza War, there was a widely held, albeit mistaken, belief that the Middle East was moving toward an equilibrium of less conflict and more cooperation. The main governments driving armed conflict in the region appeared to share this view. These governments included the United States and its partners—Israeli, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—and other significant drivers of Middle East regional policy, including Qatar, Iran, and Iraq.

Many key powers appear to be clinging to the flawed assumptions that drove the region into this crisis.

The horrors of the Hamas attack on October 7 and the Israeli assault on Gaza that followed were not directly caused by the flawed doctrines of regional stakeholders, the United States among them. But the approach turned the region into a fertile ground for just such eruptions, which pose a serious risk of much wider conflict. The Gaza war is perhaps the most painful and obvious example of unresolved conflict putrefying into a systemic vulnerability. Unless there are significant changes, it will not be the last.

To prevent another tragedy, it is important to pinpoint the assumptions that enabled October 7, which still appear to drive policymaking. Four guiding principles for policy that underpinned the pre-October 7 perception that the region had shifted from conflict to cooperation: realpolitik, economic interests, authoritarian noninterference, and the emerging logic of managing rather than resolving wars.


First was realpolitik, a full-throated embrace of transactional dealmaking rather than risky high-stakes zero-sum competition.

United States policy set the tone for the turn from values-based alliances and long-term strategy toward realpolitik with efforts dating back to the Obama presidency to reduce the American strategic investment in the Middle East. The United States’ attempts to pivot away from the region led to the extreme confrontations of the 2010s and early 2020s: think of the rise of the Islamic State, the civil wars that broke out in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, and the Houthi-claimed, Iran-authored bombing of Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil production facility in 2019.

The regional turn toward realpolitik, which the Biden administration has embraced, was a reaction to those earlier failures—but it, too, has not been successful. The approach has held that short-term trade-offs and bargains between local powers can defer meaningful action on any number of long-simmering regional crises. The Abraham Accords and the Saudi–Iran détente are both examples of such realpolitik. But as the Gaza war has shown, it was delusional to believe that short-term expedient deals could resolve or at least remove the dangers of tensions between Iran and its regional rivals, or between Israel and Iran and its regional allies, the so-called Axis of Resistance.

Focusing on Economic Interests

The second policy trend was a renewed prioritization of economic interests, which formed the backbone of the new regional quid pro quo. Many of the countries stepping back from zero-sum competition in recent years have done so because they want to diversify their economies and believe they will not be able to do so if the region remains in a state of conflict. Some leaders also appear to have recognized that economic privation has not done much to prevent attacks from rival governments and armed groups. In fact, many new economic relationships were built around U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates seeking to mitigate the threat posed by sanctioned and economically isolated countries and groups like Iran and the Axis of Resistance.

Iran-backed attacks on Saudi oil and gas facilities, Emirati shipping lanes, and Formula 1 races in Jeddah and on Abu Dhabi International Airport in the runup to Expo 2020, highlighted deep vulnerabilities for two countries competing to become regional trade, finance, and investment hubs. Iran and the Axis of Resistance were under mounting economic strain caused by U.S. sanctions and severed economic ties with their neighbors.

Economic cooperation has produced some dividends. Since around 2020, Iranian trade with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates has grown considerably. Both Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Yemen’s Houthis have sought economic support from Arab states in recent talks in exchange for concessions. In exchange, Iran-backed attacks on Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have come to a halt. After their 2021 ceasefire with Israel, even Hamas leaders claimed that they were focused on the dire economic situation in the Gaza strip, giving Washington and Tel Aviv false confidence that it was possible to “shrink” the conflict using economic levers.


The third policy trend was toward condoning more authoritarianism. Regional governments have never had an open attitude to dissent. But until recently they faced at a minimum symbolic objections from the United States, whose stated policy goals included democracy and human rights. Most regional regimes had already whetted their appetite for deeper authoritarianism by crushing the Arab Spring’s popular movements for democracy and accountability. Now, as contests between regional powers were put on hold and the U.S. prioritized realpolitik and deprioritized rights, they doubled down on stifling speech. It is not just the usual suspects like Egypt or Tunisia who have tried to crush civil society and accrue unlimited powers for their governments. Even in Israel, the United States’ most important ally and a country that likes to style itself as the region’s only democracy, the ultra-right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu-led government was focused, before October 7, on curtailing the powers of the country’s judiciary and expanding media controls.

Throughout much of the past two decades, regional powers have devoted considerable time and effort to meddling in the politics of their rivals. These interventions included everything from military invasions and proxy wars to economic blockades, propaganda operations, and financial support for political parties. The dangers of such interference have been evident and growing ever since the emblematic, and catastrophic, U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Throughout the 2010s, Iran and Saudi Arabia attempted to meddle in each other’s interests through proxy agents, including militias, in less-powerful countries in the region. But that meddling by proxy produced the dangerous events described above, with tensions peaking around 2020. Iran and Saudi Arabia thus turned instead toward an uneasy détente—and agreed to lay off destabilization campaigns abroad, instead redirecting their efforts toward repressing their own populations. A similar pattern occurred elsewhere.

Conflict Management Rather than Resolution

The fourth and final factor was the regional trend toward pursuing conflict management rather than conflict resolution.

Threaded through the region’s transactional arrangements was a broad consensus that, given the fundamental, unresolved differences between regional players, conflicts could be managed rather than resolved. The major regional wars of the past two decades—in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen—were each fueled by regional and international intervention and competition. Regional diplomacy of recent years has not sought to resolve these conflicts, but has instead merely attempted to freeze them in place and sidestep them.

The decision to kick the can down the road left millions in violent limbo in Syria’s Aleppo and Idlib, Yemen’s Marib, in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere. Perhaps the highest-profile example of this trend was the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and Arab states, while sidestepping the fundamental reason that those Arab states had long held back from recognizing Israel: Palestinian rights and statehood. The October 7 attacks illustrated the tragic downside of this type of deferral of resolution.

Shaky Foundations

In October 2023, the bill for these flawed ideas and policies finally came due.

The pre-October 7 regional consensus did nothing to resolve the rivalry between Iran on one hand, and Israel and the United States on the other. The consensus also shunted to the side a major hot-button regional issue: the plight of Palestinians, unresolved, and deprioritized by Washington, Tel Aviv, and other regional capitals alike.

Bargains between authoritarian states to manage conflict were never likely to achieve true security. As the region’s elites sought pacts that served their interests alone, a growing proportion of the population of the Middle East and North Africa was being left behind economically and politically, caught in a state of relentless violence and oppression—and becoming increasingly desperate. Syria, for example, remained one of the most violent places on the planet even after a 2021 truce brokered by Russia and Turkey.

Conditions in Palestine were especially dire. Even before October 7, more and more Palestinians were displaced from their homes in East Jerusalem, and became increasingly frustrated by Israel’s policy of “mowing the lawn”—using disproportionate force to subjugate Palestinian resistance. Meanwhile, Palestinians despaired at the implications of the Abraham Accords for future statehood. Given the grievances of ordinary people and the fact that so many differences remained unresolved, it was all but inevitable—and this is not to justify Hamas’s actions—that excluded groups were going to react with violence, and that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was a major potential flashpoint. Hamas certainly appears to have calculated that it was better to upset the status quo than to accept a frozen conflict that overwhelmingly benefits its chief rival.

Rather than creating a new paradigm, the October 7 attacks and the Israeli offensive in Gaza have amplified existing trends. The Netanyahu government’s strategy of degrading Palestinian livelihoods and institutions, as part of an overt policy of preventing Palestinian statehood and securitizing the occupied territories, has not changed. Instead, it has gone into overdrive as the Israeli state embarks upon the Sisyphean task of “destroying” Hamas, and with it much of Gaza. Settler and Israel Defense Forces violence and land theft in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, already at record high levels, has risen. For Palestinians, the conflict has only intensified factional divisions, the isolation of Gaza from the West Bank, and a sense that Arab states and international donors have lost interest in the Palestinian cause. If the current war does not end in a meaningful political process, similar violent outbursts may simply become more sudden and devastating.

As in Israel and Palestine, so in the rest of the region. So far, détente and decoupling has worked, inasmuch as it has served elite interests—rather than those of ordinary people, or for that matter the United States. What is perhaps most notable about the most recent round of regional escalations is that Iran and its allies have left Abu Dhabi and Riyadh unscathed. Even as Iran’s allies and surrogates across the region launch attacks on the United States (which is the main security guarantor for Israel and Saudi Arabia), Saudi Arabia continues to seek détente with these same groups. Meanwhile, Shia militia attacks on U.S. bases and assets in Syria in Iraq, and Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, clearly follow the path of similar attacks during earlier Iranian–U.S. escalations. Regional realpolitik continues apace, and as Washington can see, its interests are not being taken into account.

Meanwhile, Gulf outreach to Tehran produced its own contradictions, with American allies seeking to maintain the U.S. security umbrella while decoupling themselves from broader U.S. policy and strategy. Collectively, these factors limited regional room for maneuver in the event of an escalation in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, which Iran sought to exploit—while leaving the United States and Israel exposed to attack from Iran and its allies as the rest of the region sat back and sought to avoid entanglement.

At the same time, regional polling clearly shows that the U.S. response to the devastation wrought in Gaza is being interpreted across the Middle East as a true expression of its attitudes toward international law and human rights. In a military campaign in which some 40 percent of deaths have been children, the United States has continued to support Israeli claims that it is taking adequate precautions to prevent civilian harm, and even to amplify questionable claims about the provenance and legitimacy of attacks on civilian targets like hospitals. Rightly or wrongly, for many regional observers it is hard to differentiate between the Israeli campaign in Gaza and, for example, Russia’s war in Ukraine, or the Russia-backed Assad regime’s campaign to recapture lost territory from 2015 onwards, which involved the destruction and depopulation of large urban areas.

Time to Question Misguided Policies

There is still time for the United States to rethink its regional policy approach, but few indications that the Biden administration is willing to do so. If the United States stays on its current course, it’s likely to face increasing challenges to its interests and an unending cycle of conflicts that spread human misery while deepening the Middle East’s strategic malaise.

The October 7 Hamas attack and the catastrophic war in Gaza should be catalyzing a root reexamination of faulty assumptions and ineffective policies. Instead, the most consequential governments and movements active in the Middle East appear to be recommitting to their priors, pursuing the same dead-end policies that set the stage for October 7 in the first place.

If the United States were interested and able to make long-term policy, pursuing its core values and national interests beyond four-year presidential election cycles, then American leadership could pursue a major course correction in the Middle East. A subsequent Century International commentary will outline the elements of a useful, and viable, policy course correction in more detail. But a serious fundamental policy shift would mean a reevaluation of misguided strategic priorities, and an embrace of a rights-based framework for regional policy.

So far, no such rethink is taking place. To the contrary, all the major powers, from the United States to Israel, and Saudi Arabia to Iran, are committing to existing stratagems. This is bad news for ordinary people across the region; for the long-term peace and security of the Middle East; and for the United States’ tenure as the region’s indispensable power.

The risk of regional conflict is high and should be taken seriously— even in the event of a lasting ceasefire in Gaza, the underlying tensions create incentives for future violent escalations. Iran and its allies could all too easily cross an American red line that they assume Washington will not uphold. Equally, Israel could do something so egregious in Gaza that the Axis of Resistance feels compelled to escalate beyond its current, already serious pace of attacks and responses.

It’s increasingly clear that Middle Eastern powers and the United States are at risk of learning the wrong lessons from October 7 and its aftermath. In the region, Israel and the Gulf monarchies might try to pursue the same general strategy as before. The Axis of Resistance and even Hamas might conclude that even military disasters consolidate their power bases. In the United States, unless America is embroiled in a regional war, the issues of Gaza and the entire U.S. approach to the Middle East could be distant memories once the 2024 presidential campaign gets underway.

Yet all the while, the United States’ reputation for hypocrisy and disregard for civilians will only grow. The strategic miscalculations that dominate policy in the Middle East erode rights and breed a cynical, transactional form of realpolitik—and also lay the foundations for the next crisis.

Header image: People mourn as they collect the bodies of Palestinians killed in an airstrike on December 20, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Source: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images