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What's next for the U.S. in the Middle East, according to a veteran diplomat

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We begin today with the conflict between Israel and Hamas and a huge diplomatic challenge - preventing escalation across the region - that as Israel is stepping up airstrikes, including on Hezbollah targets, and as the U.S. says it's sending additional air defense systems to the Middle East and putting more troops on prepare-to-deploy orders. David Hale served six U.S. presidents as ambassador to Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan. He was also special envoy for Middle East peace and is now with the nonpartisan Wilson Center. And he joins us now. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

DAVID HALE: Thanks, Ayesha. Good morning.

RASCOE: From your long experience in the region, just how volatile do you feel this moment is?

HALE: Oh, extremely volatile. We've seen every 10, 15 years moments like this where anything can happen.

RASCOE: I mean, can you talk a bit about how Israel can manage that volatility while moving forward with its stated goal, which is a ground invasion of Gaza and the eradication of Hamas? And can Israel do that without help from the U.S.?

HALE: Well, obviously, the Israelis have to make their own decisions about their security, and that is exactly what they're doing. Forming a national unity government was a wise step to try to unify that decision-making. We can provide our support, but my experience with U.S. presidents is that they rarely want to have asked - be asked questions where yes and no answers are required on military operations. Instead, typically, administrations talk about the next steps, what comes after. But right now, you know, de-escalation obviously is the longer-term goal. But without restoring deterrence - deterrence by Israel, deterrence by America, deterrence by others who are countering Iran - we're not likely to get to de-escalation. So the first order of business, really, is to reestablish deterrence and strength. That is the basis for peace.

RASCOE: But what about the danger for the U.S. of not doing enough to protect civilians, of isolating the Arab partners that it needs in the region or the - if civilians are not protected, it inflaming the tensions that much more?

HALE: Yes, this is the dilemma that Israel always has faced with Gaza and Hamas's behavior, which is - and Iran's behavior more largely in the region, which is to attack Israel, attack American friends and then hide behind their own civilians. So Hamas is victimizing its own population as much as anything in addition to the people of Israel. I would - you know, I think that a proportional response is going to be needed, but there has to be - if you're going to restore deterrence, there's going to have to be some kind of, in my opinion, a ground offensive into Gaza. I don't see how you can do this by remote control. In fact, often that leads to more civilian casualties, not fewer.

RASCOE: In his prime-time address last week, President Biden invoked your old boss, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, quoting her line about America as the, quote, "indispensable nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Tonight, there are innocent people all over the world who hope because of us, who believe in a better life because of us, who are desperate not to be forgotten by us and are waiting for us.

RASCOE: Can the U.S. reassert itself in the Middle East while also managing China in the Pacific and Russia in Europe?

HALE: Well, I would argue we never left the Middle East. And obviously, there's been a debate in our country about the right distribution of military power around the world with a reprioritization focused on East Asia. But the competition with China, the global competition is by definition global and will include the Middle East. And, of course, we're all struck, I think, by the reality that everyone who is interested in peace and stability is looking to the United States to help develop solutions, but that's got to be built on the basis of restored deterrence. And, you know, Ayesha, we haven't really talked too much about Iran, but there has to be - one of the victims of this affair, this attack into Israel, has been America's Iran policy. And we need - we're going to need to reexamine that. And in my experience, one of the challenges has been that the United States has not adopted a long-term strategy that is persistent, that is able to achieve bipartisan support. And so there has to be a lot of work in the United States if we want to have the right kind of strategy that can put the pressure on Iran and its proxies.

RASCOE: I mean, I guess you're talking about reestablishing deterrence. You're talking about dealing with Iran. If someone is listening to you right now and saying, look - it's been decades and this cycle keeps continuing to happen - so what does true deterrence mean if this is going to happen every 15 years?

HALE: Yeah. Well, the models of the past don't work. The modus vivendi that we all sort of had with Hamas doesn't work. Hamas isn't interested in peace. They're interested in war. And so you can't establish any kind of formal or informal system that's stable if Hamas is there. So I personally fully support the concept of a rational, not an emotional approach that restores deterrence by eliminating Hamas's ability to militarily - to conduct military operations against Israel. And that means demilitarizing Gaza. It means establishing a better form of governance there over the long run.

RASCOE: And as someone who was once the U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace, is there one aspect of that mission that you feel most needs to be emphasized given the current challenges?

HALE: Well, any country's national security strategy and foreign policy's based first and foremost on the strength of its economy, the strength of its military and the strength of its values. And I believe the United States is strong in all those regards. But we do need to rebuild our domestic bipartisan consensus about what our goals are. Otherwise, the Iranians and their allies in the Middle East will continue to probe for weaknesses and division and wait each administration out for a better opportunity.

RASCOE: That's former Ambassador David Hale. Thank you so much for being with us.

HALE: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is the host of "Weekend Edition Sunday" and the Saturday episodes of "Up First." As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.