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‘The gloves have come off’: The Hub reacts to Iran launching the largest drone strike in history against Israel

Commentary

Iran’s weekend attack on Israel, featuring over 300 projectiles, including drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, was largely thwarted, with only a handful of missiles slipping past Israeli defence systems to hit their mark. Is this attack, launched in retaliation for a recent Israeli attack at an Iranian embassy in Damascus, merely a face-saving response by Iran or the first strike in a larger salvo to come? And what is the risk of this conflict spiralling into a wider regional war? We gathered some of The Hub’s top foreign policy experts to offer their immediate reactions to the attack and discuss what could come next.

Israel emerges unscathed—for now

By Howard Anglin

After a tense Saturday night, as the sun rose on an unscathed Israel, three theories of what just happened began to take shape.

The first school says that Iran’s attack was a serious attempt to do real damage to Israel. This theory points to the sheer size and variety of munitions fired at Israel, which tested the limits of the Iron Dome. Only the scrambled assistance of the United States and the United Kingdom and the (perhaps unexpected) cooperation of Jordan and Saudi Arabia prevented a devastating tragedy. Iran really did try but failed, thanks to Israeli technology, Arab/American support, and, perhaps, Iranian weakness.

The second school believes Iran’s bombardment was for show and not meant to do real damage. Face-saving sabre-rattling. This theory cites Iran’s telegraphing of its attack for days and its announcement that slow-moving drones and missiles were in the air hours before they would arrive (i.e., the opposite of Hamas’s brutally successful surprise attack on October 7th). According to this theory, Iran’s attack was the minimum expected response to Israel’s killing of senior IRGC officials in Damascus, which was why it hit Israel directly and not through one of its proxies. 

Finally, there is the (slightly more fringe) school of thought that thinks this was a probing attack designed to test and deplete the capacity of Iron Dome. According to this theory, Iran will use the lessons learned last night to plan future aerial assaults, either directly or via Hezbollah, to overwhelm Israel’s air defence systems.

For what it’s worth, on the basis of woefully imperfect information and much speculation, I come down somewhere between the first two theories. The attack was large (300+) and complex enough (drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles) that Iran could reasonably have expected it to do real damage while being partially intercepted (but not 99 percent, as blessedly happened). And if I had to rank the likelihood of these theories, I would say it is: 1, 2, 3. But from the point of view of planning and preparedness, Israel and her allies and friends need to assume the worst: 3, 2, 1…

The night’s good news came in the welcome novelty of open support for Israel from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Even if their motivation is of the “the enemy of my enemy” variety, that is more friendship than Israel has known in the region since its founding. Israel may still be surrounded on three sides by Iranian proxies, but Iran is waking up today to the reality that, between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and American assets in the Gulf and Turkey, it is also now partially encircled. 

The strategic environment has changed

By Joe Varner

It is dangerous to draw lessons or observations so close to a major event, but with a degree of understatement the Middle East strategic environment changed this weekend in three ways. 

First, Iran’s attack using three hundred drones, cruise, and ballistic missiles was a major deviation from Iranian military doctrine. Iranian doctrine since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) which was very painful has centred on avoiding direct conflict with an opponent while maintaining that conventional power and using proxy militias to do Tehran’s dirty work for them along with the IRGC Quds Force.

Something changed significantly for Iran on April 1st with the loss of two brigadiers of the IRGC in an Israeli attack on a diplomatic facility in Damascus. The commander-in-chief of the IRGC, General Hossein Salami, said, “We have adopted a new equation with the Zionist entity, which is to respond to any aggression from its side directly from Iranian territory.” In real terms, Iran is signalling to Israel that the gloves have come off. This represents a clear change in how Iran uses force. 

Second, we just witnessed how Israel’s integrated air defence system, the most advanced in the world backed up with modern fighters and warships with advanced air defences from Israel’s allies, blunted the Iranian strikes, including the largest drone swarm attack in history. The Israeli air defence is very effective—but not perfect. Some of Iran’s Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM), key to any future Iranian nuclear attack, were let through and did hit an Israeli air base in the southern part of the country.

Right now, the Israeli systems prioritise these missiles if they are heading at population centres and they destroy them in space. That will have to change given that Iran is a few weeks out from having the material for three nuclear devices. Any nuclear strike on Israel would be deadly and destructive. Iran attacked Pakistani territory some weeks ago with ballistic missiles and has now done the same in Israel, shattering the myth that countries don’t attack nuclear-armed countries with conventional arms. The opacity of Iranian defence decision-making, the stark change in Iranian doctrine, the uncertainty that the next MRBM to get through and strike Israeli territory might be nuclear-tipped—all these factors open Iran’s nuclear programme up to Israeli preemption.

Third, the reason Israel may push back from the table with Iran and call it a day is that for the first time, Israel was defended by Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, both of whom played active parts in Israel’s defence. On any level that is a major strategic victory in its rivalry with Tehran, and one that has consequences for the entire region. 

Iran’s Air Force Kaman-22 drone is carried on a truck during an annual military parade just outside Tehran, Iran, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Vahid Salemi/AP Photo.
Israel will have to respond

By Michael Bonner

If you want to understand Iran, you need to grasp two facts first.

First, Iran’s central position and numerous frontiers mean a tense amalgam of imperial ambition and insecurity. The Persian language and the Shiite religion can be found in sizeable groups throughout the Middle East and in Inner Asia. Iran is obliged to influence, and perhaps to dominate, them. Similarly, Iran’s own domestic minorities are also found in quantity outside its borders, and so Iran is ever wary of trouble spilling over its borders.

Second, Iran can ill afford a direct conflict with any of its neighbours. It has a long history of miscarrying dreadfully in this manner. The last time it was tried was the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. The results were an inconclusive outcome and a huge Iranian death toll.

Put those facts together, and you will see why Iran (a) meddles in its near-abroad, (b) has a penchant for proxies, missiles, and drones, and (c) inveighs most vehemently against distant countries like the USA, Britain, and Israel which have no natural interest in harming Iran.

And yet, Iran has its hawks who grow louder and crazier as the Khomeinist regime falters. The slow, much-publicised drone-and-missile demonstration was meant to appease them and avoid further conflict. We now await Israel’s reaction. The worst outcome would be one that strengthens the hawks by justifying their anti-Israel paranoia, so a direct hit on Iran is out of the question. If necessary, Israel can disarm the hawks by retaliating on their proxies throughout the Middle East: a potential distraction from operations in Gaza, but one that the Netanyahu government may find impossible to avoid.

The Trudeau government should immediately end its arms embargo of Israel

By Sean Speer

The underlying fallacy behind the Trudeau government’s suspension of supplying weapons and other military equipment to Israel was on display this past weekend when Israel found itself under an air attack carried out by Iran.

The drone and missile attack demonstrated what ought to have been clear since October 7: Israel isn’t just fighting a war against Hamas. Its enemies in the region are working together with coordination and funding coming from the Iranian regime.

Yet so much of the political discourse over the six months has framed the conflict as somehow between Israel and Palestinian civilians. As Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman wrote over the weekend:

This information campaign is as critical to Israel’s enemies as the physical war, because it erodes the Western support that Israel needs to win and survive. Its successful execution has turned a jihadi war against the Jewish minority enclave in the Middle East into a story about Jewish oppression and even “genocide” of Palestinians, a story that has become the focus of the increasingly deranged discourse in the liberal West.

The NDP motion on the post-October 7 conflict, which passed with the Trudeau government’s support in late March, was shot through with this type of thinking. It’s not obvious whether it ultimately reflects foreign policy naivete, motivated reasoning, or a combination of both. But the outcome is still the same: the Trudeau government’s policy vis-à-vis Israel has come to chiefly understand the source of the attack and the subsequent conflict in terms of the historic tensions between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people.

Put differently: to the extent the prime minister has outsourced his Middle East policy to the NDP and the progressive wing of his own party, he’s intentionally or unwittingly come to apply an oppressed-oppressor framework to guide his policy actions.

The government’s decision to halt weapons exports to Israel is a good (or bad) example. If one thinks narrowly about the conflict through an asymmetrical lens between Israel and the Gazans, then you might reach the conclusion that ending arms supplies to the powerful protagonist is an act of justice. If however you understand that Israel is facing multiple threats that are being back and coordinated by the Iranians, then the just response ought to involve supporting one’s outnumbered ally in a time of great need.

Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has understood this point since the October 7 attacks. He’s consistently laid the ultimate blame for the attacks on the Iranians. As he’s put it: “[The] Palestinian people have been made by the Iranian regime and other dictators in the regime, in the region, into a chess piece in an evil chess game.”

This week’s air attacks launched from Tehran prove Poilievre is right and the prime minister is wrong. The latter can fix his mistake by immediately reversing his government’s arms embargo of Israel.

Michael Bonner: Our present dark age

Commentary

The setting of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is a Benedictine abbey, somewhere in northern Italy. At the centre of the abbey is a scriptorium with a vast library attached to it. The library is in the form of a maze, through which only the librarian and his assistant know the way. The labyrinthine library is in a huge fortified tower, which like a castle frightens and repels all who would enter it. It is an impressive work of engineering, by means of which “knowledge is used to conceal rather than to enlighten.” That’s how the main character, the English monk William of Baskerville, described it. The plot is a murder mystery hinging on a banned book: a lost text by Aristotle, the manuscript of which has been laced with poison.

Though the book is set in the early 14th century, it is a postmodern allegory. Every word, book, and text, points only to another word, book, or text—not to reality. Each room of the labyrinth seems to open onto another room without end. Despite connections drawn to apocalyptic prophecies by frightened monks, there is no ultimate pattern to the string of mysterious deaths, and the greatest logician of his time William of Baskerville finds no certainty or meaning in what he observes. If the ultra-rational William is the hero, the villain is the dogmatic, secretive, and censorious librarian Jorge of Burgos who sets the library on fire rather than expose its holdings to the world and kills himself by eating the poisoned book.

Of course, as far as the real Middle Ages are concerned, The Name of the Rose is a caricature. Mediaeval intellectuals certainly loved symbolism and allegory, but there was also an effort to reach the hard reality beneath the symbol. In the 9th century, during what is still commonly called a “dark age,” John Scottus Eriugena advised his readers to look beneath “the surface of visible things” and “to give a rational account of what we perceive by bodily sense.”

This mode of thought would culminate the efforts of Thomas Aquinas to survey the huge edifice of Christian theology and dogma in the light of pagan, Jewish, and Muslim philosophy. The works of Aristotle had been reintroduced to the West in a Latin translation from Arabic versions, and commentaries by Muslim scholars came with them. These were extremely influential on Thomas, as were a welter of scholars from Cicero to Maimonides, all of whom he references frequently. But Thomas’s Summa Theologiae is not an incoherent pastiche; it’s a model of clear thinking and concise writing on practically every topic imaginable.

Judith Butler’s outsized influence

The real age of obscurity and confusion is our own, and you will find no better proof of this than the works of Judith Butler. She is one of the most influential academics in the world, though very few people have read and understood her work. Believe it or not, I had the pleasure of reading a fair amount of it when I took two courses in sexual diversity studies at the University of Toronto in the early 2000s. It was immediately obvious that Butler’s followers and critics tend to gravitate more towards what they think Butler says, rather than her real meaning. The reason for this is that all of Butler’s ideas, however trivial or obvious, are expressed in a comically verbose and obscure manner. She will never use one word if ten will suffice, and she has a penchant for Graeco-Latin abstract nouns. “Facticity,” “liberalization,” “hegemony,” “multiplicitous,” and “heteronormativity”—Butler’s writing is a compost heap of such jargon, and the sentences are often far too long. Consider this one:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibilities of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

That is from “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” an academic article published by Butler in 1997. It won first prize in the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest in 1999, and there are a great many other sentences like it in the Butlerian corpus. But, though her writing is generally bad, it is not always unintelligible. Amidst all the pompous obscurity, acolytes and critics will either thank or blame Butler for the mysterious transmutation of sex into gender.

The idea goes like this. In the 1940s, the feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir distinguished between “female” and “woman.” “Woman” was what we might call a social construct attached to the category of female. Feminist writers of the 1980s destabilised the idea of “woman,” and the concept of womanhood became for them increasingly uncertain.

Butler belongs to this trend, but she went further. Her book Gender Trouble, published in 1990 undermines “female” as a stable and fixed category. Our species’ division into two distinct sexes is for Butler a kind of fiction which exaggerates small differences among people. Biological sex is real, she seems to acknowledge, but it makes no difference greater than minor variations of the human phenotype like skin colour. The body is accordingly a blank slate, upon which man- or womanhood is impressed by social norms. Hence, Butler’s theory of “gender performativity”—the idea that we are men or women because we act as men or women ought to do according to the requirements of our culture, and there is no essential manness or womanness beneath the performance.

Simone de Beauvoir had a dim view of “femaleness,” but she took seriously the idea that biology circumscribed and determined womanhood. In contrast, Butler does not. Her main goal is to dismantle the idea that mankind is by nature divided into only two sexes, and therefore that male and female sexual relations are normal. As contemporary jargon has it, Butler wants to undermine “heteronormativity.” This is the force of Butler’s 2004 book Undoing Gender. Butler followed Michel Foucault into the labyrinth of postmodernism, and discovered at its centre that “power dissimulates as ontology.” In other words, our perception of male and female only seems real because of the power of the authorities who impose them upon us.

Students protest during a rally on International Women’s Day in Milan, Italy, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Luca Bruno/AP Photo.

Accordingly, all norms of gender and sex must be dismantled—even, as it seems, the prohibition against incest, to which Butler devotes an entire chapter of Undoing Gender. She even raises the prospect of removing reproduction from heterosexual relationships by means of technology and warns feminists against resisting it. To do so, she says, would be to “risk naturalizing heterosexual reproduction.” “The doctrine of sexual difference in this case.” she continues, “comes to be in tension with antihomophobic struggles as well as with the intersex movement and the transgender movement’s interest in securing rights to technologies that facilitate sex reassignment.”

I for one do not know how we could tell if anything Butler says is right. If the “truth-as-power” doctrine is, er, true, then I cannot think of a good reason to take Butler at her word. This, however, is not the main problem with Butler’s work.

Undoing gender theory

The problem is that the near irrelevance of biological sex and the theory of performative gender as either male or female militate against the main assumption of transgenderism. If, as it is said, you can have a “gender identity” that does not accord with your bodily sexual characteristics, then Butler’s most important ideas cannot be true. And if you must change your sexual characteristics to align with those correlated with the other gender, then you are dangerously close to affirming, rather than dismantling, “heteronormativity.” Accordingly, Butler admits that her former work is now “questionable in several ways, especially in light of trans and materialist criticisms.” This is undoubtedly why Butler has once again revisited the topic of gender in her new book Who’s Afraid of Gender, wherein she tries to assimilate her older ideas to present orthodoxy.

The task is fundamentally hopeless. And so it is no surprise that Butler is now in grave doubt. In 2004, gender was “a kind of a doing, an incessant activity performed.” Now, however, Butler’s subject is “gender—whatever it is”; the word itself often appears in quotation marks; there are “myriad, continuing debates” about it, and there is “no one approach to define, or understand” it. Accordingly, “Gender has to remain relatively wild in relation to all those who claim to possess its correct definition.”

But she also says that gender is “a felt sense of the body, in its surfaces and depths, a lived sense of being a body in the world in this way,” which sounds somewhat like a definition, albeit a bad one. What an embarrassing retreat! But if Butler cannot defend her former claims, and cannot really reconcile herself to contemporary doctrine, she can at least assume its jargon. She has obligingly adopted third-person plural pronouns, she ostentatiously refers to “pregnant people” and “sex assigned at birth,” and she boldly condemns all the right enemies of gender.

And its enemies are numerous and powerful. Viktor Orbán, Georgia Meloni, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Vladimir Putin hover like evil spirits over Butler. So does the arch-fiend J.K. Rowling, who is anathematised over the course of an entire chapter. And, like a postmodern Martin Luther, Butler really has it in for the Papacy and “Aristotelian-Thomistic anthropology.” I suppose this makes sense, from Butler’s perspective, since among all her enemies, Pope Francis has condemned gender ideology in the clearest terms, most recently as one of the “ugliest dangers” of our time, undermining the natural complementarity of men and women. The Vatican Doctrinal Office has, once again, also condemned “gender theory.” But Butler is wrong to assert that the pope has likened it to the destruction caused by nuclear weapons. And her garbled end notes do not prove it. For more on this, see the damning analysis by philosophy professor Alex Byrne here.

But what do all those malign figures have in common? Fascism, says Butler. They are all fascists who use the “phantasm” of gender to stir up fear in order to distract from real problems like “war,” “systemic racism,” and “devastations of capitalism.” The fascists wish to restore “a patriarchal dream-order where a father is a father; a sexed identity never changes; women, conceived as ‘born female at birth’ resume their natural and ‘moral’ positions within the household; and white people hold uncontested racial supremacy.”

Butler’s enemies are also racists, apparently, and so she also provides a bizarre digression into what she believes to be a misguided opposition to Critical Race Theory. Anyway, Butler makes no effort to understand her antagonists’ opinions and motivations and avoids addressing any of their often very different arguments. But luckily for Butler, she doesn’t need to, because her opponents are simply too stupid and they don’t read. “It is nearly impossible,” she says, “to bridge this epistemic divide with good arguments, because of the fear that reading will introduce confusion into the reader’s mind or bring her into direct contact with the devil.”

Students march during an International Women’s Day protest in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, March 8, 2024. Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo.

Consider the reaction to British feminist Kathleen Stock whom Butler hates perhaps even more than the Papacy. Stock is wrong—not because of any errors of reasoning, but because “she does not seem to understand the toxicity or cruelty that she herself brings to the table” when insisting that “the designation of ‘woman’ should be tied to the determination of biological femaleness.” Butler continues:

Imagine if you were Jewish and someone tells you that you are not. Imagine if you are lesbian and someone laughs in your face and says you are confused since you are really heterosexual. Imagine if you are Black [sic] and someone tells you that you are white, or that you are not racialized in this ostensibly post-racial world. Or imagine you are Palestinian and someone tells you that Palestinians do not exist (which people do). Who are these people who think they have the right to tell you what you are and what you are not, and who dismiss your own definition of who you are, who tell you that self-determination is not a right that you are allowed to exercise, who would subject you to medical and psychiatric review, or mandatory surgical intervention, before they are willing to recognize you in the name and sex you have given yourself, the ones to which you have arrived?

The rhetor has clearly overpowered the philosopher. What would be the consequences of such imaginings, and who are “those people” to whom Butler refers? We never find out. Butler seems to imply that nothing could be worse than failing to affirm a person’s identity or his or her claim of belonging to a particular group. If this is indeed what Butler means, it can only signify his or her disconnection from actual pain and suffering. As she says of J. K. Rowling, “living in the repetitive temporality of trauma does not always give us an adequate account of social reality.” In other words, Rowling (who was abused by her former husband), simply cannot be trusted because she was abused.

But that phrase “your own definition of who you are” is almost equally troubling. It places Butler in the same category as the Jesuits of Paraguay and the Pilgrim Fathers imagining a fresh start in a new world of personal and social perfection. Butler is also the almost bankrupt heir to the Marquis de Condorcet for whom “the perfectibility of man is absolutely infinite.” And in the world of anthropology, she is the Trofim Lysenko: the Soviet agronomist who believed that one species of plant could be transformed into another under the right conditions.

Such utopian visions may be attractive to some people, but they always lead to disappointment, disaster, and cruelty. The future of gender theory does not appear to be bright, not because it is widely feared, as the title of Butler’s book implies, but because its precepts are false and many of its effects are harmful. In many parts of the West, it seems to be in retreat now, as puberty blockers and surgeries are increasingly restricted. A Pew Research poll from 2022 showed that the number of people who affirm two and only two human sexes and only two genders has been growing since 2017. Perhaps the tide is turning. 

Accepting what we are and what we are not, as Butler might say, must mean pulling down the endless maze of symbols and metaphors that obscure reality. This is not what Butler has done, though. Like the secretive, dogmatic librarian Jorge of Burgos, she has retreated deeper into the gender labyrinth. But the protective fortress of jargon and obfuscatory prose, which Butler erected, is on fire, and Butler is the incendiary. We can imagine her within, consuming her own poisoned texts, as the structure collapses around her. Let us hope that, when the rubble is cleared away, we may see the truth more clearly.