War, Democracy, and Gaza: Lashing Out is not a Strategy

July 27, 2014
June 30, 2016
Middle East

One the wisest observations I have heard about politics is that the public generally has a limited attention span for wars. While almost invariably in favor of the conflict and the government's handling of it initially, even if they opposed the policy that led to the conflict in the first place. Yet after a period, usually of nine to eighteen months the public begins to wonder why they war has not been won; why the country that defeated the Nazis is somehow being beaten by Koreans or Vietnamese. The early enthusiasm that marked the first days of conflict gives way to anger at perceived "mismanagement" and the unwarranted popularity that once accrued to the political leaders now transforms into often only slightly-less unwarranted anger. Often the latter even comes from those who favored the war initially, who now claim that the President/Prime Minister has incompetently implemented a well-conceived policy. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush's ill-advised decision to invade Iraq, one cannot hardly fail to admire the integrity if not the wisdom he displayed during 2005-2007 as those who had advocated the war, such as John McCain and Fred Kagan, publicly assaulted his mismanagement as the cause of all difficulties in Iraq.

This infighting has tended to follow almost every conflict fought over an extended time over the last 60 years. It doomed France's militarily successful campaign in Algeria, America's in Vietnam, and even the authoritarian Soviet Union's in Afghanistan. Today, intervention in Somalia is arguably doing more to destabilize Kenya than it is to stabilize the Somali situation, while Iran and Pakistan's interventions abroad have brought about de facto military rule at home.

The latter three cases, while seemingly having little in common, actually illustrate a larger problem with extended interventions. They almost inevitably draw a wedge between a military and security establishment which sees these interventions as vital to national security and a civilian population which is tired of the financial cost of war an the human costs of conscription. As civilians and hence their elected officials become more and more opposed to wars that their military and security establishments view as vital to national survival, the military is drawn into confrontation with a civilian establishment it views as either naive or actively disloyal. For all their conservatism, it seems unlikely that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard moved against the Reformists because they were angered over female emancipation; rather they feared that the Reformists in the early 2000s planned to terminate Iranian support for Hezbollah and Palestinian groups in an effort to reach an understanding with the United States. Fears of the abandonment of Algeria led to two coups in France.

Event those states that have hitherto escaped open coups have in many cases faced "silent" ones, incidents in which the military demands the abandonment of a policy or the removal of an official. The victory of Uhuru Kenyatta in the Kenyan 2013 elections seem to have involved some degree of this, and in its last decade South Africa suffered under constant military intervention in politics. If the military was wiser than the political leadership this might not be a disaster; political leaders do often make mistakes and short-sighted decisions. Yet the military generally has even less foresight than the politicians. Military officers who are sending their subordinates to die have to believe in the rightness not only of their cause, but of their policy in order to sleep at night. It is not for nothing that the French Army launched two coups in defense of a militarily viable but politically insane continuation of the War in Algeria, or that the Soviet Army was saved from fighting a civil war that might well have gone nuclear by their own political incompetence in August of 1991. Politicians have often been wrong at both the tactical and strategic level; the military consensus, as opposed to a few far-sighted voices in the wilderness who are even more isolated within the ranks than within parliament, have almost invariably been wrong on the strategic level even as they have developed a record that deserves deference tactically.

What does this mean for the conflict in Gaza? Israel sets enormous store in its role as the Middle East's most democratic state. Yet Israel has not entirely escaped the trends described above, with an increasing shift of power away from democratic institutions and towards the security services. On its face this may seem absurd; after all, Israel was for decades governed by retired Generals and Intelligence Directors. Yet it was the very prestige inherent in the war records of Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin that allowed them to rule as well as reign. They were not simply the constitutional superiors of the officer corp, but also quite simply their former commanding officers in fact, heroes in their own right. For Ariel Sharon or Rabin to differ with or to overrule the military leadership was not merely a clash between branches but a genuine difference of military opinion.

In recent years, however, the Israeli political elite has lost much of its influence. Some of this is due to the rise of the ultra-orthodox, itself a result of the alienation of much of the secular middle class by conscription for a conflict with no end in sight. But on a wider level, the decline in civilian authority can be traced to a decline in civilian prestige. Increasingly Israeli politics is fragmented, dominated by professional politicians who are viewed not as national heroes but as varying degrees of unprincipled crooks. Ironically this process of disillusionment began under Israel's most decorated soldier, Ehud Barak, who not only presided over corruption as Prime Minister, but spent the next several years lending his name and contacts to a shady private equity venture from which he made tens of millions. His successor, Ariel Sharon, may have been personally unimpeachable, but the same could not be said for his children, who engaged in blatant pay-to-play scandals

Americans can afford to loathe their elected officials and laud their military without an undermining of the democratic system, but Israelis are not so lucky. They found this out under Sharon's successor, former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert whose limited military career as a combat journalist was cut short by an injury. Olmert is known for two things; the generosity of his failed peace offers and his conviction for corruption. What he should be known as is his identity as the first Prime Minister to become a prisoner of the military, which forced on him an ill-advised war in Lebanon which in the end helped doom his government. Without the independent stature provided by a military background he was too weak to resist calls for a war which had no clear objective, and which would diplomatically isolate Israel to no end even if successful.

That war holds a number of similarities with the current conflict. It also began in response to unacceptable provocations on the part of a terrorist group, in that case Hezbollah, and as such received substantial international sympathy, not only from the United States and Britain, but also from regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt which wished to see Hezbollah taught a lesson. In this case it was easy to see why the Israeli Army saw in the situation to the perfect opportunity to club Hezbollah, something they viewed as inevitable at some point. After all, who could be sure when the successful constellation of international support was so favorable?

Yet in waging a war because it was convenient, the IDF overlooked the question of whether it was a good idea, or how precisely they intended to use their opportunity. The result was a vast amount of destruction which did in fact inflict substantial damage on Hezbollah, but also destabilized Lebanon before ending in a cease-fire which gave Hezbollah a political "victory" by highlighting Israel's failure to "win", a failure due to the fact that the neither the Army nor the Government seemed to have any idea what a "win" would look like. 

The current campaign in Gaza appears to have similar connotations. Carried out by a government whose leading personalities, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid make the opportunistic Benjamin Netanyahu look like a statesman of Bismarckian proportions, the entire campaign seems to lack a raison d'etre beyond the fact that Israel can probably get away with it. With all due respect to my Israeli friends who are under unprecedented verbal attack both in life and social media, the matter of the three kidnapped teenagers, while providing full proof of Hamas' moral repugnance, did not represent a threat to Israel's survival. The campaign in Gaza has all the characteristics of an effort of a taunted beast to lash out in anger, and not just among the civilians. One can understand why they would want to teach Hamas and Gazans a lesson. More worrying is that the military, which in 2006 seemed to have decided that Hezbollah's behavior demanded a punishment and proceeded to wait for an opportune moment, has long-felt that Hamas has been left alone too long in its semi-independence in Gaza. The confluence of a horrifying atrocity with a favorable international climate; Russia has switched sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to Hamas' opposition to Assad in Syria, and equally importantly so have its allies in the developing world, while Obama is all but paralyzed by his domestic foes, has created a situation where Israel can fight the battle from a strong moral position. And to a large extent, Israel has been proven right in this assumption; for all the outrage among some immigrant populations in Europe, virtually all of the important governments have stood by Jerusalem, and even the usually Pro-Palestinian left is divided. That tolerance for self-flagellating liberalism is at an all-time low in Europe following the downing of a Malaysian Airliner in the Eastern Ukraine has only strengthened the Israeli position, making the tone and nature of the anti-Israel demonstrations that have occurred rally far more support for Israeli in Europe than any number of favorable protests.

Yet if the Army judged the political climate correctly, as they did in 2006, they do not seem to have a clearer political project. A re-occupation of Gaza is impossible both politically and militarily. After all, it was the military leadership which lobbied for the withdrawal in the first place. Nor can Hamas or(unofficially) Palestinian refugees be driven over the Egyptian border as a pressure valve; the border is anything further restricted by the Egyptian army, meaning that the Palestinian population is trapped. In effect, what Israel can do militarily is to kill a lot of people, the majority of which will probably be Hamas members or supporters, but which will do nothing to politically advance Israeli security beyond demonstrating to Palestinians and their supporters that in favorable circumstances Israel can do what it wants with international support. I do not necessarily think that such a demonstration is value-less; I authored a piece earlier this week arguing that a key prerequisite of any peace agreement is a Palestinian recognition that Israel as the stronger party will get the better half of any possible deal. As such, I think demonstrating Israeli superiority could be of value. Yet the Israeli superiority that needs to be demonstrated is political not military; no sane Palestinian believes they can defeat the Israelis in battle. The merely delusional majority however continue to believe that Europe or the Islamic world will come to their rescue by forcing their Israelis to make concessions that the Palestinians cannot extract. Undermining this belief is vital, but the Israeli diplomatic success, while impressive by the standards of Israels dismal global popularity ratings, is far too limited to serve this function. If anything, the vision of anti-semitic rioters on the streets of Paris will encourage Palestinians desperate for any sign of hope even as it drives middle-of-the road European voters further in the direction of regretting having allowed Muslim immigration in the first place.  In the end there will be a cease-fire, and Hamas will have survived by virtue of the campaign they forced Israel to wage, even if every single current Hamas member in Gaza is somehow killed by the IDF. After all, Hamas is already being treated by mediators as an almost equal of Israel while the Palestinian Authority is all but forgotten. At that point what truly will have been accomplished?


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